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On the Brink with Andi Simon

Mar 11, 2024

Curiosity is contagious. Curiosity can be learned. So be curious!

Sometimes, we meet people who make us pause for a moment and ask how we are building the life that we want to live. It is not about mimicking their lives. It is about understanding how they have stopped what they’re doing and begun reflecting on whether this was a life they wanted. That’s what happened when I met Dr. Deborah Clary. We met through the Women Business Collaborative (WBC). Deb and I were involved in WBC and found ourselves sharing our life journeys in different discussions. She was the right person to bring onto our podcast to share her career and how she has taken a turn in new directions. As you listen in, think about your own life.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

An accomplished woman leader not afraid to learn new things

Dr. Debra Clary is the Founder and CEO of Elevascent, a personal growth and performance development company focused on helping individuals and teams accelerate growth through curiosity. This experience comes from three decades of executive leadership roles at Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniel’s and Humana. In addition, Dr. Clary is also an author, global speaker, playwright, off-Broadway performer and an award-winning film producer. She holds a doctorate in leadership and organizational development from George Washington University, and received the Ralph Stone Leadership Award for exemplary leadership. She is also a board director for Health E-Commerce.

In our podcast, we talk about women discovering their purpose and not letting others define them. And we share Debra’s life story as a model for you, our audience, to think about as you step along on your pathway. Own your career, and enjoy it.

Contact Debra

You can connect with Debra on LinkedInFacebook, and her website, or email her at

Want more inspiring stories of women owning their careers and taking charge of their lives? Here are some of our favorites:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here 

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. As you know, I’m a corporate anthropologist, and I specialize in helping organizations change and particularly the people inside them. And I really like to go looking for people to interview. And many of you send me people to interview. So it’s so much fun to share. I look for people who can help you see, feel and think in new ways.

And I use those words intentionally because you decide with the eyes and the heart. So how something feels is going to help you decide how to think about it. But what matters to me is that unless I can open your mind to see opportunities, possibilities, and be curious, you are going to see what’s all around you and opportunities are all there. So today I have a wonderful, wonderful woman to come and share with you her wisdom around curiosities.

Debra Clary is a Doctor of Organizational Design, but she’s also someone who has culled her skills inside corporate and has now launched herself outside corporate as an entrepreneur to help many companies begin to see themselves through a fresh lens. Very anthropological. Let me tell you a little bit more about her, and then I’ll ask her to talk about her own journey, because she’s had a really important juncture point.

Right now, Dr. Clay is a purpose-driven leader with a compelling message to share. Her enthusiasm lies in inspiring leaders and organizations in achieving business success through their enhancement of strategic alignment, team dynamics, and fostering a culture of curiosity. Now, that is a really big idea, bringing a wealth of experience from her roles and operations, strategy, marketing and people development at prominent companies such as Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniel’s and Humana. 

Debra brings incredible business insights and her dedication is evident in her commitment to working with leaders who aspire to elevate their impact and contribution to their organizations. So she’s now writing a book, and she also is performing her own one-person play called A Curious Woman. And she did it Off Broadway, and I watched it streaming, and you can watch it coming up, too. And she’s doing it again in Louisville, and she is having a wonderful time celebrating her own success as a curious woman. Debra, thank you for joining me today.

Debra Clary: My pleasure.

Andi Simon: You know, it’s always fun when we share our stories. We’re storytellers. We’re also storymakers. And when you and I did our fireside chat at the Louisville Leadership Center, we really had a good time getting to know how we each have grown and how our own experiences have opened up opportunities for us. But for our listeners and our viewers who aren’t familiar with you, talk about your own journey and why this is such an important point for you. It’s a tipping point, opening up a whole new world of opportunity. Who is Debra? 

Debra Clary: Oh, well, that’s a big question, Andi, but let me let me take a shot at this is. I was the first person in my family to go to college, graduate from college, and went on to get a Masters in Business. And my first job was driving a route truck for Frito-Lay.

Andi Simon: I always laugh when you tell me that. You say it so much better than I could.

Debra Clary: And my parents were like, Did you really need six years of higher education to do this? But I also recognized that it was an opportunity to start with a great company and they started everybody on a route truck. And the one question I asked was, Are there other women doing this? And they said, Yes. And I said, May I ride with that individual one day to see if I think I can do this? And then I did.

And so I spent nearly a decade at Frito-Lay, not on the route truck. I spent about nine months on the route truck in the city of Detroit and then evolved into sales management and then marketing and actually was one that was on the team that launched Flamin Hot, which is now a $1 billion brand for Frito-Lay. It’s where I really learned how to market to consumers. How do you understand what consumers need?

