Curiosity: an underrated candidate trait?

Written by
James Martin

23 Mar 2016

23 Mar 2016 • by James Martin

Are you the curious type?

Assuming you have several candidates with the right background, career history and management experience. Many selectors respond very positively to those with a high level of confidence and self-assurance; someone comfortable and at ease in their own skin. The ability to radiate certainty is often appealing. Most of us like leaders who know their own mind. They provide a sense that they have all the answers and will navigate the way ahead with ease.

But is this always wise? Such self-confidence may also hint at a lack of what we believe is the most important differentiator of potential. After many years of study into the sources of potential, our findings suggest that the most important trait to look for is curiosity. Beneath the headline, there are several threads to look for.

Open-mindedness and exploration

One is an innate open-mindedness and willingness to find pleasure in understanding new things. It's rather sad that we don't see this more often. After all, we are all born curious. Just look at babies and toddlers learning about the world around them. Unfortunately, as Albert Einstein observed, "It's a miracle that curiosity survives formal education". As we grow, life often seems to involve criticism for asking too many questions and being forced to concentrate on learning about topics in specific ways as laid down by others. Paradoxically, all of this effort may mean that curiosity is inversely correlated with age. If you think about the older people you know who are the most delightful to be with, I would make a guess that they are also probably also the most curious. 

An all rounded individual with interests to match

A second strand to look for is breadth of interests. It is perfectly possible to be highly curious but in a very narrow range of topics. There are some deeply intelligent but somewhat blinkered individuals in the world, who know an enormous amount about a specific area. Of more interest to us, as search consultants, is to find individuals who are attentive to many different areas. These may well be outside the world of business: the arts, sports, music, science and so on.

However, for our candidates, it's not enough to be simply curious. A vital component is the desire to learn and to grow as a result of new knowledge. The truly curious are those who want to keep developing as a person and a leader. They know that what worked in the past may not necessarily be the solution for the future. They realise that if they are to lead an evolving workforce in a VUCA world successfully, they too must adapt or risk ossifying.

How does this work in practice?

They may observe the way a sports team is coached and apply that to the management of their colleagues at work. They might see how musicians in rehearsal provide micro feedback to each other in the moment and start to do the same in their team meetings. They may simply observe a colleague doing something well and decide to learn how to develop that same skill.

So, when you are faced with a decision between two apparently equivalent candidates, one useful way to differentiate them is to ask yourself who is the most curious. All else being equal, I would always bet on the person who is still adapting and learning.