320: Dr. Debra Clary—Isn’t It Time To Up Your Curiosity Quotient To See Through A Fresh Lens?

Hear how to rediscover your curiosity to “see” new ideas!

Today I have a fabulous speaker for us, Dr. Debra Clary, who is here to talk with us about curiosity. What a great topic, and also a great lady to have you listen to. Debra shares how we should stop assuming we know the answers to our questions or the solutions to our problems. Rather, it is time to begin to think and listen differently, to open our minds to possibilities. You might be asking: But how do I become and remain curious? (There is actually research on a person’s CQ—curiosity quotient). Have you thought about it? Do you love new things? Or does your brain fight the unfamiliar and flee away from it? Many great things to think about. Listen in!

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Debra C video


You’re really going to enjoy Debra’s perspective. She talks to thousands and thousands of Humana folks about how to be curious, and today she shares those insights with us so we too can push past our mental boundaries and discover new ideas and solutions. Connect with her on LinkedIn or send her an email: dclary@humana.com.

Three important takeaways from today’s podcast:

  1. Children are born highly curious. That’s how they learn how to live life every day. They question everything and see things with minimal bias. As we grow up, we begin to formulate a story in our mind’s eye that captures, for each of us, our perspective on our reality.
  2. As we grow up, we gain skills and suppress when we don’t know something. Or if we see something that doesn’t fit our mind map, we delete it or ignore it. “It can’t be too important if it doesn’t fit our own sense of what matters most.”
  3. Rather than just accept your efficient mind, ask yourself, What can I do to stay open to possibilities? Debra’s advice: Say to yourself, “I know that my brain is wanting efficiency, and it’s going to want to get there as fast as possible. But I’m not going to allow it. I’m going to remind myself to remain open so I might collect the relevant information in order to be most helpful.”

Our job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can adapt to these fast-changing times

At SAMC, we help you build your open mind and your curious eyes. We show you how to see what is happening before you believe something to be true. And using a little anthropology, we help you anticipate and capitalize on today’s changes so you can not just survive but thrive.

Want a deeper dive into seeing through a fresh lens? Here’s a place to start

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide and my job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can get off the brink. I want to help you soar again. And in these fast changing times, we’ve been doing so much writing and speaking about leadership in the midst of all the tumult and disruption. How do you really see things through a better lens? And how do you know how to respond quickly and effectively to build those relationships in new ways?

So today, I have a fabulous speaker for us. Dr. Debra Clary is here to talk to us about curiosity. What a great topic and a great lady to have you listen to. And what Debra is going to share with us is a lot about how we should stop assuming we know and begin to think and listen differently, opening our minds to possibilities. And so it’s going to be a great day for us to share how to be curious. What’s your curiosity quotient? Have you thought about it? Do you love new things? Or does your brain fight it and flee away from it?

So let me tell you about Dr. Clary first, and then Debra will come on and tell you all about herself. Debra Clary is an executive with three decades of leadership experience with four Fortune 100 companies: PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Brown-Forman and Humana. Her broad-based functional expertise spans from global operations and marketing, strategy development and human performance to corporate board and investor relations. In her current Humana role, she’s Associate Vice President for the Office of the CEO, and works with the executive team to improve their impact and contribution through executive development and cultural transformation. You’re going to just enjoy her perspective because she goes around and talks to thousands and thousands of Humana folks about how to see, feel and think in new ways to be curious. Debra, thank you for joining me today.

Debra Clary: My pleasure, Andi.

Andi Simon: Now tell the audience if you don’t mind, who’s Debra, what’s your journey? It sounds like you’re a curious person because in some ways, that curiosity has led you to great places. Who is Debra?

Debra Clary: Thank you, Andi, again. Well, I started my career at Frito-Lay and I actually started as a route driver. So right out of grad school, my first job was driving a route truck for Frito-Lay in the city of Detroit. And weren’t my parents proud, right? “You went to undergrad and then two years of business school, now you’re driving a route truck?” But it’s really where I learned the basics of business, when I started at that bottom, loading my truck delivering potato chips, learning how to work with delivery individuals as well as the store managers. And I spent about a decade at Frito-Lay in various sales and marketing type roles.

And after that, I spent 10 years at the Coca-Cola company. And I started there as a general manager in the Philadelphia area. And then I moved to Atlanta, and worked in a global marketing role. And from there, I joined Brown-Forman, the makers of Jack Daniels. I got to learn a lot about bourbon and whiskey. And there I was, the VP of Strategy. And then I got really curious about culture and leadership. I had worked for two very large organizations, very well structured. And then I went to Brown-Forman, which was a much smaller company, and still very much run by the family.

And so I began to see differences in cultures and differences in leadership and I got curious. And so I went back for a doctorate in Leader Development from George Washington University. I would fly to DC once a month on a Thursday night. I would go to school 12 hours Friday, 12 hours Saturday, and then I would fly back home on Sunday. And so I did that for three years. And I wrote my dissertation on executive women and leadership, and later published it into a book.

