In this episode, I’m joined by the Executive Coach, Speaker, Author, and Leadership Development Expert, Debbie Collard, to talk about excellence in leadership, personal growth, and self-awareness. The oldest of five children born in rural poverty, Debbie had to figure out her path to getting a college education since her parents couldn’t afford to pay for it. She figured a military career would open a few doors, so she joined the Air Force. Fast forward many years, Debbie built an astonishing leadership career at Boeing for over 30 years, and after “graduating” from it (retirement), she knew she had more to give, so she started Season Leadership alongside her partner, Susan Ireland.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. Welcome to the Becoming Your Best podcast show. I am delighted to have an amazing guest with us today. She has driven excellence in organizations all over. She served as an examiner on the boards of the California Council for Excellence and the National Baldrige Foundation, including as the first female chair of the board for the Baldrige Foundation, which is quite a distinction. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix, a master’s in organizational development from Pepperdine, and is an ICF professional certified coach, which is not easy to do. She’s also a published author, a wife, and a mother of twin daughters. Welcome, Debbie Collard.
Debbie Collard: Thank you so much.
Steve Shallenberger: So excited to have her with us today. I already know a lot about her because we’ve had fun this morning, getting everything set up. She’s patient, methodical, and kind of works through things, which is great. I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about her. She is tenacious, positive, and she is a leader. She was born into rural poverty; she defied the odds to have a distinguished career in the corporate world from her early 20s as a drill sergeant, overseeing hundreds, to an executive at Boeing. Her life journey is an unparalleled testament to resilience. Her 30-year career at Boeing was marked by transformative leadership roles, performance improvements, and leading to multiple accolades, including the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award twice. And that is not easy to get. So let’s start, Debbie, jump right in, please tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that had a significant impact on you.
Debbie Collard: Well, you did a great synopsis there. And I don’t know I’d have a lot to add to that other than to say, I was driven — in addition to driving excellence, I was driven to it towards excellence, just by the nature of my personality and my upbringing. I’ve always been about striving for that absolute outcome. A point in my life that had a significant impact on me was growing up poor. I’m the oldest of five children; my parents could not afford to send us to college. And so there weren’t a lot of avenues left open, but we had to figure it out. And I was the first one to have to figure it out, being the oldest. And so that led me to, because my best friends were going in the military, to also go into the military. That’s when I joined the Air Force. Funny story about that — I picked the Air Force not because I loved airplanes, although my latter career you would think that that was the cause. It was really because it was that or the Navy for me. And I didn’t think I could keep a white uniform clean. So, it was the Air Force. I had a great few years in the Air Force, got to do lots of wonderful things, including being a drill sergeant, which taught me a lot about leadership. I did not necessarily enjoy yelling at people. That was not what I wanted to do. So I got out of the military and started my career in corporate, and it just so happened that I ended up at what was then McDonnell Douglas. So I ended up in aerospace — Air Force, aerospace; I figure it was kind of meant to be. But that was a turning point, growing up poor.
Steve Shallenberger: Tell us, from your experience, Debbie, what does becoming your best look like for you?
Debbie Collard: Becoming my best looks like a work in progress. I always took jobs where I was doing something new. I hate to do the exact same thing every day, all day; it’s just boring to me. So I always took jobs other people weren’t willing to take and interested me in some way, shape, or form. So I always learned from them. So it was about progress. It was about, “Okay, did I learn new things? Am I getting to do new things? Influencing people in each of those things I do?” But I have refined my definition of becoming my best over time. And I believe my purpose is to make a positive difference in others’ lives and in the world. Therefore, becoming my best looks like, “Am I doing those things that are making that positive difference for other people?”
Steve Shallenberger: Well, I love what you just described, especially about the idea of taking jobs others didn’t want to take, and then being really determined to leave it better than when you found it, to really make a superb, extraordinary contribution. So where did that come from? I love that. I mean, that is really of great value to any organization, for any employee to be able to think like that, say, “Give it to me, I’m going to get after this, I’m going to make it better. I’m going to create value and make a contribution.” Where did that come from? And how can people do it?
