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KATHERINE ALEXANDER
KATHERINE ALEXANDER

Leadership Lab

Which of your employees has the X-factor to lead your business? Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Imagine you are a CEO at a large, successful company. You have a pool of 100 vie-presidents who are all smart, capable, and hard-working. They are all strong communicators. All are driven.

So which, when the time comes, will take over the company’s executive roles, including your own? Who has the X-factor to lead your business?

Interviews and assessments with senior executives – CEOs, CFOs, COOs, etc. – point to several common elements of success at this level. Some are more obvious than others, like strategic thinking and executive maturity. But sitting atop this list is one vital quality that sets these leaders apart.

The most successful executives are passionately curious people.

It’s a side of them not often seen in the public eye, in investor meetings or public appearances, when they are expected to display unwavering confidence. But the truth is, the best ones are lifelong students who never stop asking some of life’s simplest questions.

The urgency of curiosity lies in its ability to deliver new ideas and solutions – it allows us to see around corners and connect dots. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, founders of Airbnb, were living in San Francisco and saw that conference-goers to the city were desperate to find a place to stay when hotels booked up quickly. They asked themselves one crucial question: Why not our place? This simple question, and its industry altering solution, stems from natural curiosity and inquisitiveness to not accept things as they are.

Curiosity also allows us to thrive in non-routine, ambiguous, and turbulent environments. As change is the common denominator in business today, this becomes the era of the leader with the hungriest mind. Success has become less about having all the answers and being the smartest person in the room, and more about questioning and digging deeper. Curious people are better equipped to manage complexity and ambiguity.

Not to mention how infectious a sense of fascination can be. When someone is deeply curious about the world and the people around them, they tend to engage others in their questioning and inquiry. They can’t help themselves.

Results from PwC’s 18th annual Global CEO Survey agree – when CEOs were asked which attribute leaders will need most to succeed in turbulent times ahead, many cited ‘curiosity’ and ‘open-mindedness’ as traits that are increasingly critical to business success. As Alan D. Wilson, McCormick & Company CEO, puts it, business leaders who are “always expanding their perspective and what they know – and have the natural curiosity – are the people that are going to be successful.”

As another CEO said, “Be wise enough to realize that what we know today is based only on looking backward. We need to constantly and constructively challenge our beliefs regarding our business and strategy, lest we get complacent.”

Recognizing curiosity in your rising stars is critical. They are the ones who will spot anomalies in your financial statements or defects in your products. They imagine and test different scenarios in your business. They are indispensable to the organization’s future growth.

You’ll spot curiosity and leadership potential in employees when you see the following:

They have varied interests

Curious employees aren’t just interested in their area of expertise, be it finance, marketing, sales. They want to hear about what’s going on in different parts of the business and need to know what’s going on in the industry. What are other teams doing? What can they learn from them? Outside of work, their interests are all over the place. They read fiction, nonfiction, biographies, fantasy. They take classes, see shows. All of this provides them with a well-rounded intellect; one that makes them better prepared and equipped to lead.

They ask questions

Puzzled by how things work, or could work better, curious employees ask a lot of questions. They want to know why it’s always been done that way, and could there be a better solution? Some bosses get frustrated by this, aggravated by what they see as time wasted getting off track. But questions and curious inquiry are the starting points that have reinvented entire industries. Take Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square, for example, who watched his artist friend lose a big sale because he couldn’t accept payment by credit card. Dorsey started to question why only established, brick-and-mortar stores could conduct these transactions; his search for an answer led him to found Square, allowing companies big or small to take credit payments anywhere.

They seem awake

Curious people are intrinsically eager. They are not necessarily the loudest or most outspoken, but their body language, dialogue and facial expressions tell you their minds are working at warp speed. When you sit down with them, you walk away feeling energized, like you could talk to them for hours. They make great conversationalists as they engage you in their curiosity.

Curious people can think and achieve beyond the role they are in, making them the employees with the highest potential; future-proofing your company starts with finding and rewarding them.

Dr. Katherine Alexander is an organizational psychologist at Kilberry Leadership Advisors (www.kilberrygroup.com), a firm that provides executive assessment and leadership development services to investors, CEOs, and corporate leaders.

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