Recruit the curious!

“We run this company on questions, not answers.” This sentence comes from Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO. It makes it clear which characteristic the company values most in new employees: Curiosity. The recruiting strategy is correspondingly consistent: when the company was looking for engineers, it published a huge billboard with a riddle. Anyone who solved it ended up on a website and thus in the selection process of Google’s HR department. And that’s regardless of the puzzle solver’s formal qualifications for the open position.

Is curiosity the super skill?

Curiosity is not actually a skill, but a tendency towards certain behaviors. Curious people embrace the unknown, have the courage to try things out and enjoy taking the first steps on a new path. Our research shows that this is closely linked to characteristics that are attributed to a person’s “entrepreneurial capital”, such as the “agility mindset” personality trait. People with a strong agility mindset approach the challenges of a fast-paced world with a strong creative drive. And see themselves as capable and willing to influence the developments around them. This characteristic can be trained, as you will see in the second part of the article.

With this in mind, curious personalities can be a huge asset to companies. After all, our environment and the conditions under which organizations have to operate have been changing at an ever-increasing pace for years. People who have a natural curiosity are usually better able to deal with these changes and are more open to new situations and insights. Even for those that contradict their previous beliefs. There is unlikely to be a “We’ve always done it this way” with them in the team.

Instead, they constantly question the status quo. Like to explore new ways of overcoming challenges. And are not so quick to settle for the first solution that comes along. Their strong interest in new things also relates to other people, which tends to make them good team players. Even in very heterogeneous constellations. Anyone focusing on diversity when recruiting is therefore well advised to look at how well developed characteristics associated with curiosity are in candidates.

Mister & Miss T

Because these often go hand in hand with other valuable character traits and skills. The so-called “T-Shaped Employee” is the jackpot among employees. On the vertical axis, the stem of the T so to speak, he or she brings in-depth skills in at least one area, for example in marketing or finance. The horizontal bar of the T stands for overarching characteristics and soft skills. People with a keen interest in new things, for example, also tend to have a great capacity for empathy and the ability to collaborate. While expert knowledge can be read off the resume from the stem, other measurement methods are needed for the horizontal axis.

In the past, these were mainly costly assessment centers in which attempts were made to find out what makes candidates tick using fairly straightforward personality tests. Thanks to AI technology, there are now more sophisticated methods that use natural language analysis to measure character traits. Subtle and unbiased.

Putting the brakes on curiosity – here’s how

Although curiosity plays an important role in meeting new challenges, it is not yet sufficiently valued and encouraged in companies. The practice of trying to solve problems of the present and future with resources from the past instead of courageously asking the right questions persists. In a 2021 SAS study, one in five German managers rated curiosity as an unimportant trait for company performance.
(five percent more than the international average)

This result leads directly to one of the biggest obstacles to more curiosity in the company: The way performance or success is measured. KPIs that are too tough not only cause unhealthy stress among employees, but also put the brakes on their curiosity. Those who have neither the time nor the energy to ask themselves questions simply carry on as before. Regardless of whether it makes sense or not. Two points speak against this way of working:

  • Companies that focus too much on human efficiency sometimes lose sight of what matters: their customers. Their needs are changing. Their needs must be observed, questioned, analyzed and translated into meaningful business strategies and products.
  • With the help of technology, efficiency gains are possible without people getting caught in the hamster wheel. When used correctly, AI tools, for example, relieve employees to such an extent that they can curiously search for innovative ideas.

Instead of measuring success solely in terms of performance and KPIs, companies can focus more on learning goals:

  • What situation were we able to handle well?
  • How have we improved?
  • What new skills did employees XYZ acquire?

Learning to think small

In my opinion, the learning organization is the model with the best prospects for the future. And curiosity is an essential part of future competence in organizations. This is based on the insight that we cannot plan the future. Models and strategies that try to predict what the company will need in five years’ time are outdated. Instead, companies need to strengthen the self-efficacy of their employees and learn to trust in the process.

“Instead of thinking big once, it’s about thinking small very often in order to achieve great things,” writes Martin Wiens in Neue Narrative magazine (issue #3). Among other things, he refers to management researcher Jim Collins, who investigated what particularly successful entrepreneurs do differently to others. One key factor: they are curious. He calls it “paranoid in a productive way”. In other words, they constantly engage with their environment, the market and their organization. Even and especially when things are going well. At the same time, they encourage their employees to keep their eyes and ears open, ask themselves critical questions and become effective in the best interests of the organization.

Training curiosity

“I have no special talent, I am just passionately curious,” said Albert Einstein. – The good news is that everyone is born with a minimum level of curiosity. Otherwise we would not have learned to speak or walk. It is usually the structures in which we operate. From nursery school to the company office – that allow this valuable quality to wither away. It is up to managers to restore it. For example, with these three simple workhacks:

#1 The customer chair

In physical meetings, this is a chair at the meeting table that is left empty to remind participants to always think from the customer’s perspective:

What would our customer say about this if he or she were in the room?

What would he or she think of the idea?

And, what impact would our decision have on the customer?

In virtual meetings, a team member can slip into the customer role and actively answer the above questions from the customer’s perspective. To make the role visible to everyone, the colleague can wear a hat or a large sign with the customer’s name, for example.

#2 The learning journey

… consists of a single question from HR or managers to employees: Imagine we give you three tickets for your personal learning journey. With these three tickets you have access to everything (e.g. countries, companies, the Chancellor’s office, NASA, prominent role models, a farm in the hinterland, …). Where would you stop along the way to learn something or to look behind the scenes (simply out of curiosity)?

The answer can be short and concise and does not have to be justified. While some stops on the learning journey directly indicate specific interests, others form a basis for engaging in conversation with employees and getting to know the other person better.

#3 Slack Time

Slack time is a fixed period of time each month during which employees can work on or try out their own ideas. This time can be made available to either one department or the entire company. The only requirement is that the project is related to the company’s goal. Employees briefly present what they have been working on at regular intervals. A message board can serve as an additional tool on which colleagues can note which projects they (would like to) work on so that teams can find each other in a self-organized manner. Slack Time helps to find useful product ideas and solutions to organizational problems for which there is sometimes no time in everyday work.

Companies do not need to have ready-made answers to climate change, demographics, dealing with global conflicts, skill gaps, GenZ, GenAlpha and the AI revolution in order to manage change and, at best, help shape it. But they should start asking themselves the right questions and allow themselves to be as curious as ever.

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