Debbie Collard: I think it’s somewhat personality-based in my case. I have a sibling who knew what she wanted to do, I think, from the womb; she knew what her career path was going to be. And she stuck with that. And that works great for some people. The majority of us, though, I believe, don’t have it all figured out from the start. We don’t know what our career path looks like. And probably with most of us, if you said, “Hey, in 10 years, you’re going to be doing XYZ,” we’d probably laugh at you because it’s like, “I’m not going to be doing that. Why would I be doing that?” I have a natural, innate curiosity about things. And so that served me well, because I thought, “Okay, can I do this job? How hard can it be?” Also, the work ethic that I grew up with was, “Do your best in every job that you have, no matter what it is.” So I like doing that; I like being successful in whatever role they put me in, you know, “Bloom where you’re planted” kind of philosophy. And the way other people, can learn from that, even if it’s not a natural part of your personality makeup, you can decide. You always have choices; you can say, “Okay, I’ve been given this opportunity, not this problem, I’ve been given this opportunity to really shine and to make a difference.” And if you approach it from, “It’s an opportunity, not a problem,” if you approach it from, “Here’s what I can do to make a difference,” and if you’re curious about it, it’s like, “Okay, what do we need to do to figure this out?” Then you can be successful in those types of roles.
Steve Shallenberger: So, Debbie, how have you found the best way to inspire yourself or come up with ideas that help you become your best? And are you ever too old to become your best?
Debbie Collard: Second question first: No, I believe we need to be learners our entire lives. When we stop being curious, and stop learning new things, and stop engaging in the world, then what’s left? Honestly, we’re just taking up space. So, we’re never too old to continue working on becoming our best. And there’s been tons of great role model examples out there. There are a bunch of examples out there today, beyond myself and yourself. So, never too old to do that. And how do I inspire myself to do that? Well, I, like anybody, have days where I’m like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? I just want to be a slug today, and I just want to sit on the couch and watch streaming TV.” I don’t, by the way. But I have those days where it’s just like, “Eh,” and so, how do I inspire and motivate myself? It’s to say, “What am I doing out there to help some other person.” And maybe it’s my daughters, who call me often for advice; it may be a friend, a good friend that needs help from me; or maybe just picking up a book and saying, “Okay, let’s see what I can learn from this.” I love to read, by the way, so that’s helpful also, and I get ideas from reading other people’s books. It’s like, “Oh yeah, maybe we could try that in Seasons Leadership, and maybe that would make us able to reach more people.” So, I find inspiration in lots of different places, but reading and watching others.
Steve Shallenberger: Thank you, Debbie, for those answers. There are two really key things that, at least for me, that you said that are helpful. One is, keep asking the question, “What does my best look like?” And I think the very fact that when you ask that question, with your daughters, with your family, with your career, with development ideas, when you ask that, you start coming up with ideas. And then the other one is to feed your mind with new ideas and always be learning. So, great job on that. Tell us about Seasons Leadership: what is it? And tell us about your book. And how can it be a blessing in our lives?
Debbie Collard: Okay, great. I do want to get to Season’s Leadership because I’m very excited about that. The book I wrote with a boss and leader, a great leader that I worked with at the Boeing Company. I worked with him directly for over 10 years. And he was the leader who was in charge of the organizations that received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. So, the two of us, working together, partnered together to make that happen in a manufacturing organization, and then in a service organization. So, we did it twice; we’re still the only duo to have done that once in two different categories of that award. And going through adversity makes you better partners and stronger together. And we went through some adversity that led to us getting these organizations to a place where they could then receive a National Quality Award. So, we promised people that kept saying, “Write a book about it, write a book about it.” We said, “Oh, yeah, we will, we will.” And then we said, “Hey, you know, we made these promises, let’s actually write the book.” So, it is called “The Making of a World-Class Organization.” It’s by David’s Bong and myself, and it’s available out there through ASQ Press. So, Seasons Leadership, I worked with another person at Boeing. So, Boeing was pivotal for me because I met lots of fantastic people and got to do lots of fantastic things. While I was there, this woman, Susan Ireland, is now my business partner. She contacted me after we had both, we like to call it graduated, not retired, graduated from Boeing. And so, we said, “Hey, we still want to do stuff. We’re not done. We still want to give back and do things.” And so, how could we work together? How could we work together again, to do things we’re passionate about? We started talking and found out that we’re both passionate about leadership. We formed the organization called Season’s Leadership. And we do several things there. We do coaching, we do consulting, and we do leadership development through training classes or one-on-one. And the reason we do that is our mission is to increase Leadership Excellence in the world. Because no matter who you talk to, I think you can find instances of mediocre, at best, or bad leadership, and it influences people and how they go through life and how they succeed or not in their careers. And we said, “If we had known the things we know now, earlier in our career, what would have been different? What would have been better for us?” And so, we are on a mission to get that stuff out there to anybody who wants to get it without having to wait for permission or to be a certain level or a certain title or whatever to get this kind of help and assistance in becoming an excellent leader or becoming their best.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, great going on the book, there it is, you’ve got it. Do you mind sharing some of the things from your experience, research, and perspective? What are some things, some of the most important things, that make a world-class organization?