And from there, I was recruited away by Coca-Cola. I spent almost a decade at Coca-Cola in marketing roles where I got my experience of global marketing and how to really manage a global account. From there I went to Brown-Forman, where I was the VP of Strategy. I worked in the wine division, which was a really tough job, Andi. I mean, I had to spend all this time in Napa Valley tasting wines, trying to understand positioning. It was really tough, but I got through it and then I went to Jack Daniel’s.

I got really intrigued with culture because I had worked for Fortune 40 companies, and then I went to work for a publicly traded company, but it was still managed by the family, the Brown family. And there were just different dynamics, different cultures that I didn’t quite recognize because of my background. And so I said, I’m curious. I want to understand people and culture. I want to understand how I can adapt to different cultures and how I can become a better leader.

So I was reading the Wall Street Journal in which George Washington University had an ad in there that they had this cohort program for people that wanted to better understand leadership and culture. Exactly what I was looking for at the doctoral level. And so I went to my boss and said, I’m really passionate about this. And he said, Then go do it. And they completely supported me and funded that.

So while sipping wine in Napa Valley, I was also going to school full time. So full time mother, full time employee and then a full time student. And how I did that is, once a month I flew to Washington, DC. I went to school 12 hours Friday, 12 hours Saturday and then I flew home Sunday morning, so that I could be with my children. And I did that for three years. Wrote my dissertation on women in leadership. I just had this real passion on what are the differences in women leadership and how we can continuously support women to step into these really big roles.

And then I was recruited away by Humana, a healthcare company. And at first I said, There is no way I’m going into healthcare. I mean soda and snacks and now alcohol. Healthcare just did not seem to fit me. But, they said, You have an opportunity that we are starting a Leadership Institute. With your marketing, your business, your experience, and now with this academic degree, you’re the perfect person to help us change our culture. And I was really drawn to those words of changing culture because I had experienced different cultures, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I had the academic side of it. I had some opinions, but now I was going to take this step and really put it into play.

And so for my first nine years at Humana, I ran the Leadership Institute, and we did everything from assessments to development of our top executives. And then we got really brave and we took our learning outside of the company. And we spent time in Europe and in the US and offered how to understand the healthcare system because we really recognize that if the healthcare system is going to get better and have better outcomes, everyone in the community needs to be connected to it.

And we started that with a simulation and we had much success. And then what happened is, we at Humana, we got a new CEO and he called me one day and said, Can you come talk? He said, I’m going to be doing some significant changes on my team. They’re going to be off boarding and onboarding, and I need you embedded in the team. You know, 24-7. Your role is to be with us all the time.

And so for the last eight years I did that: helping them understand team dynamics, leading their strategy sessions, all their off sites and really about team dynamics and how you get better as a team. And then that drives the business results. And then about a year ago, I said, Wow, I’m still curious on how I can scale my thought leadership outside of the corporate world. And so I made this transition about a year ago.

The number one thing I did, as you mentioned: I wrote and performed a one-woman show. I never did that in my life. Had never performed in that way. I’d done keynotes, but never an actual play. And I surrounded myself with people that knew how to do that. And did a sold out show in New York. And now we have one coming up here next month in Louisville, Kentucky. So that is a little bit about my four decades in corporate America. And now my launch to scale my knowledge and my curiosity to other organizations.

Andi Simon: I bet. I mean, there are many things that we can talk about today, but I bet that the audience, our listeners, are curious about a couple of things. One of which is, how do you grow like you have grown? Because the changes in places have not simply been taking what you were and applying them. It’s changing who you were when you’re applying them. This is an ongoing theme.

I’m finding the people who are in my new book within Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success are all talking about owning yourself and owning your career. Can you talk a little bit about it and then we’ll talk about your curiosity, but I’m also anxious to share with people what you discovered as you moved from being a Frito-Lay route driver all the way up to where you are at Humana, embedded in the organization to help build better what goes on. How does that happen?

Debra Clary: That’s another big question, Andi. It’s not a simple question. I think the things that helped me was that my parents taught me the value of hard work and an education, and that’s what I did. I was not afraid to work hard. I wasn’t afraid to do the assignments that were given to me. And then couple that with, I am a learner and I’m curious, and I certainly recognized that there was a lot I didn’t know, but I was bold enough to ask other people, people that I was admiring or people that had an expertise in that.

