Curiosity Did Not Kill The Cat, It Gave It A Promotion

[5 min read]

Is good performance enough to get you promoted? Are good grades and a colourful resume enough to get you hired? On both fronts, the answer unfortunately is no. Companies are increasingly placing a premium on many intangible traits – and amongst them: Curiosity – a predictor of performance and leadership potential.

According to research by Leadership consulting firm Egon Zehnder, Curiosity is one of 4 traits used to predict an individual’s leadership potential. Many Fortune 500 companies engage firms like Egon Zehnder, Heidrick & Struggles (my previous employers) and Korn Ferry to help them spot high potential talent to groom for key roles. These Consultants look beyond individuals with high performance scores to identify talent that complements high performance with a high degree of curiosity or learning agility.

In the words of a Talent Acquisition Director I interviewed from a leading pharmaceutical company, “when looking to promote, we look for individuals with the hunger to get out of his/her comfort zone, even to domains they were not hired for so as to learn through new experiences in the business.”

According to Egon Zehnder’s research, curious individuals are those who proactively seek new experiences, ideas, and knowledge. They solicit feedback and are open to learning and change. It’s not merely idle curiosity: They are energized by constantly refreshing themselves on an intellectual, experiential, and personal level.

Because of this, curious individuals learn faster and quickly adapt to new roles and challenges. Chances are, their curiosity may have even exposed them to the problems they are now tasked to solve. Questions that the business throws at them like, how do we leverage the latest technology to improve our customer experience are things they may have already started dabbling with on their own. Change doesn’t unsettle them, it excites them – that’s what makes them so valuable.

In the increasingly competitive war for talent, many companies have started assessing for curiosity as they make graduate hiring decisions. What this means is that having the best grades and the most prestigious CCA record is not going to get you the dream job if you do not prove that you bring with yourself a deep sense of curiosity and strong learning agility.

Take Google for example.

We run this company on questions, not answers. – Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, 2001 – 2011)

Google printed this breadcrumb on billboards in prominent locations knowing that only a certain type of person would be motivated enough to solve that puzzle. Those who figured out the 10 digits landed themselves on a website where Google posted another puzzle. Responders willing to engage and go on to solve the second puzzle were then shortlisted for an interview even if they were not computer engineers. One thing was certain, any candidate shortlisted was likely to be someone more curious than anyone else that saw the billboard.

So why the focus on curiosity? Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO said, ‘we run this company on questions, not answers.’ The next big innovation comes from someone asking a question that no one asked and explored before. The cover story of the October 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review shares findings about how curiosity leads to innovation in both creative and non creative jobs. When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about problems and come up with more creative solutions.

Similarly, according to Chuck Edward, head of global talent acquisition at Microsoft, “in the first round of interviews, Microsoft recruiters are looking to identify if candidates are curious.”

Hiring for curiosity is not limited to big tech giants. In focus groups conducted by NUS Centre for Future-ready Graduates, 35 employers including, small medium singaporean enterprises, government linked firms and MNCs, all deemed Curiosity as one of the 6 essential traits they look for in hiring fresh graduates.

So how then can you as a young professional display this Curiosity? Here are some tips.

In Your Interview:

Ask good questions. 95% of the time, interviewers will ask you, ‘do you have any questions for us?’ Saying nothing at this point is a missed opportunity frowned upon by recruiters. You can ask questions like:

    What are the biggest challenges you face in your day to day work?
    What are the problems your clients need help with and what’s the most challenging aspect of the solution?
    Outside the domain (e.g. coding, policy writing, etc.) expertise that you need for this role, what other knowledge/skills/traits would I need to be successful in the role?

Share personal experience and examples about:

    Experimenting with new ideas and projects for the sake of learning and growth; and
    Reading, travelling and speaking to people to fuel your curiosity about a certain topic.

At Work:

    Put your hand up for new projects outside your current role or skillset;
    Embrace change and display enthusiasm to understand and contribute to the change that your boss and his/her boss are trying to implement; and
    Ask for feedback and act on it.

And here’s how you can cultivate it.

Cultivating Curiosity

    Practice putting a ‘Growth Mindset’ spin into missteps. For example, “This is what I learnt from this error, and the next time I will do it differently using what I learnt today”. Keeping a learning a journal of these experiences will help you commit the learning to memory.
    Set aside ‘why’, ‘what if’ and ‘how’ blocks of time where you look at common tasks and challenges faced by different departments in your business. [Source: HBR]
    Enrich yourself in your down time. Find great podcasts, insightful websites, etc. that fuel you with knowledge and entertain at the same time. I strongly recommend Business Wars – it’s drama, excitement and a whole lot of business knowledge in 20 minute episodes.

To learn more about the other 3 traits talent assessors look for when spotting a high potential talent and what you can to cultivate those traits, check out this article.

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