Debbie Collard: A world-class organization? Yes, this book, and the stuff that David and I did in organizations, was entirely based on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. It is a criteria that is published every two years in different sectors. So, there’s business, there’s education, there’s healthcare, etc. And it asks a lot of hard questions and doesn’t give you any answers. And so, in going through those questions, it’s much like the coach for leadership. We ask a lot of hard questions, and don’t necessarily give you the answers. We help you find the answers. And so, this is the same, and the book was written about our experience in the two different organizations applying that criteria and answering those questions. And it has some really good stuff in there. It’s a quick read. It’s a tiny book, quick read, but people can get lots of nuggets of wisdom out of there, that they can apply in their own organizations, nothing proprietary at all. They can take it and use it immediately.
Steve Shallenberger: What does Leadership Excellence look like to you?
Debbie Collard: To me, Leadership Excellence is exhibiting and mastering a specific skill set, that you can consistently achieve high levels of performance. And at Season’s Leadership, we support that with proven models and coaching to help them along. We are constantly surprised by the things that are so simple that people just kind of go, “Oh, no, no, that’s not what I really need.” But often, they need the simplest models to apply. And it can make a huge difference in their lives, and in their leadership, and in their organizations.
Steve Shallenberger: What are some of the most important leadership things someone can do to create excellence?
Debbie Collard: I think the first thing is being visionary; as a leader of an organization, you are not just there to have the title and boss everybody around. That’s not your responsibility; your responsibility is to set the direction for the organization and to consider what is needed for the organization to succeed. So, you’ve got to focus on the vision, mission, and values; you’ve got to focus on the people in the organization. Do we have the right people to do what we need to do? And if not, get them. And you’ve got to focus on the funding. You’ve got to focus on, are we funded to do the things that we need to do to be successful? And to me, those three things, you could say, “Oh, yeah, a CEO needs to do those things.” And they do. But I think every level of leader needs to be focused on those three things. Where’s my part of the organization going? Where’s the bigger organization going, and how am I contributing to that? Am I taking care of the people? And do we have the right people? And am I taking care of making sure that we’re using the funding we have most efficiently to make that happen?
Steve Shallenberger: I love the answers that you’re providing, the insights. That’s good. How about for you? Have you had a defining moment in your life or career that’s really had a big impact on you?
Debbie Collard: Yep, definitely. My defining moment was, I had just come back from maternity leave after having my twin daughters. And I came back a little sooner than they anticipated. Well, at the time, they had a commitment that they had to give you, if not the same job, an equivalent job when you returned. So they were caught off guard and they didn’t have an equivalent job set up for me. So at the time, our CEO, McDonnell Douglas, was one of the original founders of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award legislation. And he went around and tried to get it accepted by Congress. So he needed to use that in his own organization. And he did, as an internal evaluation tool. And they wanted to train everybody across the whole organization to use this and then swap and examine other divisions and different areas. So they sent me to the training because they didn’t know what else to do with me; I just got back from leave, and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t know what to do with her, so let’s send her to this training.” This is another instance that I told you about, about doing things that nobody else wanted to do. Because they were like, “I don’t want to do that; send Debbie.” So I get into this training, and I am the lowest-level person in this training. I wasn’t even a first-line manager at this point. And they had me in there with directors and vice presidents. I was like, “What am I doing here? Who’s Malcolm Baldrige? And why should I care about this?” So again, asking questions, even if it was sarcastic at the time. So I sat through that training, and I was blown away. I’m like, “How could it be this simple to have a formula for how to do well as an organization?” And I never looked back. I got really good at doing that. I stayed involved with it. Got to know all those other people that were in the training really well, then got involved outside of our organization in the actual state and national programs. And as you said, became the first female chair of the board. I strongly believe in Baldrige and all the things that it can do for an organization. Because I’ve seen it; I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it turn an underperforming, horrible organization where we had made everybody mad—customers, suppliers, employees—into a high-performing organization that’s winning national quality awards, so it can work. That was a defining moment for me, coming back early from maternity leave. You never know when the opportunity is going to show.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. I love the spirit that you have, this idea of saying, “Listen, I’m just going to make a difference. Put me wherever you want. I’m going for it. I’m going to make a difference on there.” We’re starting to get towards the end of our interview here today, Debbie. And as you look back on your life experience, lessons learned, if you’re sitting down with someone that was going to join your firm or another one, what would be some of the key advice you would give them for them to be really successful?
