Bringing Curiosity Into The Core Of Growth And Innovation With Stefaan Van Hooydonk

Innovation comes from brilliant ideas and those ideas come from asking the right questions. How can a company’s leadership foster this kind of curiosity among the people in their organization? In this episode, Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down with a kindred spirit to talk about the role of curiosity in driving innovation, how it can be fostered in corporate organizations and the role of the Chief Learning Officer in all these. Having been an ex-CLO for such organizations as Flipkart, Philips, Nokia, Afga and most recently, Cognizant, Stefaan van Hooydonk has been a thought leader in the L&D space for more than 20 years. Fresh from his recent exit from Cognizant in August, 2020, Stefaan is already knee-deep into something new, a creation of his called Curiosity Institute. Listen to this conversation to learn more about the work that he has done with Cognizant and the future endeavors he is looking to do at the Institute.

TTL 752 | Curiosity Leadership


I’m glad you joined us because we have Stefaan van Hooydonk, who is the ex-CLO of Cognizant. He’s also the Founder of the Curiosity Institute. I hope you’re curious because I am.

Watch the episode here

Listen to the podcast here

Bringing Curiosity Into The Core Of Growth And Innovation With Stefaan Van Hooydonk

I am here with Stefaan van Hooydonk, who is the ex-CLO and Corporate University Head for Cognizant, Flipkart, Phillips, Nokia, and Agfa. He is the Founder of the Curiosity Institute. As you can imagine, that made me extremely curious to have him on the show. Welcome, Stefaan.

Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you.

It’s an honor to have you on the show. I was looking at your CV. You did many things. Your accomplishments are amazing. I know you’ve left Cognizant, but you’re doing many interesting things and I thought, I want to get into what made you interested in founding the Curiosity Institute. Let’s get a little background on you. I mentioned a lot of companies for which you’ve led and done certain things, but can you fill in the blanks a little bit?

I’m a Belgian citizen. I was born and raised in Belgium. I spend my life at university. Even during university, I started traveling. I spent time in China for thirteen years. I spent time in Finland, France, Saudi Arabia, India and London. I’ve been blessed with many things. I am blessed with four children and with a wonderful partner. I am blessed with many different opportunities. I had many different industries and companies. I am blessed with good health. I am also blessed with a natural curiosity, which you also have clearly, and the never-ending urge and desire to learn to grow. There’s so much knowledge out there. I feel a little bit embarrassed that even I am a learning leader for big companies, I have never learned as much as I could have until only the last years or so. I realized maybe because the clock is ticking. I said, “I need to reconnect with all that wisdom.” There is beautiful stuff out there to learn, to read and to connect to. There are many beautiful people and that’s what I’m trying to do now.

I’m with you on the learning aspect. It is interesting that I ended up with so much education because I didn’t like going to school, but I like learning. That’s what attracted me to online education because I love the fact that you can learn so much, but you don’t have to sit through these lectures necessarily. There’s so much that we can get from what’s out there, but it can be overwhelming the number of things you can learn. You can get on one of these sites and go down a rabbit hole. You went from education to corporate and you had all these different changes. I’m curious about being a CLO for one thing. What exactly do you do as a CLO and how did you get that level? What do you have to do to get to that level and what do you do when you get there?

A CLO is a Chief Learning Officer and different companies give it different definitions, but I’ve always looked at it as I’m a business guy sitting in a learning jacket trying to solve things for an organization from my perspective of knowledge and learning. For me, learning is not only about classes, it’s about knowledge. Often, we’re asking stupid questions to people like, “How many classes did you go to in the last three months?” If I ask you that question, you could think a little bit about it, or maybe not. Often, people would have a limited amount of activity. I then ask people, “How often did you go to Google in the last three days?”

People start smiling because that’s exactly how people learn nowadays. As a chief learning officer, it is about how do you find in 2020 the best, the more efficient, the more effectively for people to grow and learn? Often, it’s is by getting out of the way and focusing on the culture and climate in your organization and allowing people to drive things. Curiosity is at the central piece of that as well. I’m telling people when I was at Cognizant, “If everybody’s naturally curious, you don’t need me.”

