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Business Leaders need to be more curious now than ever

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Read Time: 4 minutes 

Have you written your goals for the year? Have you received a stream of emails and newsletters, advising you of the 6 best ways or 5 key tips for doing that? It’s that time of year, when we are exhorted to decide what we aim to accomplish and so shape our destiny for the year ahead and beyond.

Whether you have already set your goals for this year or are still thinking about it, I suggest you include this one and make it your top priority:

Be more curious

Because becoming more curious can increase the positive impact that leaders make. In this article I will show you how.

 

Why Business Leaders need to be more curious

  • Companies operate in a world that is more complex, disruptive and unpredictable than ever. There are likely to be no tried and tested solutions for many of the challenges you will face.
  • The purpose of the business enterprise itself is being increasingly questioned. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, one of the US largest business groups , emphasised priorities beyond profit in Redefining the Purpose of the Corporation. This has been driven by:
    • Continuing attempts to restore trust lost in the financial crisis.
    • Generational change, bringing employees with higher expectations.
    • Consumer pressure
    • Renewed interest in environmental and social impact

In our world of relentless change, you need to continually question the status quo, to discover how you can lead your teams to deliver value to all of your stakeholders.

 

A curious Business Leader

In the 6 years of Satya Nadella’s tenure as CEO of Microsoft, the total return for shareholders has passed $1tn. These results have been achieved at a time when regulators are showing an increasing tendency to challenge “Big Tech”. Yet they didn’t attract the resentment and anxiety provoked by some of their peers. This is testament to the new purpose at the heart of the company and a culture reflecting the qualities of a CEO given more to humility than the intellectual arrogance the company was once known for.

Empathy is a quality that Nadella values greatly and tries to embed in the culture. He attributes his own empathy from coming the experience of having a son with cerebral palsy. He has promoted a new outlook for Microsoft employees. It is based on curiosity, being continually open to learning and new ideas, rather than the fixed mindset of the past. This approach draws on psychologist, Carol Dweck’s work on “Growth Mindset”

Shifting the culture

This change in culture is delivering value to all stakeholder groups. Professor Michael Cusumano of MIT, who has written about Microsoft for over 2 decades, describes how “Nadella brought a new culture, a new enthusiasm, making Microsoft an exciting place to work again”. In response to strains on infrastructure caused by expansion in the greater Seattle area, the company made $500m available to support more affordable housing. Whilst it still faces some controversies, the company under Nadella’s leadership is increasingly gaining respect for “taking a more thoughtful approach to tech” according to Margaret Heffernan, Tech Entrepreneur  and writer on leadership. They are being more mindful about the broader business and social impact of what they do.

From “Know it alls” to “Learn it alls”

Reflecting on his own life experiences , Nadella recalls in his book “Hit Refresh”

“I’d been encouraged to follow my own curiosity and to push the limits of my own capabilities and now I was beginning to see how this approach would be critical to Microsoft as it confronted the burden of its past success”

Here he sums up his aims as a curious leader creating a culture of curiosity:

*We have set aside some of our classic know-it-all behaviour to at least start the journey culturally to say, “We’d better become learn it alls”

Being Curious

Carol Dweck’s research shows that people with““Growth Mindsets” achieve more than those with “Fixed Mindsets” . This is because, she argues, they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning. In “Hit Refresh” Nadella shares examples where at times he has had to overcome his own “Fixed Mindset” to gain breakthroughs in providing better leadership. According to Dweck you have a “Growth Mindset ” when you believe your talents can be developed, through hard work, good strategies  and input from others. In other words, you really believe you still have a lot to learn, no matter how successful or senior you are in a company.

Growth Mindset

You may think you already have a Growth Mindset it and maybe always have had. It’s more likely you have a mixture of “Fixed and Growth Mindsets”. These evolve and depend on the types of challenges you are facing. We all have triggers that push us to close down learning and revert to our fixed mindsets . We can get triggered when we face major challenges, receive criticism or don’t perform as well as others. When that happens we can become insecure or defensive which inhibits learning and development of the best solutions and strategies.

This is where curiosity can be so powerful, particularly, curiosity about ourselves.

In a previous blog post, I describe how our biases can get in the way of learning and good decision making Business leaders biases

It’s one thing to be curious about our outer world , our business, competitors, markets, customers, and technology. For innovation and change to happen , it’s essential to challenge the status quo and current thinking about these. It can be much more challenging to be curious about ourselves. This is key to  becoming a curious leader who is more likely to create the conditions to deliver value to all stakeholders. Here are some practices that can help us do this:

  • Acknowledging what you know and don’t know about what’s happening across your organisation and business environment
  • Consulting with colleagues and business associates with diverse knowledge, experiences, perspectives and who are likely to challenge you.
  • Being aware of your preferences and values, how they influence your leadership in the way you respond to challenges and opportunities

 

So in the year ahead,

What will you be curious about?

What are the questions you will ask?

and when faced with answers you are initially inclined to dismiss, ask yourself whether there are assumptions you’re making that are getting in the way of exploring these ideas and can you suspend them to allow yourself to consider a wider range of options?

 

 

John Drysdale

John Drysdale

John is a co-founder of Business Momentum. He coaches business leaders and teams to develop organisations where people are engaged, fulfilled and deliver exceptional results. He is supported by a team of coaches and consultants who have a track record of success working with senior leaders and team across a range of sectors.

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