I love inquiry, I love to have dialogue and discussion around that. And I’ll give you an example. When I was with Frito-Lay and I was a regional manager. And I had two babies. And I was just trying to figure out how to manage this new world of motherhood, but wanting to climb the corporate ladder. This woman from headquarters at Frito-Lay flew into Detroit, and my job was to take her around and show her the market and have a conversation about that. And she was just, like, beautiful. Her hair was in place, there was no spit up on her. You know, her suit. I mean, she was just like, she seemed like she had it all together. And I also knew she had children.

And on the way to the airport, I got up enough nerve to say, How do you do it? Well, how do you guide me to do this? It’s a struggle for me. I’m trying to figure out how to be a good mom and how to be a good executive. And she said, Oh, it’s really simple. It’s two words. Get help! What do you mean, get help? She says, Have someone that you trust to watch your children. Have someone clean your home. Have someone mow your lawn.

I mean, she was just going on and on, and I’m like, But I don’t have that kind of discretionary income. I’m making it. But, I’m also trying to save money. And she said, If you don’t invest in this, you’re never going to get to the next rung because you’re always going to be stressed and worrying. And from that point forward, I have said, Get help when I don’t know how to do something or I need support, get help. And I recently read this book called, Who Not How. Are you familiar with this?

Andi Simon: I’m not. It sounds good.

Debra Clary: Extraordinary book about when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re starting an organization, or even if you have an organization, it’s not about you doing the work, it’s about you getting people that can help you do the work that you don’t have an expertise in that. So building a website, doing software development. Why are you investing your time in that? You need to hire the right people to do that. And in the last three weeks, it’s made a significant change in my outlook and my vision for, I can do this. I can actually do this.

Andi Simon: I love it, I love your story. You said that’s a big, big question, but in some ways you answered it with two words. It is not you alone. It’s a team. You said that you took a dysfunctional team and you helped to build a team. And if the team does better, you all do better. So there are two wisdoms already that have popped out, one of which is that it’s not a solo job. Even orchestras need to back up the soloist. I mean, there’s a whole lot of orchestra going on and sometimes a conductor.

But the other part is that it’s okay to learn along the way what can be done to help you get somewhere, as long as you have a sense that you’re on a journey to go somewhere, and that’s what’s really interesting and makes me curious about why you didn’t stay inside corporate. You might have felt a little stuck or stalled. You ventured out into, I’ll call it, a foreign territory.

Having been in my own business for 22 years and dealing with entrepreneurs all the time, I taught entrepreneurship at Washington University. It is a foreign country for people who have been inside a corporation. So as you’re entering this, it needs a new language. It needs new habits. It needs a new mindset.

You know, share with the audience about what you’re trying to develop, because you’re clearly curious about trying to help people who need to be more curious, become more curious. Right?7 So let’s talk about this whole vision of where you’re going. Would that be okay?

Debra Clary: Yeah. So let me start with how I got on this path. I was sitting next to our CEO in a meeting, and he leaned over and whispered to me, Do you think curiosity can be learned or is it innate? And I said, I don’t know, but I’m curious. So that next week just happened to be the 4th of July, and I was going to be on holiday that whole week. I just dug into research on curiosity so that following Monday I go back to work. I lean over to him and I say, It can be learned. And that was that, right?

I know all this about curiosity, but that was that. And about a week later, I’m talking about serendipity. Somebody that ran a very large division for our company called and said, We’d love for you to come do a keynote in Austin. Can you do it? And I go, Absolutely. What do you want me to talk about? And they go, You can talk about whatever you want to talk about…curiosity.

And so I’d already done all I had prepared myself for something to come. And so I developed the information in terms of what happens to your brain when you’re curious. You know, I want people to understand that this is a neuroscience perspective on that. Demonstrating that curiosity is good for the brain. And then I shared about the difference between children and adults. These are studies: why children ask questions and why adults don’t ask questions.

And then I said to him: And here’s what the benefit of it is. And then I taught them some practical things that they can do to be curious. And that was that. I thought, Okay, this will probably never happen again. And then it snowballed. And I think I spoke to over 10,000 people at Humana and then started speaking externally. And I thought, Wow, people are curious. They want to learn about curiosity. But more importantly, they want to be curious. And the thing that I found, Andi, is that curiosity is contagious.

Andi Simon: Yes.

Debra Clary: So if you are around curious people, you’re going to be curious.

Andi Simon: Debra, let’s talk some more. This is so much fun because what happens if you have this contagion called curiosity? Are good things happening?

