Curiosity. That’s the first thing Lee Iacocca mentioned when asked by Charlie Rose to describe attributes leaders need. Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, has a 7C formula for describing leadership with C standing for attributes such as communications, common sense, courage, and of course, curiosity. Of these, curiosity is often overlooked that it is refreshing to hear Iacocca speak about it as well as write about it in his newest book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
When you consider Iacocca’s background it is not surprising that he would favor curiosity. He studied engineering at Lehigh and then joined Ford Motor Company where he made his name in sales. Both disciplines require a high degree of inquisitiveness. Engineers want to know how things work and why. Sales people want to know what customers are thinking. Methods for discovering answers requires an ability to formulate good questions based on a wanting to know, that is, being curious.
In the quest for innovation, it is remarkable that so few companies seem to value curiosity. We speak of creativity. We speak of putting people in places where they can interact and where ideas can spark. We speak of how managers take those ideas and apply them to problems. But these are processes; creativity does not spring from thin air. It comes from being curious. The good thing about curiosity is that we humans are naturally curious. Watch any group of primates and you will see curiosity in play, especially when new items are introduced into their environment, be it a toy, a machine or a human. Curiosity is likely in our DNA. So it can be fostered. Here are some suggestions.
Mix things up. Change the routine from time to time. Do staff meetings always have to happen on Tuesday? Must they always be in conference room B? Do we always need to have an agenda? The answers may not always be yes so if possible change the meeting day, consider a new meeting place, or try the agenda-less meeting. What’s more, you might skip a meeting in favor of a luncheon gathering.
Welcome new ideas. We all have so much on our plates that focusing on the task becomes our mantra. That’s good discipline, yes, but sometimes we get so locked onto our processes that we forget to think of alternatives. Curious minds will want to do things differently and for good reasons, e.g. save time, expense and resources. Yet if there is a metaphorical "Not Welcome Here" sign over the boss’s office, then ideas will remain ideas – ephemeral and inert.
Send people on expeditions. Want some good ideas, send people to conferences where they can meet and mingle with people in their field? That’s commonplace, but you can also send them to other parts of your enterprise to learn what others are doing. It is a good place to find out best practices and share some of your own. And if possible, consider field trips to museums or theatrical productions? Will they improve your bottom-line? Not overnight, but they may be opportunities for folks to bond with each other as well as see new things. Stimulii stirs creativity.
Curiosity has its limits. People who never stop asking questions about other people become annoying. And too many questions about processes and procedures can be tiresome. So sometimes you need to ease up on the curiosity gene and let things happen.
At the same time, as Iacocca told Charlie Rose, an executive must be curious. He needs to ask questions to find out what is going on. Answers may tell him one of two things. One, that things are going as expected. Two, things are not going as expected. Curiosity opens the door to determine what comes next.
"Interview with Lee Iacocca" The Charlie Rose Show PBS 5.24.07; Lee Iacocca with Catherine Whitney Where Have All the Leaders Gone? New York: Scribners 2007