TTL 752 | Curiosity Leadership
Curiosity Leadership: Very often, companies are not even aware of the wealth of information inside their organizations.


That’s a good point. People have their curiosity impacted though, that’s the problem.

What do you mean by curiosity impacted?

We start off being curious when we’re young. As you grow older, it takes around age five, and then it declines drastically as we go through our education system and different things in life. That was what drew me to studying curiosity. You talked to some people who are super curious and then other people who are maybe not so much. You can try and hire for curiosity, but if you don’t promote a learning culture and reward people, if they feel intimidated and there are all these other factors, they’ll need you as a chief learning officer.

That’s a good point. It is maybe why I alluded to the notion of culture and climate because companies are saying, “We need people to be self-starters. We need people to be self-motivating, especially with COVID-19 and the work from home type of thing.” Suddenly, there are all these expectations that everybody will naturally do it. That’s a flawed notion because of all our times through school, we’re not about creating curiosity. We’re either hating it by going to tests or we were not dedicated. Also, our professional environment, which I think is still driven by Taylorist thinking. I can remember Frederick Taylor at the beginning of the 20th century with scientific management.

He was the biggest thinker in the 20th century, but he’s almost outlived his role in a new environment. It’s not anymore about the differential between managers and non-managers. It’s not that the manager is somebody who knows and a non-manager is somebody who doesn’t know and he’s there to do things. Nowadays, with VUCA and volatile environments, everybody has a piece of knowledge. The better you can tap into everybody’s ideas and everybody’s curiosity, the better you are going to be successful as a company.

It’s all about changing the culture and the environment of things. There is still a value of learning, but the value is not like many years ago. The chief learning officer or the training department or whatever we call it would be the organization that would take care of classes. Nowadays, it’s about learning or to consider learning as a supply chain. How do you make sure that learning flows easily through an organization, not in the organization itself, but also about suppliers and customers? How do you make sure that flows well together? There’s a lot of beauty nowadays with technology. There are many things that can enable that.

You said suppliers and customers. I would like to expand on that before we go some other direction. How are you helping in that respect?

Different companies have different goals, desires and relationships with customers, but at Cognizant, I was happy to share our learning philosophy with customers. They often said, “You’re a company of 300,000 people and you’ve got smart people. You must be doing something right. Please tell us how you set up learning, how you democratize learning. How do you create this culture of curiosity? How do you focus, not on your learning as a model of consumption, but also as a model of contribution?” I often said that I have 300,000 trainers because everybody has something great to share with at least one other person and very likely more than the other person. How do you create an environment and an ecosystem to tap into those people?

Companies are good at looking at the external world for specialists. There are many beautiful resources in your organization but people often forget about it. They might be pigeonholed somewhere in a certain role, but it might have special things to share. Often, the sad thing is companies don’t even know they have that wealth of information inside of the organization. That’s also where technology can help. We’re also empowering people to share their knowledge that can help.

How did you use technology to broaden curiosity and share knowledge at Cognizant?

I would love to share with you what’s happening. Let’s focus on Cognizant. What I mentioned earlier is I’ve been excited and intrigued by the notion of curiosity. Strangely, the more I read about it, the less I understand it because curiosity is a little bit like what innovation was many years ago. You’ve got anthropologists, behavioral scientists and neuroscientists. They have a piece of the pie, but it’s not an integrated view of things. It’s up to the readers to make sense out of it, but it has an opportunity to consolidate and get closer.

TTL 752 | Curiosity Leadership
Curiosity Leadership: The more a manager learns, the more the team will learn.


Back to Cognizant, I got excited about the notion of tertiary skills. As a learning organization, you focus on primary skills, which are the skills that you need in front of your customer. If your sales guy, you need product knowledge and sales skills or if you’re an HR person, you need to know that. The secondary skills are typically about behaviors. You need to be good at collaboration and soft skills. The tertiary skills are all about mindset and habits. That linked very closely to culture and how do we behave, but learning people and organization have been shying away from this because how on Earth do I teach somebody to have a growth mindset?

