Virg Setzer

Practice What You Teach: Virg Setzer, Lecturer, Business School

March 14, 2023

This story is part of Practice What You Teach, a series that highlights CU Denver lecturers’ diverse expertise and scholarship. Lecturers are crucial to CU Denver’s academic programs, comprising nearly 40% of all faculty. On the whole, Instructional, Research, and Clinical (IRC) faculty make up nearly 64% of faculty and 67% of student credit hours.  

After teaching more than 130 courses at the CU Denver Business School over 15 years, you’d think Virg Setzer would be pretty dialed in on the material for his three courses on human resources topics. Still, he spends a good chunk of his weekends preparing for his classes, reading books on management and coaching, and watching webinars.  

This dedication speaks to why Setzer is so highly regarded among his students and peers at the Business School, where just this week he was honored with the school’s Lecturer Teaching Excellence Award along with accounting instructor Omar Roubi. Setzer balances his teaching duties with his executive coaching business, whose clients include Fortune 500 companies and federal government agencies.    

In this third installment of Practice What You Teach, we learn from Setzer that his own learning never ends. “That’s one thing I’ve emphasized to my students, and I’ve found it to be so true,” he said. “I’m just continually on a learning curve, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get to where I need to be.” 

On coming to Colorado… 

In 1973, July 4, to be exact. I took a job as plant personnel manager for Russell Stover Candies. They had a brand-new manufacturing plant in Montrose. I grew up in southeast Nebraska, and I had never been there before. It was just a remote place on the Western Slope. The company’s model was that the personnel guy hired everybody. I built that plant from zero to 610 people in seven years. It was a significant challenge, but a great opportunity. It was a learning laboratory for me.   

On his favorite candy… 

Turtles. They’re caramel and pecan, coated with chocolate. At Russell Stover, we’d produce a lot of candy that would wind up as “seconds,” with minor imperfections, and the office staff had a deep drawer that was always filled with seconds for the taking. I would bring my 6-year-old and 4-year-old in on Saturday mornings for them.  

On the value lecturers bring to CU Denver… 

I have 35 years of experience in business at Johns Manville, Alliente, and Ariba, along with Russell Stover. I’m also continually connected to the business world, through my leadership coaching with multiple companies across the nation and globe. Other lecturers I know, they’ve worked in nonprofits and other university or government systems or sectors. As a mix, we bring a well-rounded view of organizational situations and dynamics, and that can be valuable in the courses we develop and teach.  

On how to inspire students to pursue careers in HR… 

Rarely do I find undergraduates, or even graduate students, with much understanding of what human resource management is all about. You’ve heard the statement, “Well, they need to like people,” and certainly that’s true. But it’s much deeper. You need to understand how a business operates, how all the units work together, the value people have in each functional area. If you want an HR career, you also have to have a thirst for it. I don’t think that’s something that comes instantly. But I try to demonstrate through assignments or real-world solutions where HR has been significant in influencing people’s and organizations’ success.  

On how the pandemic has affected performance management… 

For many companies and leaders, it’s actually been a positive. It’s shifted the whole mindset of business. With the leaders I work with, I’m seeing a much greater focus by companies on developing and enabling their workforce: they are seriously investing in the development of their people. And they are advocating for people at all levels to be very agile and flexible in their approach. I think it’s also helped people see the importance of setting clear expectations.  

On how standards for great leaders have evolved… 

The expectations and approach for leaders today are somewhat different than when I started this work in the ’80s and ’90s. Then, there were many remnants from the command-and-control approach to leadership that evolved in the early Industrial Revolution. In 2023, data on effective organizations has evolved to where there’s a much stronger emphasis on investing in your workforce’s development. To being more empathetic about people’s needs and wants, recognizing their unique value, and working with them to develop that. The bottom line is that clearly there’s been a shift in what’s needed to be effective in today’s business world.  

On why he does this… 

I just love it. Between the teaching and the leadership coaching, I can’t say I like one better than the other: they’re unique and different. One day, I’m dealing with undergrads who are new on the learning path. And then, maybe that very same day, I’m coaching an executive that’s been in leadership for 20 to 30 years. Sometimes I use examples from my students in working with leaders, and vice versa. I’m often asked, “Well Virg, when are you going to retire?” I’ll tell you right now I am not—I have no desire to. I plan to continue doing this as long as I’m mentally capable and physically capable. 

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