And then about that time, Humana was starting a Leadership Institute. And they approached me and said, Gosh, with your business background, your academic background, this could be a really good fit. And I said, No way, I am food and beverage. I’m, you know, the Super Bowl and concerts. I mean, I’m living the big life. And these are consumer packaged goods companies.

And the more I thought about it, and the more conversations I had with them, I realized I had an opportunity to take all of that experience and help Humana, who was a company that was just beginning to pivot into being really centered on the customer and the needs of the customer. So with my consumer goods background, and my academic background, I joined Humana to start up the Leadership Institute. And I did that for about the first eight years that I was there. And then the new CEO came in and we created a new role in which I was embedded in his team. And helping his team really improved their team dynamics, and their impact and contribution to the organization. So I’ve been doing that for the last eight years.

Andi Simon: You know, I’m curious about your career curiosity, because I too have a career that didn’t stay for a very, very long time in one place. I stayed long enough to begin to understand its culture, what was developing. I like things that are vacuums that I can change. But then when I went into my own business, I began to realize that my job was to help others see things through a fresh lens, and to do it in new ways to be curious. And in the leadership academies I have started, people are emerging to see how to lead differently and listen differently. So as you’re now thinking about your career, and I’m so delighted you shared it, I don’t know you so well, it’s a pleasure to really begin to get to understand your history because it’s framed who you are today. So as you’re thinking about this, and I know you speak widely on curiosity, share with our audience, what is curiosity? Where does it fit? Why is it so vital right now? Because that curiosity quotient, that CQ, is becoming extremely important. Your turn.

Debra Clary: Yeah, the how I got curious about curiosity, if you will, is, it was probably about four or five years ago. I was sitting next to our CEO at a meeting and he leaned over to me and he said, Do you think curiosity? Is it learned? Or is it just innate? And I said, I don’t know. I want to go study this. And so I just dug into all the research on curiosity. And I really became a huge fan of it, even though, I think for me, I am a learner, and my parents fostered that in me. I feel like I can’t breathe if I’m not learning something each day. And that’s how I’m wired, so to speak.

But when he asked that question, I became more serious about it in terms of mechanics. Can it be taught? And the answer is, absolutely, curiosity can be learned. And it’s also that curiosity is not a trait. Curiosity is a state, and it can be fostered by yourself and others. There was a group of neuroscientists out of London that wanted to really understand this. Their focus was on child development. And what they came to understand from watching children is that, and this won’t come as a surprise to you, but children, especially toddlers, asked a lot of questions. Matter of fact, they asked 396 questions a day. So every minute and 56 seconds, a toddler was asking a question. Now the question may not come verbally, it may come when they’re pointing at something. So children are incredibly curious, because the world is a wonder to them.

Well, what they found out is that for those caregivers that tried to answer those questions, and stayed with their child, they found on this longitudinal study that these children were more academically successful, more socially connected, and more emotionally stable. So as children, we come into the world curious. And if it’s fostered, it gives us a better shot at life.

Now, another research group out of London studied curiosity in the elderly. They wanted to understand why some of those in their 80s are still curious. So those that were reading and were intellectually engaged in walking and really active until their death, they had ⅓ less dementia. So you think about this: we come into the world curious, and it’s really good for our brain, because our brain is lit up when we’re curious. It’s really good for us at the end of life. But what happens in the middle? Why do we stop being curious? And the reasons are, just just think about how we’re taught.

So from a Christian view, one of the first stories we learn is that Adam and Eve were curious about the tree of knowledge and they ate and then you know what happens there. But you look at Greek mythology and you look at the story of Icarus, who wanted to fly, and his father gave him wings of wax and said, Don’t go too close to the sun. I’m curious. Of course, my favorite is don’t open Pandora’s box, right?

So as children, we begin to learn not to ask questions, and that children are to be seen and not heard. And you have to sit in your chair and all of those things that are messaging that we find out. And so we go on to universities. We become accountants and attorneys and medical doctors, and we become experts in our field. And so we get rewarded for our expertise, and our curiosity can diminish because of what we need to get done. And not to mention time constraints, right?, just not having enough time to be able to have that freedom to feel like you can be curious.

Andi Simon: You know, we know so much more about how our minds work. And I love Marisa Peer. She speaks about the fact that the mind does several things. It does exactly what it thinks you want it to do. And so if you want to be an expert, it doesn’t allow you lots of room for curiosity. It loves the familiar, not the unfamiliar. And that amygdala will hijack things that are unfamiliar to you that you might be curious about. And so it creates a lot of cortisol that says, That’s painful, don’t do that. And it really likes to select the familiar and loves the habit, and so you’re very efficient, your brain uses 25% of your body’s energy. So you’re really efficient if you’re not thinking beyond what your mind thinks is the thing to do. And once it has that story in there, it doesn’t like to change it. That’s work.

