As a former higher education administrator who is blessed with 3 wonderful daughters and 7 grandchildren, I think a lot about how to help young people make the most of their potential. Nothing less than our future depends on it.
So the recent book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success gave me plenty of pause. The book’s author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, is the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University – and she reports on a disturbing trend she’s noticed on America’s college campuses for many years. The rise of “helicopter parenting” in the United States – the insistence on monitoring and managing our kids at all times, with special insistence on building flawless resumes for their college applications – has created a generation of young adults who too often lack self-awareness, wilt under pressure, and are terrified of making mistakes.
Lythcott-Haims does a superb job of documenting the poisonous impact of helicopter parenting on creativity, critical thinking, and coping skills. In my view, this style of parenting also undermines the development of a leadership quality that is already underappreciated enough as it is: curiosity.
We hear a lot these days about the importance of IQ and EQ. Now CQ, or Curiosity Quotient – a term proposed by journalist Tom Friedman – is starting to get the recognition it deserves.
Michael Dell and other prominent executives identify it as one of the most crucial leadership skills for the future in a recent piece by Warren Berger. As Berger notes, “curiosity can inspire leaders to continually seek out the fresh ideas and approaches needed to keep pace with change and stay ahead of competitors.”
As a leader, here are 3 things you need to know about CQ:
1. How to identify curiosity in other people. As the head of a global organization, one of my biggest responsibilities is hiring the talent we need to execute our strategy. Functional skills are of course important, but by the time candidates interview with me, I’m trying to learn more about their overall mindset because I believe a hungry mind is critical for future achievement. What’s the most interesting place they’ve traveled? What books have they read lately that aren’t about their business? What are their hobbies? What new skill are they working on right now? What do they do to stay mentally and physically fit?
Sometimes, candidates struggle with these questions. They are so steeped in their functional expertise or industry that they can’t see outside of it, nor do they grasp why that matters. After all, what they’ve done so far in their career seems to be working, right? That’s a red flag, especially if they want to move up the leadership ladder. The curious leader is the one who is always growing while others are content staying in place, who is constantly interested in pursuing what they do not know. By using a portion of your time in interview situations to ask questions that gauge curiosity, you will help identify women and men who have the greatest potential for development and success.
2. How to develop curiosity in yourself and others. As my CCL colleagues David Horth and Jonathan Vehar explain in their white paper white paper, Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation, “there is a widespread belief that some people are curious and some are not. But in fact, curiosity is one of those malleable, learnable personality traits.”
The payoff: our brain, Horth and Vehar note, takes new information we’ve learned and “creates novel connections by sorting, categorizing, relating, leveraging, and combining what is new with what is already present. Novel neural connections are the source of all that is new, creative, and leads to innovation.”
I spent Thanksgiving with my youngest grandchildren and was reminded of just how curious all young children are and of their overpowering need to learn. We do not need to lose our curiosity as we age, though there is no simple trick for maintaining it. At least a couple times a day we should ask “What, Why, Where, When, Who or How” questions such as “How can I use something that doesn’t seem to fit at all in this situation?” We can also make a daily habit of putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations.
Study a language. Volunteer for a cross functional team focusing on an area outside your expertise. Take a magazine on the plane on a subject you know nothing about. Sign up for a class on Coursera or Lynda.com. Your mind is like a muscle, so the mental exercise caused by curiosity keeps your mind more active/agile. And that leads to more novel experiences that can help you now and may also better preserve mental faculties later in life.
As a leader, also make sure that your team members are being stretched. CCL research shows that 70% of our growth as leaders comes from on-the-job experience. So find some challenging, short-term assignments in new or different arenas for your women and men. And make sure they’re getting the right encouragement, coaching and support to reflect on what they’re learning.
3. The potential pitfalls of curiosity. We’re always in danger of overplaying our strengths, and individuals with high levels of curiosity are not immune. In the digital age of information overload, if we do not have the self-discipline to focus our curiosity on learning and improving in areas that matter, we can end up just being constantly distracted on the web by useless gossip and other noise. Additionally, in my experience, leaders with high CQ often love to brainstorm, look at problems from different angles and gather new information. And sometimes they get stuck in that phase of learning, conversation and reflection – and struggle to translate curiosity into practical solutions. For these kinds of leaders, new ideas will never be a problem, but acting on them will. So they will need help mastering execution.
Still, an excess of curiosity is a good problem for any organization to have – and, if Lythcott-Haims’ analysis of students at our top colleges is on the mark, we’re far more in danger of having too little of it.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a LinkedIn Influencer.