Curtis exudes a natural empathy that is so deeply ingrained in him he doesn’t even recognize it. That's one thing you notice when you're talking to Predictive Index's UserOps Specialist. At one point in our conversation, I mentioned how clearly empathetic he is, and he paused before responding:
“I would never have said that about myself if I hadn’t just heard it from you or from other people who say similar things. My husband says things like, ‘You have one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.’”
To Curtis, it doesn’t seem extraordinary. It’s natural.
I think that’s what makes him perfect for human-focused roles. His innate ability to quickly assess a situation, be present, give solid advice, and still be compassionate is unique. Too often, people either react with their gut, which can lead to errors, or they are overly rational and lack empathy. Curtis blends both sides with an almost artistic approach.
Figuring It Out
Growing up, Curtis found himself drawn to larger cities.
“As a gay kid growing up in rural Kentucky, life was tough. Even before I graduated, I knew that I needed to get out.”
There were only about 3,000 people in the town when he lived there, and he graduated in a class of just 58. In fact, he stayed in that same district through his entire primary and secondary education — earning him a spot in the “13-year club” for students who had attended the school from K through 12.
While a local college was actively recruiting Curtis for their music program (even trying to entice him with scholarship money), he knew that the conservative area would be stifling. Instead, he chose to go to the University of Louisville, which is located in the most liberal city in the state:
“I felt much more comfortable about that decision. I was able to be myself without being terrified every day.”
Now that he was in a better environment, it was time to pick a field of study. “At orientation, I decided that I didn’t want to pursue music ed. I realized at that point that the passion wasn’t there. But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and having grown up poor, I thought:
‘Well, who makes lots of money? Doctors!’ So at the orientation check-in table, I decided to change my major to biology, and I was going to do the premed track. Which is so unbelievably unlike me, I do not know what got into me.”
Alright, I know I said that Curtis is level-headed, and this might seem to contradict that. As a teenager on his own for the first time, I would argue that he was very much trying to make the right choice for his future. He knew music education wasn’t going to be fulfilling for him, and he wasn’t sure what metrics to use when deciding what career would be right, so he used the closest measure of success he knew.
Unfortunately, Curtis found that his early education hadn’t taught him the study skills he’d need to succeed. He had a full-ride scholarship, but one of the requirements was that he kept a 3.0 GPA:
“I lost my scholarship because I got a 2.996 and needed a 3.0, but I was able to appeal the decision and get the scholarship back.”
Despite keeping his scholarship, he didn’t feel secure enough on the premed path to continue. After taking a hard look at his motivations, he determined that he wasn’t on that track for the right reasons. He changed his major and ended up getting a degree in French.
While he was skilled at French, Curtis decided that becoming a professional translator wasn’t for him, and he began to wonder what he should do next. At the time, he was a resident advisor (RA) in college. During a chat with his supervisor, she suggested he explore resident life as a career:
“I loved the conversations that I got to have with my students. I loved having an impact on their lives and helping them figure out what they were going to do. So I decided to go to grad school.”
Curtis applied to a graduate program at the university and waited.
“I remember having a near meltdown with my mentor at that time, Pam, because I hadn’t heard from UofL whether I had gotten into that program. Part of that program was that you had to have an assistantship. I had applied to something in the housing department where I had been working as an RA, and I hadn’t heard back. So there was a lot of stuff that I just didn’t know.”
It did work out, and Curtis got the assistantship while earning an M.Ed. in Student Counseling and Personnel Services.
Curtis was the first person from his graduating class to get a job. He was offered a role at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). At twenty-two, he found himself back in a small(ish) town. While the job was interesting, he still wanted to be in a bigger city. So he did a job search and focused on large metropolitan areas in the US. That’s how he landed his next position at Northeastern University in Boston, where he spent nearly six years.
A 24/7 Role
Curtis lived at work. As a Residence Director, he lived onsite while managing ten buildings with every type of student from freshman, to law students, to international students, and beyond. He was a part of conduct hearings, had 1-on-1s with his staff, planned programming to develop and nurture residents, and worked to build a rapport with the staff and students.
Often, he was also on call:
“For a week at a time, on a rotation, we would have a cellphone. If anything happened on our half of the campus, we were the person that got called. It was an exercise in crisis management because we would get calls for fire issues, or this person is at a dangerous level of intoxication, and they’ve been taken to the hospital or roommate disputes.”
