I’ve Interviewed Hundreds of CEOs. They All Share This One Habit of Mind.

November 16, 2017

Over the past decade, I interviewed 525 chief executives and other leaders for The New York Times’ “Corner Office” column. The simple idea for the feature was to set aside the usual questions about the CEOs’ companies and ask them instead about the most important leadership lessons they had learned, how they lead their employees, how they hire, and their best career and life advice for new college grads.

A recent career change — I joined Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm — gave me an opportunity to reflect on all I had learned from the executives, and to wrestle with a question that had long intrigued me: What is the single most important quality, beyond obvious ones like hard work and perseverance, that explains why all these people became CEOs?

My best answer for describing this X-factor is “applied curiosity.”

Yes, plenty of other people have mentioned the importance of curiosity before. Albert Einstein is widely quoted saying about himself, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” But curiosity comes in many forms. Somebody, for example, could be passionately curious about different subjects, like baseball or military history, and not necessarily be on a path to a top leadership role.

So why “applied curiosity?” It captures the relentless habit of mind these CEOs have to understand and make sense of the world around them. 

It means trying to understand how things work, and then trying to understand how they can be made to work better. It means being curious about people and their backstories. It means using insights to build deceptively simple frameworks and models in their minds to make sense of their industry – and all the other disruptive forces shaping our world – so they can explain it to others. Then they continue asking questions about those models, and it’s those questions that often lead to breakthrough ideas. 

The theme has come up often in my interviews over the years.

“You learn from everybody,” said Alan R. Mulally, the former chief executive of Ford Motor Company. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around — why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work.”

Michael Dowling, the chief executive of Northwell Health, said that the qualities he looks for in job candidates include relationship skills and a positive attitude, but also a third quality: 

“Instead of their I.Q., I want to know their C.Q. — their curiosity quotient,” he said. “To what extent are you focused on figuring out how to improve whatever it is you’re going to be doing? Nothing is perfect, so you should always be trying to figure out how to make it better.”

What does everyone think? Do you see this quality in leaders you admire? And do you think people are born with this kind of curiosity or is it a habit of mind that can be learned over time?

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co on LinkedIn to see more.

Share Your Comments