Observe successful people and you might notice three consistent traits: they see the bigger picture and don’t get stuck in the weeds; they have high self-awareness and above average emotional intelligence; and finally, they possess a hunger for learning – they’re curious.
These behaviours aren’t unique character traits, they’re trainable. The challenge for leaders is to enable their people to be more curious, more of the time.
We have it as children - the growing brain of a toddler constantly asks ‘why’. But through school and work, recognition comes from the output of curiosity - an exam grade, a deal, a completed project - not the curiosity that went before. Success is seen in the competence, knowledge and skills to deliver – not in the curiosity that fuelled them.
We can encourage people to ask more and better questions, but expect responses like 'I don’t have time to ask lots of questions' and 'I’ll be seen as nosy or pushy'. And one which is rarely voiced but lurks in the mind, 'What if I ask a question to which I don’t know the answer…?'
Curiosity starts with listening. Great questions are of little use if the response goes unheard. But most people have conversations to unload their views, opinions, thoughts and ideas, not to listen and understand.
Try this: Ask a colleague to talk for three minutes without interruption about a recent experience – a holiday, a book, a film. Do nothing but listen and make a note each time you want to interrupt or ask a question.
I’ve run this hundreds of times and the average number of notes someone makes is five. The interruptions noted are usually things that are of interest to you, not the other person. We are often more selfish than curious.
People say and do things for a reason. Curiosity is about asking why, so encourage your people to discover what lies behind what’s said - to be nosy in an appropriate way.
The engineer and the problem
The conversation structure below is one now used by a cybersecurity vendor to help their technical engineers understand customers, have stronger relationships and grow revenue – even when they’re not sellers.
A similar one is used by several car rental firms to better serve their customers, improve NPS (net promoter scores) and ultimately grow revenue. Curiosity is at its core, using a simple framework that anyone can follow:
Customer: ‘It’s going to be tough to get this finished by Q3.’
Responder: ‘Sounds as though you’re under a bit of pressure. What’s getting in the way?’
Customer: ‘One of my team is on long-term sick leave and he’s the project expert.’
Responder: ‘Who else could you get to work on it?’
Customer: ‘There’s an engineer in another team, but I’d need my boss and his to agree.’
Responder: ‘That sounds like a way forward. How easy would that be?’
Customer: ‘I think the engineer’s up for it. But I’d need to help his boss out – he’s working on a critical security project.’
The responder knows their company could help here. It’s tempting to say, ‘we could do that for you’, but it’s too soon. More curiosity is needed:
Responder: ‘What will happen if you don’t get that engineer?’
Customer: ‘We’ll be late delivering and risk non-compliance. Another company got fined recently and the Board has visibility on that.’
Responder: ‘That’s a worry. What was the fine?’
Customer: ‘We don’t know for sure, but big. It’s the publicity though – once in the press, customers get nervous. I don’t think people realise just how important this is.’
What has the curious responder found out? This is a bigger issue than first presented. Given the risks - critical.
Had they interjected with, ‘We can do that for you,’ the bigger picture would never have been discovered. And still they can be more curious and go deeper:
Responder: ‘They’re expecting you to deliver, but you don’t have the resources and the risks are high. I get a real sense of frustration and concern. We could help with some of our engineers. How can you persuade your boss to have this engineer transferred?’
Customer: ‘I don’t think they know the pressure we’re under. I’d like to share some ideas – the cost of a contractor versus the risk of a fine – they can see why we need to do something sooner than later. Do you have bios for your engineers? That could be a good way forward.’
Look how far they've come – the responder has discovered what’s bleeping on their radar through genuine curiosity.
Their conversation has transitioned into an opportunity that can be cost justified. And all because of injections based on genuine curiosity. Einstein once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Being passionately curious really can grow revenue.
Isobel Rimmer is founder of Masterclass Training and author of new book Natural Business Development: Unleash your people’s potential to spot opportunities, develop new business and grow revenue.
Image credit: ReThink Press