In addition to the more typical calls, Curtis also had to handle serious issues regarding physical incidents and mental health. Which prompted me to ask how he took care of himself while supporting the students going through these situations:
“I don’t know that I necessarily did. I was just kind of on autopilot and went home and watched tv. You’ve got your team that are in similar positions you can talk with because they’ve experienced it as well. Having that safety net of people that are going through what you’re going through is so very important.”
However, due to legislation, the support network narrowed depending on the incident, and thus the resident life staff member handling it had fewer options. In short, the position could be high-stress.
Curtis was able to navigate these situations and take the appropriate measures while being supportive and genuinely helping his students:
“I learned in counseling that as a gay kid, I had to have this armor on all the time. So I painted this picture in my head of me walking around with this spikey armor that kept everybody at a distance because I was so scared to let people in. I kind of wonder if living all those years in that armor developed that empathy. I wish someone had had that type of empathy for me.”
Looking for New Opportunities
Throughout his time working in resident life, Curtis realized that there were too many barriers in higher education.
“Higher ed was not what I wanted it to be. I had gotten into resident life specifically because I had experience in it, but the main thought behind it was:
‘I’m changing these students’ lives. I’m getting to have these really powerful conversations where I’m helping people learn about themselves and what they want to do.’ And that was the thought behind wanting to do this work. But what I learned is that the role of residence director is heavily customer service directed, and the parents are the customers.”
Often, those powerful conversations would get overshadowed by parents wanting to push their own agendas.
Eventually, and understandably, it was time for Curtis to find another path. He took stock of the pieces of his job he enjoyed — managing his team, having conversations with the students, recruiting, conducting interviews, and training. After two years of searching beyond higher education, he finally found a role that fit as a Training Specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He taught people how to use Epic, electronic medical software. Curtis had a month and a half to learn the system and how to teach it:
“You can regurgitate information to people, but if you don’t actually learn how something works, you’re not going to be able to explain it to them.”
Once he learned the software Curtis ended up teaching the same lessons over and over again. Maybe he didn’t want to be on-call anymore, but the repetition wasn’t a great fit either. They did allow him to run with some ideas, so he could do things like build out an onboarding program. Still, his daily work was a bit monotonous.
Finding the Best Fit
Reflecting on his list of work he enjoyed doing, Curtis made the move to a recruiting role at a social sector consulting firm. When that job wasn’t what he’d envisioned, he applied for a role at The Predictive Index (PI) as a Customer Onboarding Specialist. After many interviews, Curtis didn’t get the position. However, the hiring managers did think he was a good fit for The Predictive Index as a company and encouraged him to apply to more roles. Within two days, they had posted a Talent Design Coordinator position that he was interested in, and he began the interview process again.
“Something I said over and over during my interviews was, ‘If I knew PI existed before now, I’d have already been here.’”
He got the job and was thriving. Then COVID-19 hit, and there was a reduction in force.
Curtis got the news that his job was gone as he was already thinking about where he’d like to go next at PI. He’d actually already interviewed for a new internal position. In one conversation, Curtis learned that he hadn’t been chosen for that role and that his current position was cut due to the pandemic. Fortunately, that same discussion also brought him a new opportunity on the User Ops (customer service) team.
Curtis had proven himself to be such an asset that they’d already found a new place for him within the company.
“I told the SVP of Talent Optimization a couple of weeks before, ‘You’re going to have to smoke me out of here.’ Because I love PI. It’s the first place that I ever worked where I actually can say I absolutely love it…I believe so much in the mission and vision of what we do. It’s perfect for me. It’s exactly where I need to be.”
Obviously, he took the role in User Ops:
“I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know before because we do so much. We support our partners who sell our product. Support our clients who buy our product. We also support PI itself. So I’ve had to learn everything.”
He’s closing cases, catching tiny details, and quickly solving problems.
Even though he has only just started in the role, he’s already accomplished a lot. Whatever Curtis decides to tackle, he’s going to do it with a passion and focus many of us can only aspire to — which is why I asked him to participate in this series of surprising CX Careers.
One thing's for sure: as he keeps advancing his CX Career, his story is only going to get more interesting, and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Want to ask Curtis what it's like for a UserOps Specialist to tackle tough issues with the right balance of empathy and action?
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