Be curious. Not cynical.
That’s a message I’ve tried to deliver to reporters at the Business Observer and Observer Media Group for years. The idea? The best stories, and before that, the best questions to ask to get the best stories, in journalism, come when you are curious. Don’t assume you know. Ask. Dig deeper.
Curiosity — this time in leadership — was a key theme during a half-day conference on leadership education recently put together by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. The conference, “The future of work: promoting well-being to build resilient teams,” was held Jan. 12 at the Carlisle Inn in Sarasota. “Think about well-being like scaffolding,” says Kristen Lessig-Schenerlein, founder of Sarasota-based Koi Coaching & Consulting, one of two keynote speakers during the conference. “It’s a support structure to build a great organization.”
In addition to curiosity, other themes, such as living your values, how to be a better listener and the value of positive emotions, were at the forefront of the conference.
But for me, the focus, for a bit, on curiosity was a compelling way to think about how to be a better leader. “Curiosity is a silver bullet,” says corporate trainer and coach Hannah McGowan, the other keynote speaker. “It’s a muscle. We have to invest in it. We have to strengthen it.”
McGowan, with Sarasota-based talent development firm HM Coaching, highlighted a quote from Albert Einstein in her presentation. Said Einstein: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
More nuggets from McGowan’s presentation include:
What’s in a name: Titles such as planner, director or controller aren’t the right way to think about being a leader. Instead, titles and names to focus on are visionary, coach, architect and catalyst. “Your role as a leader is to create an environment where people can do their best work,” McGowan says.
Late notice: McGowan presented the fictional example of an employee named Tim, who is consistently late on reports, which then puts you in a bad spot, since you were then late to your boss with the reports. While the example was fictional, many in the audience of some 150 people nodded along in agreement. McGowan says curiosity is a strong antidote to this common leadership situation — to figure out the root causes of a ‘Tim,’ not just, or only, hold him accountable for the problems. But many leaders react differently, anywhere from anger to annoyance, in what McGowan called “barriers to curiosity.”
Let it go: The first barrier is ego. “Everyone has been raised in a command and control culture,” McGowan says. “We fail to ask questions.” In a phone interview after the conference, McGowan says she often works with clients who almost robotically believe “because they are leaders, they have to know everything, and be in charge of everything.” But letting go of that belief system, she says, is a key point in being able to handle situations like Tim.
Time after time: The second barrier is time, the idea that in a go-go-go world, no good leader has the time to coach a Tim, much less be curious about why he’s struggling. Both McGowan and Lessig-Schenerlein stress that a lack of time is a misperception of time management. “Think about how you prioritize time,” McGown says. “What genuinely needs to get done today? It’s critical to be intentional with this.”
High IQ: The third barrier to being a curious leader, McGowan has found, is emotional intelligence, or EQ. For McGowan, this manifests itself with situations like Tim in that humans, even highly-competent leaders, “are really good at not knowing what they don’t know.” In other words, without the right EQ, some leaders, she says, “put people in a box. Like this person is lazy. Or this person is analytical. Or this person won’t be good at that.” That approach, she says, prevents leaders from being curious about what’s really happening.
What’s up: One way to improve your curiosity-quotient, McGowan says, is in the kinds of questions you ask people on your team, not just the Tims. First, she says, eliminate “why” in your questions, because that makes it “high-stakes,” not a curious conversation. Why questions also, says McGowan, “include some judgment.” So, instead of saying “‘why was the report late, ask, what’s the thing that will allow you to be on time for future projects?’”
No no: Another tip on questions from McGowan: Ask open ended questions. “The fastest way to end a curious conversation is to ask yes or no questions,” she says. “That will end everything right there.”
Triangle offense: McGowan's presentation included what she called her knowledge, skills and mindset triangle. When you are being curious about why something went wrong or why an employee was late on assignments, like Tim, it’s essential to remember every good employee needs all three sides of this triangle, McGowan says. “For a person to be able to do any task, from tying their shoes to building a rocketship, they need the requisite knowledge, skills and mindset,” she says. “Your job as a leader is to make sure they have those things.”
This story was updated to include Kristen Lessig-Schenerlein's advanced degree.