We’re not used to that because we’ve been transactional. We have the open skull philosophy. You open the skull, pour in some knowledge and hope it doesn’t come out of their ears. That’s with mindset. That’s not how things work. There are different ways of neuroscience and linguistic programming and other sciences. Sciences have taught us different approaches. In any case, I was excited about the notion of I want to step out of the way. I want to create a culture where everybody’s naturally an A-player, somebody who’s naturally curious, who is reading all the time. What do I need to do with them? You need to focus both on the individuals, but you also have to work on the organization.

In terms of working on the individuals, it’s not that hard. It gives people language. With language, what I mean is to give people words and paradigms to think about and to reflect upon. If you’ve never heard growth and mindset in one single combination of words, you’re not going to check in with yourself, “Am I a growth mindset in my family life, with my partner, with my peers, or with my boss?” Once you give those to people, they have an opportunity to reflect. Once you have the opportunity to reflect, you have an opportunity to decide for yourself, “Do I want to do something about this?” Yes or no.

Your curiosity index assessment is a beautiful document. People get that feedback and suddenly, you either do something with it or you don’t do something with it. At least, you have that opportunity to reflect, how am I doing on the fear component, on the technology, or other components? That is the same with teaching. Teaching might be the wrong word, but sharing those concepts with people. We’ve trained about 15,000 people at Cognizant on the notion of curiosity and growth mindset and having direct learning strategies to deal with complex environments.

Do you go into that open versus fixed mindset? What are you teaching or help them? What does that look like?

We are teaching them the concept of curiosity. We also teach them about somebody’s core behaviors. The growth mindset and a fixed mindset are important. I also have a notion of curiosity. For me, curiosity is about the world and how am I looking at the world? For instance, with COVID, am I interested in what COVID is all about? Am I interested in politics in my country? Do I read books, all these types of things out of curiosity but what is important? Another dimension for me is the curiosity of others. You could call it social curiosity. How much am I interested in others? I’m a great believer that none of us are working at 100% of our natural capabilities and we need others to lift them.

I’m learning from you and I hope you’re learning a little bit from me. That already is uplifting in a moment. With other people, trust is important. You can learn best from people you trust well. If we trust each other well, you could touch me on the shoulder and say, “Maybe you didn’t do that in the right way.” Since you trust me, you’re not going to be offended by me saying so. Suddenly, you can lift me to a higher level and that’s important. There are other dimensions of social curiosity, but the third one that is also important which is curiosity about myself. That links to self-awareness. Do I know about my values? Do I know about my purpose? Do I know about my backbone? Do I know about my limiting beliefs in my assumptions? It is important.

We teach those things in our classes. These are short sessions, 45 minutes types of sessions and we are feeding people those concepts. We did surveys three months after, checking with people how much did it resonate and how much does it make your change? Fifty-two percent of the people said, “Something changed for me because I’m starting to look at the world differently.” You can’t win them all, but at least, 52% of the people said, “Yes, this is crucial for me.” When we did a traditional analysis of learning hours, how much learning hours people consume the year before they took those sessions and the year after. They jumped from 25 hours to 42 hours just by having that little input, “Maybe it’s okay to learn about the world. Maybe it’s okay to democratize.”

[bctt tweet=”The better you can tap into everybody’s ideas and everybody’s curiosity, the more successful going to be as a company.” via=”no”]

In parallel, we created portals where it was easy for people to access that stuff. We invited role models to share things. We focused heavily on resources like the Google example that I used. It’s not about going to a class, it’s about accessing the right information at the right time. It’s about allowing people books. An interesting piece we found also is the shadow of a manager. The more a manager learns, the more the team will learn. The inverse is also true. If the manager doesn’t learn, the team will also not learn as much. You always have A-players in a team and they don’t need a manager to be influenced by their learning style, but people follow the shadow of a manager. I think that was a big awakening for me.

Culturally, that flows down from the top in the company. A lot of the companies where I worked with like Novartis and Verizon have embraced a culture of curiosity. They embrace what they want to see in their people. If you don’t do that, you’re going to have employees that don’t care. You can’t ask people to read more. They have to know why and what’s in it for them. At Cognizant, did you did any training or research or anything to look at how curiosity improved engagement, innovation, motivation and any of these things?