Debbie Collard: And this is agnostic of level, because everybody’s a leader to somebody, whether you’re a parent, a kindergarten teacher, CEO, doesn’t matter. Anything in between, you’re a leader to somebody. So you can choose; we have choice. You can choose what kind of leader you want to be, and what kind of person you want to be. Two pieces of advice I would give to all the listeners is, if you haven’t done a values exercise to understand what makes you tick, and what your personal values are, do that; start there. Because once we understand what we care about, what we truly value, we can start to see it in others as well and we can start to bring that into congruence with what we do as a leader. That’s number one. Number two, be curious. Even if you have to force yourself, be curious. And I had a client say to me recently, “I’m not so good at this curious thing.” And then we were talking more about the advances she had made in just a short period of time working with me. And then we had with her coaching sponsor, we had a conversation, and he said, “What I have seen is an increase in your curiosity. Whereas before, you used to be judgmental, now you’re just curious all the time.” And she said to me afterward, “I guess I am better at this curious thing than I thought that I was.” So, understand your values and apply them, live in congruence with them, and be curious.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s good advice. I’m sure you’ve seen this throughout your career. And I’ve been blessed to see this also that you can have an organization where there’s a leader, and it’s not gone very well. That leader’s done certain things. And a new person comes in and takes over and just takes it to a whole new level. You see that within an organization, person A, person B, they’re doing certain things, and a leader does make a difference. And so, these things you’ve been talking about today are transformational. So, final tips for our listeners today, Debbie?
Debbie Collard: I don’t know how much I could add to being curious and understanding your values. But there is one thing I will say: nobody does this entirely alone. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go search out training, go search out a coach. A coach is a great way to do this. Have someone partner with you to hold the mirror up to you and help you understand where to improve, and just reach out. None of us are perfect. None of us have everything that we need to do this alone. So, find your people and partner with them.
Steve Shallenberger: Knowing that an idea can make a difference in a person’s life, how can you apply what we’ve been talking about in a home? Or in a relationship?
Debbie Collard: Yeah, great question. One of the things I do as a coach is coach the whole person. And my clients don’t really know what that means when I first start working with them because they’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna bring you my work problems and I’m going to talk to somebody else about what’s going on at home.” It’s like, you didn’t become a different person when you left work and walked in the door at home; you’re still the same person. So, when we work on you as a person holistically, it’s going to benefit you in both places. Remember when I said everybody’s the leader? Well, you’re a leader at home too. People who love you and look up to you and listen to you, they want to see those same leadership skills that an organization wants to see. So, you get two for the price of one if you just work on yourself as a leader.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, and maybe sometimes it’s hard to us with the people you love most.
Debbie Collard: Absolutely, it is. There’s a lot of emotion attached with that.
Steve Shallenberger: We’ve been a little more patient, a little kinder, a little more loving, and guiding and showing what’s possible. It’s been a delight to have you with us today. Debbie, you’re amazing. Congratulations on all the things that you’ve done. How can people find out about what you’re doing?
Debbie Collard: They can check our website at SeasonsLeadership.com. And by the way, at Seasons, we use the seasons of nature as a metaphor for leadership in life, and that’s why it’s called Seasons Leadership. So, at SeasonsLeadership.com, they can find everything on there: our podcasts, our Patreon site, all the links that they might need to get in touch with us.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Debbie Collard. Congratulations on what you’re doing. And thanks for being part of the show today.
Debbie Collard: Thank you for having me. I’ve had a lot of fun today.
Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And to our listeners, we’re honored that you join us, and it’s a privilege that we can be together with you. We congratulate you on your efforts on working on becoming your best. As you do that, you literally radiate a unique feeling that lifts the people around you. So, we wish you all the best. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, saying goodbye today.
CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader
Speaker, Author, Leadership Development Expert