Debra Clary: Absolutely. And, you know, being a scientist, I wanted to know how to be able to measure it. What are the levels of curiosity? So I partnered with a group out of MIT to say, I want a valid assessment that can demonstrate the level of curiosity at an individual level and a curiosity in an org. level, because if we have data, then we can make change. 

So I mean, the data suggests that when you’re curious,  people begin to feel seen, valued and heard. And isn’t that a lovely thing if people feel that. What does that do for engagement? What does it do for problem solving? What does it do for innovation? Well, all of that increases.

People want to work in a curious environment. They want to work for a leader that is open to your ideas, that your ideas matter. That’s what employees want. That’s what associates want. And so not only now can we talk about it from other studies and why it’s important, and here are the benefits from it. We can actually measure your current state of curiosity. And then we help you to figure out what are areas that you can get better in to help you drive this within your organization.

Andi Simon: It’s such an interesting word because by and large, I doubt there’s an MBA program with a course on curiosity, is there? I’m not aware of it. So it isn’t as if we are thinking about this in the training that we’re giving aspiring next generation business people. And I doubt when they walk into HR, people ask them, Are you a curious person? They’ll ask about their skills and how they like to get along. And are they collaborative, perhaps. And are they, you know, take charge and directing?

But curiosity opens up a very different view of the world. It sort of challenges the imposter syndrome. It’s okay not to know, and it’s okay that we can figure out what is important by simply figuring out what’s important. And that becomes very important. I often work with organizations going through fast change, either machine learning or changes to their clients or robots or hybrids. Humans hate change, their brains fight it. The amygdala says, Go away. You know I’m going to fear you, I fear you. I don’t want any of this cortisol flying around in your brain saying, Get away. This is bad news stuff. And you’re saying, Can turn this all into beautiful oxytocin, where I’m having such fun learning new stuff and growing, which is really important. Am I right?

Debra Clary: Yeah. It’s like, bring on the dopamine. You know that you get that when you feel like somebody cares about you because they’re asking questions and they’re suspending judgment. You know, that dopamine is hitting. 

Andi Simon: And bring on the dopamine. Love it.

Debra Clary: I’ve never said it like that before, but that’s what occurs to me. So what we also know from a neuroscience perspective is, the brain is a machine and it is designed to keep you safe. And so there’s this thing called fast pass matching, meaning that when something comes up, your brain wants to go to a solution as quick as possible because our ancestors were in danger. So you need to take action. And what we today have to guard against is not fast past matching. If it sounds like it goes really quick, I have someone step back and say, Wait, maybe there’s another choice, maybe there’s another option.

Going back to your question around an interview: you don’t ask people if they’re curious. However, you could ask them questions like, What is the last thing you learned? What is something that you’re working on that you don’t know right now? And you can begin to get an idea if that’s something that they’re interested in learning.

You can also figure out what is their tenacity to stay with the project because, you know, things don’t go smoothly all the time, especially when you’re being really innovative.  And what is your ability to be determined and to stay with it? That’s also something that you can measure.

Andi Simon: Now, I bet you that it doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer who likes to put things into boxes, or you’re a marketing person who likes to be creative. That curiosity can be for both of them. It doesn’t matter much what the nature of your mind is. If you open it up to see new things and unexpected things, you can expand the way an engineer can see the data boxes and creativity is already looking there.

And sometimes my creatives have trouble settling down on something. They see too many things, too many ideas. Entrepreneurs have a terrible way of having more ideas than they have the possibility of actually implementing. But that’s okay. And part of the learning process. One entrepreneur said, I needed a Type A to organize me, or if not, I never got any ideas done. And so you need to know yourself, but you also need to let the ideas flow so that you can grow. And this is a growth strategy. 

Debra Clary: Absolutely. I was recently working with a client who is an engineer, and I was asking a series of questions, and I could tell he was getting really frustrated because he wanted the pattern. He wanted to get to the solution. And when I realized that, I had to share with him: We are going to get to an answer and we are going to make a decision. But this very period of time right now is about exploring what’s possible so we get to the best solution. But when we decide on that, it is go and we’re going to get it done.

And it was just like this huge relief on his face. And my point is, is that you have to kind of understand who you’re working with as you’re pacing and leading them. I mean, ultimately, you want people to be able to take action. You want them to feel good about the solution. And of course, that translates into two business outcomes.

Andi Simon: Yes, I know, but for humans, ambiguity is the most dangerous place to be. You can be black or white, but they don’t like gray. It can be red or blue, but not purple. And when we are adverse to the ambiguity, we miss all the opportunities because they usually pop up betwixt and between, don’t they?