I often give the analogy of curiosity like this. Let’s say you’re baking a cake and that’s your end product. You have these ingredients of flour, eggs and oil. You are mixing it together. You put it in the pan. You put it in the oven. You hope to get a cake, but if you don’t turn on the oven, you don’t get a cake. In the workplace, instead of cake, we have productivity. Money is your end product. It is your cake. You have these ingredients of engagement, motivation, soft skills, and everything. You’re trying to leadership mixed together, but nobody’s turning on the oven, which is curiosity, which is the spark to all these things. How are you measuring the success you’re getting with these ingredients turning into a cake?

I only have the beginning of an answer. My analytics team at the time found that more people learn and you could see learning a little bit as a surrogate for curiosity because we had all kinds of different tools for people to learn such as access to the website and things like that. The more people learn, the more they stay back. There was a positive correlation or an inverse correlation between attrition and learning. That’s a huge cost-saving indeed. The more you invest in skilling, the more it will pay back for itself. Our CEO saw that immediately and he said, “Why do we double your budget? Tell me what you need more.” I think it is also important for the learning environment to have those analytics and to drive those results. To your point, we need to be constantly doing research to see if curiosity does work. I did the research on the learning, but I didn’t do the research on curiosity, but I think it’s close.

TTL 752 | Curiosity Leadership
Curiosity Leadership: There is an inverse correlation between learning and attrition, and that’s a huge cost saving.


You have the Curiosity Institute that you founded. What is that part of? Is that something that you can separate or is it part of Cognizant?

It is separate. I started with that because I got intrigued by curiosity. By the notion, I said, “I would like to set up an environment for individuals, for organizations to do more with curiosity.” Initially, I’ll be starting on the corporate side, but at the end of the day, curiosity is all-pervasive in society, in schools with kids. I’m hopeful that after the initial launch, we can also start putting our ideas towards how do we make this part of society? Nowadays with technology and with algorithms on Facebook and other tools that were used in the world, they’re pushing us so much in a certain direction. Serendipity was out of the window. A number of downsides of these algorithms are going against the notion of curiosity. They’re making those less curious because everything is naturally fit to us. Somehow, curiosity and technology have a beautiful upside, but also have some challenges. It’s one example of how, but curiosity is something that we need in this new society.

It is an important thing. I’ve been studying this for years because it took me years of research to come up with the Curiosity Code Index. I had no intention of coming up with an assessment when I wrote my book, to be honest with you. I was going to write a book on curiosity. As I started writing the book, because I had written my dissertation on emotional intelligence and I became certified in emotional intelligence in Myers-Briggs and different personality assessments, I was interested in assessing things. I went out to look to see what are the different assessments for curiosity.

There’s cash in and there’s an openness to experience and there are different assessments, but they all tell you the same thing. Are you curious or not? I’m like, “I’m not, now what if that’s the case?” I am, but if I wasn’t then what do you do? That’s why I wanted to figure out what stops us because if you don’t know what’s inhibiting you, how do you improve it and move forward? Is that something you work with when you’re helping people develop curiosity? Are you focusing on what’s stopping them? What is your focus when they come over here?

I’m starting with companies. With companies, I do three things. I am going to do assessments, training, and consulting. Assessment is about individual assessments, but also the organizational component. What is preventing or what is enabling the organization to do with curiosity? If people want to do training or if people want to get more excited about the notion of what to do with it, then we have those opportunities for training. If companies want to go even deeper, like they want to go deep dive into certain specific areas, like on the area of innovation, the area of diversity or the area of overall readiness, then there’s an opportunity to work with them and for us to work together. The challenge for the world is that there are too few people focusing on curiosity. I think that’s a beautiful way for us to all team up and give this gift to the world and make organizations more competitive and more resilient.

What I think the problem is, is it’s such a broad word. For me, a lot of times, they’ll ask me how I define curiosity. It’s the desire to learn, explore, and all that kind of thing. It’s getting out of the status quo ways of doing things. I think that’s what people do. I often share thought experiments where people would stand up and sit down whenever the bell rang because everybody had done that. They followed along with what everybody else is doing. I think we do that in the business world. We stand up, sit down, do whatever it is that we were supposed to do, and we never even questioned it. We don’t think about it. I have many great company examples of things that were out there that people came up with to solve things because they didn’t do the same old thing.