And as you’re thinking about that, what we know is that once you get locked into that story that creates your illusion of your reality, you live it, and you only see the things that conform to it. But what I love about what your research suggests, and you’re suggesting, is that our growth comes from being curious about what we don’t know, pushing our brains to open up to possibilities for the art of the possibility, the art of what I’m not sure of, to listen, not to fit things into your brain.

My last little story is, when I go out with a new client, we go researching their customers. And I always love this because the two of us were in the same place. We walked out, we wrote down everything we heard, we compared notes. And it was as if we were in two different places. They were listening for all the things that conform to them. And I’m listening for all I’m curious about. I’m looking for all the things that are gaps, that don’t fit what would give them opportunities to grow. So as you’re thinking about this, how do we help people see things broader, listen differently, and to be curious? You said an important thing: it’s not innate, it’s a state of thinking. It’s enabling, it’s allowing, it’s trusting, it’s encouraging. It is taking flight walks, so your brain can quiet down and think about things. Some insights or some ideas you can share.

Debra Clary: So I think you’re spot on in the sense that it starts with the mindset. Setting your intention of being open-minded. Also saying, “I know that my brain is wanting efficiency, and it’s going to want to get there as fast as possible. But I’m not going to allow it, I’m going to remind myself that I’m going to remain open so that I might collect the relevant information so that I can be most helpful.”

And, one of the things that I see: here’s a typical exchange between a leader and an employee. An employee comes in, and they sit down and they put the problem on the table. And the leader and the employee look at the problem, and they both try to solve it. Now as the leader, you’ve been promoted into that role, because you’re probably an expert in that area, and then you both try to solve the problem. Well, another way to do that is to allow the employee to focus on the problem and the leader ask a series of questions.

And you’re doing two things for this. One, you’re teaching that employee how to think for themselves, and most likely they have the answer. They maybe even haven’t thought about it in a way that’s going to get the best results. And so the role of the leader is to ask open-ended questions, and then provide support and encouragement that they can do that. That’s why you’re building the critical thinking of an employee. But that’s an error I see that leaders make, that easy fix instead of remaining open, and to ask questions, so the employee can think about it.

Andi Simon: It sounds like you’re urging those leaders to be coaches, not command and control. “I have the answer. I’ll tell you what to do.” Instead, you’re saying, “I’m going to enable you to creatively find solutions yourself because you’ve got the answers. That’s why you’re here. So how do I help you do that?” Like a coach might, instead of telling the employee they’re going to facilitate a whole process of discovery. Do you also encourage them to come back with a view to go back and talk to others? I mean, I’m curious how you’re developing those leadership skills because they’re essential to developing the team and the organization, at least I think they are.

Debra Clary: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And the first thing is just the awareness of why they may not do that. So I don’t want anyone to feel badly about their leadership, I really want to be additive and generative to what they’re currently doing. And just saying, “We recognize that you’re under pressure, you’re under stress, you’re under constraints for time.” And it may feel like the easiest thing to do is to give the individual the answer, and maybe sometimes that is the case. But in general, if the role of a leader is to develop that individual to be stronger, then leading with questions to help them create that, that critical thinking, is going to be really, really powerful. You’re going to have a better employee if you take that extra time to do that.

And the most important thing is, you’re expressing your competence in that individual’s abilities. And that you also want to encourage them to continuously speak up about their ideas and that we want to explore them. The other thing that we do is start with the mindset and encourage the leaders that this isn’t easy, but you’re gonna get this. And then we take them through a series of what are good authentic questions, and what are non-genuine questions, if you will. So a genuine question is really stating, “I am really wanting to understand where you’re coming from, I really want to understand your line of thinking.” And so you come with that heart of, “I’m truly interested.”

Non-genuine questions are, you are reinforcing what you think you already know. “I’m going to pretend I’m asking questions. But the reality is, I have the answer and I’m trying to lead them to an answer.” We’ve all watched these legal shows on TV, right? And isn’t it true that, Where were you the night of…? And so we’re asking our leaders not to push people into a corner, but rather keep the conversation open.

Andi Simon: Working with them, do they embrace it? Or do they do that resistance? And shiny object stuff? Where they say, Yes and then don’t mean it? Or do you have to roleplay with them? How do you develop them? I’m curious about your curiosity.

Debra Clary: We do a workshop around curiosity, and we talk specifically about the process. We talk about the science of the brain. And it may sound kind of technical, but it’s actually quite interesting in terms of what the brain is doing when you’re curious, and how healthy it is for your brain to stay active and alert. And so we start with the science. We give them some of these studies, and then we talk about why we are naturally curious about what has happened to us in our lifetime that has led us to where we are today. And then we show a path forward that states that you can shift the way that you show up as a leader by just simply asking different questions.

