Man of his word Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Stephen Curtis has a pocketful of pink punch cards, and he’s not afraid to use them.

Once upon a time, the cards were used for data processing, but Curtis, the fifth president of Community College of Philadelphia, now uses them to jot down notes during meetings. The cards are easy to carry and their bright color makes it difficult to lose them, making the cards the ideal way for Curtis to keep track of what he has promised to follow up on for his employees or students. And they’ve become such a staple for him that his staff associates the pink cards with the guarantee of an official answer from him.

In addition to managing a $118.8 million budget, Curtis leads 1,600 full- and part-time employees. One-third of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents have entered the doors of this 43-year-old institution, and Curtis says that the college’s impact on the city as well as the pleasure he gains from watching lives transformed through education are what motivate him.

Smart Business spoke with Curtis on how he communicates with his constituents and how he encourages an innovative, entrepreneurial organization.

Adopt a collegial style. You have different constituent groups; in my case, it’s the faculty, administrators, classified staff, the students, the public and everybody else coming into the building and the campus.

You try to get people invested in the decision-making. It’s not that the buck doesn’t stop eventually with the president; it does, and that’s true with any CEO. You try to make the questions, the priorities and the decisions as transparent as possible.

In terms of senior staff, I certainly delegate decision-making authority. I don’t believe in investing it all at the top in the one person. I don’t think any one person has all that knowledge.

It’s not that you don’t know a lot of those things, but you rely on your senior staff to provide the expertise. Try to support them in the decisions that they need to make in order to be successful in their own areas.

We try to align those decisions through our strategic planning process and align all the annual objectives with that strategic planning. If you do that, then you have to give people who are accountable the leverage and the ability to make decisions on how to get there.

Trust your staff. I tell my senior management group upfront that I support their decisions. After that, actions speak louder than words. I have an obligation to stand behind what my senior managers do.

I can get the best out of them if I do that. I try not to look over their shoulder and try not to second-guess. I want our organization to be entrepreneurial and innovative.

There are moments we’ll try something that doesn’t work, and that’s OK. I’d rather give it the try. You’re taking relatively low risks sometimes, but you’ve thought it through, planned and tried to provide adequate resources. Inevitably, some things don’t work. That’s part of delegation and part of the confidence in the people that you’re working with. They need to know if something doesn’t work, that’s OK, and we will move in a different direction.

Share your message. You need strong interpersonal skills that enable you to deal with a whole range of constituencies that will allow you to motivate and bring people together toward a common goal.

To be successful, there has to be a vision, and you’ve got to be able to articulate that vision. You’ve got to be able to pull people together. Almost every challenge we face, at its core, has some kind of interpersonal issue attached to it.

Ask for advice. Every year, I hold open forums, and I usually make them specific to different groups within the college. I probably talk for five or 10 minutes. I want them briefly to hear me articulating in different ways where we’re heading and what’s going on.

I also want to hear back from them. Sometimes, it turns out to be a series of complaints; that’s the chance you take with these kinds of open sessions, but I’m ready to deal with that. A lot of times, it’s a brainstorming session, and that’s what I’m looking for because I don’t have all the answers.

I want people to be invested, so I use those forums as a major vehicle. I can’t spend a huge amount of time with everybody in the institution, but I’m obliged to find ways to have that kind of dialogue. Sometimes, it clears up confusion. We send out newsletters and announcements, but sometimes, there are things that people don’t understand.

When there are real critical issues in front of you, you want people to understand how you’re dealing with that and where you’re heading. We have changed the policy or instituted something new because of an occasional question or complaint or suggestion that has come out of those forums.

Be genuine. I’m never afraid to say that I don’t know the answer. I never make it up, and I never guess. I will tell people what I thought might be the potential cause, but I don’t know everything. You have to be direct, and you have to be honest.

We have employees that have been with us for 40 years. If people are going to spend their professional lives here, they deserve to know what the deal is. Another aspect of saying that you don’t know the answer to their question is also saying, ‘I’ll get back to you; you’ll get an answer.’ Now, sometimes the answer is still going to be no, and I’m not afraid to say that.

HOW TO REACH: Community College of Philadelphia, (215) 751-8010 or