[bctt tweet=”None of us are working at 100% of our natural capabilities. We need others to lift them.” via=”no”]

We’re programmed to status quo thinking because that’s in the handbook. We were supposed to do exactly what’s in it. We need rules. We need certain things. We need a certain amount of guidelines, but there are many people out there that hear the word curiosity and they all go, “Curiosity killed the cat,” or they say just the usual things. I was like, “It’s not about wanting to read about how to snow ski or a different section of the newspaper or how to go to work in a different direction. Those things are all great but try and learn different things.” I think people are so locked in there, not just their cubicle or their silo, but their company and the way things have always been done there. I have a lot of examples, like a hospital in London that went to the race car team to find out how they were efficient. They’re completely different industries going outside of anything comfortable. How are we getting people to think that way?

For me, you have to recognize that you’re not thinking that way. A lot of companies haven’t focused on that. I’m speaking in Novartis because they have Curiosity Month. They do an amazing amount of training. They have their employees do little mini TEDx salons, and they’re the trainers. What’s the better way of learning something than to teach it? I would like to see more of that thing. What kinds of things have you seen that’s been out there that have shown you that they’ve developed a curiosity in a company, either Cognizant or somebody you’ve talked to? Do you have any examples?

There’s a couple of standard examples to companies and do things well or companies that deal with things badly. If you’re focusing on the not so good examples would be Kodak or Nokia. These were companies that were on the top of their game. Suddenly, they did something.

They had an opportunity they ignored.

They didn’t ask enough questions. They ignored it and they lacked some humility and other things. Curiosity always starts from a space of wanting to do better. If you’re already out on the top of the mountain, you want to enjoy it. A good example is Microsoft. When Satya joined in 2014, he said, “From now on, it’s not anymore about knowing it all. It’s about learning it all. It’s okay not to know.” Together, blending that with a growth mindset was a beautiful way to drive things forward. I think the challenge with curiosity is a bit unruly. The companies are focusing more on maintenance and on keeping market share and not sticking out their neck too much. Curiosity is something that goes against the grain of doing business. Novartis did a beautiful job with curiosity. If you’re high in R&D and on the innovation side, you’re more likely to be more celebrating curiosity, but not now we’ve seen with COVID and that anybody needs to stick out their necks and be thinking differently.

It’s a challenging thing because there are many examples. I get a lot of project managers that go, “You got to get their deliverable on time.” You’re worried because some are going to give you all these ideas and you’re going to get off track. What do you tell somebody when they give you that as a problem for them, for allowing people to give them input?” That’s a tough one because it’s not like the leaders would say, “I don’t want to train people and then have them leave because I don’t want to spend all this money and have them go.” Would you rather have untrained people and stay or train people and leave? It goes down to that. You want to have people with good ideas to stay. You want trained people to stay. You want to make sure you’re investing in that. Otherwise, you’ve got people who aren’t qualified to stay and doing the bad things that we don’t want.

Sometimes there’s the opportunity cost that’s not focused on the lost opportunity of what it would be like if we could get these examples in project management. Sometimes you have to have alternatives. What if you run into this roadblock? There are all these groups that I speak to, and I’m sure you speak to a lot of different groups. They all have unique issues and unique situations because people are comfortable doing things in this old comfortable way. You mentioned Kodak. I wrote about Kodak in the book as I did Blockbuster and some of these others who did the same thing because this worked. It was great in the past, but what worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work in the future. How do you know when it’s time to cut bait and go to the next thing? Ben & Jerry’s is an interesting example of this curiosity.

Ben & Jerry’s makes ice cream. They had flavors that were great for a while but maybe aren’t successful anymore. What they decided to do was bury them and give them a funeral. They would put them on their website and say, “This flavor was popular from 1989 to 1995.” They celebrate this great thing they did and then they put it to rest. They don’t keep putting their resources towards something that’s no longer popular. I think that all of these companies need to get certain products or certain ideas at that funeral because they were great and celebrate it. A lot of people look at that as defeat sometimes, like what if we fail? How do you change that thought process with these C-Suite executives?