And so we take them through what is a genuine question, what is a non-genuine question. We actually then have them do an application where they work in groups. They determine if this is a genuine question or a non-genuine question. How would they strengthen it if it’s a non-genuine question? So we allow them to put it into application at the moment. And then we encourage them to be curious.

Andi Simon: Do they feel the energy in their brain because they’re learning a whole new skill, they’re breaking out of the incurious that they’ve been well-honed in to become something that they were way back when they were kids, so they really know how to do it? I’ll tell you something in a second, but I’m anxious for your answer. How do they feel the energy or do they play and then leave? I mean, you’re working hard. They need very strong people to help them do better.

Debra Clary: Yeah, I think that they feel very energized. You know, it’s inclusive curiosity. It’s fun, right? It’s nothing that requires a lot of complexity, if you will, and the way in which we do the workshop, we put curious things in there. And then we tell them why they’ve done it right. We’ve asked this because of this reason, and it’s really fun. It’s high energy.

Andi Simon: The reason that I asked you is that we play innovation games where we are innovation trained facilitators, and what we found was that when you put people into game mode, they relax. You know, humans always play and once you go into a game mode, you can solve problems with such creativity, curiosity and almost without even knowing that the game has enabled you to think beyond the box that you’re in. We talk about creating a new sandbox instead of even thinking out of the box. But humans are very complex.

I’ll never forget, about a third of our clients are in healthcare, and doctors take 13 years to adopt evidence-based medicine. That’s gone back 10 years now. But there’s a lot of resistance to evidence-based medicine that they should be curious about understanding and being able to apply, but the risk factor is so high that they flee. It’s easier to fall back on what they learned then to try and test the new and almost risk the fact that I’m not quite sure how to do this, or whether it will work or not. So it becomes an interesting human transformation. I bet you enjoy what you’re doing.

Debra Clary: Oh, I love it. I love it. It takes my passion. And you know, I’ve just now become somewhat of an expert in the area. It’s fun to blend them.

Andi Simon: Do you measure in any way a rising curiosity or some way of indicating that there’s a change in the culture of the organization? Or do you just hope?

Debra Clary: Well, we do a curiosity index. And so because one of our key points is that curiosity is contagious. And so if you are around others that are curious…so you work with pretty much a set, people set a group in your team. So you can help each other be curious. And so we measure the curiosity of a team. And so when we do the workshop, at the end of it, we reveal what the current curiosity index is of that team. And we also show them how they compare to other teams within the organization. And of course all companies are competitive…like, All we want is to be more curious then the finance group, or, We want to be more curious in that group. But we don’t go back and measure them again. But we really encourage them to think about how they can be different with one another, whether it be a leader, an employee, or if it’s just to colleagues or even with your own leader, how can you come forward with a different mindset in different questions?

Andi Simon: This has been such fun. And Debra, I am enjoying this more than you can imagine, and how to bring this into my toolkit. And for our listeners, how do you bring this into your toolkit because I do think there’s something here that is enormously important during fast changing times. You’re gonna be curious about things you’re unfamiliar with because it’s coming at you from all over. Our whole ecosystem is changing. Well, I’ll list all the things that we talked about in our workshops, but it’s just an abundance of change. And that means you should be curious about it instead of frightened. Don’t flee it, don’t appease it, it’s gonna be cool. Couple of things you don’t want our clients, our customers here, our audience, to not forget.

Debra Clary: I would say that curiosity is a state and not a trait. It’s contagious. It can be learned, and that those that are curious will always be in demand.

Andi Simon: Oh, I love that. And mostly because people have opened their minds to new possibilities and opportunities. That’s terrific. If you want to be engaged as a speaker, or in some other fashion, perhaps sell your book, how can they reach you?

Debra Clary: They can connect with me either on LinkedIn or my website, which is Debraclary.com.

Andi Simon: Good. That’s terrific. And we’ll put that up on our blog post and so forth and promote. So for all of my audience out there, thank you for coming. You’ve lifted us into the top 5% of podcasts globally, which I think is quite an honor. And I get emails from across the globe. So if you have people you want me to interview so you can hear them with a fresh eye and a new lens on it, let me know who that is.

Today we’ve had Dr. Debra Clary. Thank you for joining me today. It’s been such a pleasure. And I always encourage you to reach out to me at info@Andisimon.com. Send me your thoughts. Send me your ideas. My second book, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business, just won a 2022 Bronze Best Business Book of the Year award in the women in business category by Axiom and I’m honored, and it’s a pretty cool book, you will enjoy it. And on that note, I’m going to say goodbye. Have a wonderful day. Keep thinking in new ways. Be curious, because I think that’s going to be a really good part of a new way of thinking for you. So thanks again. Bye bye now.