Debra Clary: And when that occurs to me, which has been happening a lot lately as I’m starting up this company, I’ll remind myself: You don’t know the answer. But Deb, you’re going to figure it out and you’re going to have people that are going to help you figure it out. And that just takes my heart rate all the way down and says, well, that’s right, this is a mess. And we’re going to get to it.

Andi Simon: Yes. And there it is. Kay Unger from Kay Unger Fashion Designs, who’s done wonderful creative things in the design and fashion industry for many years, said something to me the other day that she sees things in pictures, and of course the brain actually sees everything in pictures.

And so what she finds is that once she has a problem to solve, she puts all the pictures out and watches how they come together, almost like solving a puzzle. And I share that metaphor for you and the audience, because it’s a very interesting way to realize that is, in fact, how the brain likes to work. It likes pictures, it likes to see and visualize.

And I actually gave my leadership academy pads of paper and colored pencils and said, Now you’re going to draw yourself a year from now so you can visualize where you’re going, because if you can’t see it, you’re never going to get there. But if you can, even if it’s not right, you’ll begin to take the small, curious steps to see how to move along. And you can redraw the picture. But without one, not much can happen because you get stuff stalled.

Debra Clary: Absolutely. I think that is so powerful. What Kate said around that our brains do think in pictures. And if you think about it, I was in France this year and I spent time in the caves where the artists were. It’s just so extraordinary what these men and women did during the Ice Age and how they communicated was through these pictures and that has been passed down to each of us in terms of first pictures and then the spoken word and the written word came so, so much later.

Andi Simon: Of course, but Gutenberg came much later. But that was 35,000 years ago. And they were pretty sophisticated because they brought their pigments from long distances away. And their sophistication in the pictures were amazing stories to be told and shared. But, you know, before that the cave paintings weren’t and then all of a sudden they were. And I often wonder, how much was that we haven’t really been able to find because we haven’t found the artifacts with them and where they were located. But it’s an interesting story, and we can’t quite decide if the humans did it or the Neanderthals did it because they were sharing the same territories together.

Debra Clary: Yes, absolutely. And you probably have seen this recent finding in, I think it was Germany. As an anthropologist, I mean, you and I are of the same minds. We come from a different way, but it’s like getting curious enough to understand and go deeper and say, well, what about this? Well, this doesn’t match. How could this particularly match? I mean, every day to me is fascinating. It’s just when I keep my mind open, it’s just fascinating.

Andi Simon: You’re having fun, aren’t you?

Debra Clary: I am having fun.

Andi Simon: Good. Let’s talk a little bit about if people want to learn more about you, where would the website be so that they could find you?

Debra Clary: Yes. So it’s so just my name and they’ll see the services and the consulting that I offer. But they also have a free curiosity assessment. So they click on that link. They’re going to get their score on their current level of curiosity.

Andi Simon: Oh let’s say that again. So if you’re curious about your curiosity go to and download the survey there. And it’s a short version. It’s not the long one she might give you in your organization, but enough to give you an assessment of your curiosity. And I bet you’re curious about your curiosity. Once you find it then the question is, what do I do with it? And then you can get back to And she would be delighted to talk to you about how you take and convert curiosity into opportunity, because that’s what it’s really opening for you.

So on that note, I’m going to wrap us up for today because I’ve had such a good time. Last note, one or two thoughts, Debra, that you want to make sure they don’t forget.

Debra Clary: That curiosity is contagious. Curiosity can be learned.

Andi Simon: Good. That is wonderful. So for those of you who came, whether you’re watching or you’re listening, it’s always a pleasure. Send along those who you would like me to interview on our podcast. We have over 380 done and there are many more in the queue coming, and they’re all really, like Debra Clary, extraordinarily helpful to help you get off the brink.

And if you’re on the brink, my job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways, which is what we’re going to do. Our new book, Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success, is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. But I will tell you, I’m learning that a book has an energy, a force, and it’s when the reader opens that book. Debra and I did a program at Louisville Leadership, and we had a ball with 50 women who couldn’t get enough wisdom out of our wisdoms and who wanted to share wisdoms. That was really cool, wasn’t it?

Debra Clary: Yes.

Andi Simon: So on that note, my friends, let us know how you are doing. Send us emails at and we look forward to hearing from you. Have a wonderful day. Goodbye and thank you so much Deb. It was a pleasure and I’m sure everyone else has enjoyed it as much as I have.

Debra Clary: Thank you Andi.



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