TTL 752 | Curiosity Leadership
Curiosity Leadership: Sometimes you get a feeling that schools are trying to drive out the curiosity of our children as much as they can.


It’s important indeed that it starts at this C-Suite. They need to drive this. Some failures in the markets and maybe failures with COVID are a good reflection moment that people are somehow shaking it up a little bit. Maybe the tricks of the past might not help us anymore because many things have changed. That’s a good starting point. When people are not top of their mountains, whatever you scream, they’ll still be on the top of their mountain thinking that they are close to God’s type of thing. Sometimes these existential moments that things are not going so well are great opportunities.

If people have the wisdom to look for support and have the humility to say, “Maybe I don’t have all the answers. I might go in my organization to ask the answers,” or, “I’m going to check this curiosity thing. How do I get it into my organization? Am I recruiting for curiosity? Am I enabling curiosity? Am I asking the right questions? Is it possible for any person to write emails to the CEO if I’m doing this kind of culture?” Often people have the answer. Do I celebrate failures that may be at one time were successes? How to go about this? I’m also an executive coach. If people come and realize they need an executive coach, that’s already 50% of the solution.

A lot of people ask me the question, “We all want to embrace curiosity in our culture, but our leader doesn’t. It’s a stagnant atmosphere.” There’s a point where you, as an employee, there’s not too much you can do from this level to try and change things at the top. Sometimes it’s time to cut bait and switch companies if you’re trying to grow. It’s challenging for people, but a lot of people can think back when they were more curious when you go through some of the training and how they’ve lost it. I don’t think you recognize it. It’s just that the water has dripped that way at us. It the wearing down of our curiosity through the years that it’s not an overnight thing where all of a sudden don’t ask questions.

A lot of leaders probably don’t even recognize that it’s not the way they’re treating their employees, but maybe the last leader or somebody else at this person has been experiencing conflict or something with. I’m seeing a lot more younger generations embrace the need for this. That’s opening up the eyes to a lot of the older leaders who hadn’t thought of this. Every generation impacts the other. Are you seeing any generation embracing this more than others?

There was an interesting survey done by Merck in 2015 or 2016. They found that the Generation Z population was less curious than the older generations.

Also, less than Millennials. When you say older, I was thinking Boomers or something. They didn’t explain that. It was an interesting report. What do you think is the reason for that?

I think it is when people are coming into the organization, they’re still not fully invited and fully familiar with the environment. They don’t know the opportunities out there. The processes are not too familiar yet with the environment. Fear or anxiety is one great way that goes against curiosity. It could be one of the reasons, but there’s an interesting point you made earlier about kids in schools. Sometimes you get a feeling that schools are trying to drive out the curiosity of our children as much as they can. That’s one of their KPIs. I see also a lot of schools that are trying to go against that, but not entirely. You see, for instance in Montessori schooling and some of the other alternative schools are trying hard to go against that.

Whatever you’re left with, whatever curiosity level you’re having, after school it’s done. Somehow I’m seeing also that routine or stress on other of these “negative dynamics” generate an even more loss in curiosity. What I was looking at is often you have CEOs looking at strategies for the next five years, “What are we going to do? When are we going to climb that mountain?” We’re going one step at a time.” They’re then looking back to the organization. We did a survey at Cognizant in Europe with people of companies outside of Cognizant. We found that about 65% of those people said that they’re happy with the status quo. They’re not interested in learning and growing and acquiring all these new skills that the CEO was talking about. Somehow you can ask yourself the question, “Why is this disconnected?”

[bctt tweet=”Curiosity always starts from a place of wanting to do better.” via=”no”]

They painted the picture in their mind of what they get from learning. Having been in sales, I worked for AstraZeneca for twenty years. I think of all of the things they teach you. Sometimes companies give you so much hard skill knowledge, but then, you’re so focused on procedures that you’ve learned that you’re almost taught out of your question asking. I’ll share a story. When I was a pharmaceutical rep where they’ve trained us. It was intense training. It was good training. I was told, “You need to say this and you need to talk about this product.” I was in a doctor’s office and that was the first time I’d been alone at doing this.

I talked to the guy. I was so excited. I got all three products. I walk out of there and proud of myself, patting myself on the back. I walked to the elevator to go down to get my samples. They kept telling me you’ll never get it because they were busy. They’re not going to want to talk to you. I go into the elevator and as the elevator is closing, this guy gets on with me. Since I’m an extrovert, I can’t go on two floors without speaking. I look at him and said, “Are you working in the building?” He looked at me mortified because he was the doctor I sold my products to. I didn’t even look at him. I didn’t ask him questions. I did what I was taught to do.

We’re taught these things, which they’re good things. You need these foundational skills. After I came out of training, my manager goes, “Forget all that.” I just went through a year of this. There’s this sense that we’re trained, but then we don’t understand some of the big pictures of what we can get from this. I think to build this curiosity, we have to see what’s in it for us. A lot of times, it sounds good that we wanted to develop a culture of curiosity. What we may be thinking as an employee is, “They’re going to make me learn the next software.” There goes to those assumptions and then that leads to fear. That’s the problem with technology and all the things that I studied for my research.

What was interesting when I was doing the research, I thought they were going to mostly be fear-based. I had hired all these people from Harvard, Pepperdine, all these great schools, and they kept coming back with the same assessment. It would just tell you, “Are you curious or not?” I’m like, “That’s already been done. I don’t want that because it’s out there.” I said, “I want to know what’s stopping them.” I ended up having to do my own factor analysis and do all this. What I found out was it was pretty evenly distributed between fear, assumptions, the voice in your head, technology, and environment. It wasn’t heavily weighted towards fear, which I expected. People have all these things and they overlap to some extent. You could have fear of technology. What do you see as the biggest thing that’s holding people back? Is it mostly fear or is it something else?

I said it earlier. I would give you a 50/50 between external environments and internal environments. Internal environments people would be one, but limiting beliefs would be one. Biases and other things that stop you from looking beyond the filters that you’re having on the glasses, through the issue of watching the world, that would be the internal dimension. The external dimension, the environment you’re referring to is also huge.

That’s broken in the way emotional intelligence is. In emotional intelligence, you have your self-assessment, self-awareness and how you react to others as well. It’s that same kind of thing. The fear and assumptions would be the self and then the technology and the environment would be the other and that plays into exactly what I found. Which are you having more difficulty having people overcome, the internal or the external?

The external is always more difficult to overcome because that’s external to your environment. It’s HR processes, innovation processes, the way your CEO is thinking about a world and your area managers. Internal is also not easy. I’m often sharing with people that curiosity about self is one of the most difficult things to deal with. Rational people would say, “I know about myself. I’m self-aware,” but the research shows that only about 10% to 15% of the people reading are good at this and saying that you’re self-aware does not make it so. There are blind spots in all these. I’m engaged every day. I do a lot of meditation. I’ve been trying to go deep, but even then, it’s hard to get rid of your filters. It’s hard to get rid of your fear. In my case, it was many years of dust that settles.

[bctt tweet=”The more questions you let your people ask, the more ideas and products you will have.” via=”no”]

I had Daniel Goleman on the show and I was interested in talking to him because my dissertation was on emotional intelligence. He was inspiring to me. His focus is on mindfulness, the meditative and getting into that sense of focus. I started to know about that. To me, I could never get a full sense of peace, quiet and focus just on the breath. He went, “You’ll never get it completely gone.” I’m like, “That’s good.” I have 50 radio stations going on at one time. It is an important thing to do. I think a lot of people are focusing on it. I’ve had the mother of mindfulness from Harvard on my show, Ellen Langer. She was great. There’s a lot that we need to focus on in that sense of awareness of what we’re thinking of, what we’re not thinking of, where we can expand. You’re going to see a lot of that.

I think that the big things you’re going to see are a lot of adaptability stuff is going to come up. I worked with a group out of London that does this adaptability QAI group. That’s big and in 2020, I’ll be launching my Perception Power Index, which is interesting because as we’re talking about perception. You’ve mentioned things that are perception-based all the way through. It’s a combination of EQ, IQ, CQ for Cultural Quotient and for Curiosity Quotient, how we go through this process of making these decisions? We don’t even recognize how we’re over here and talk about external of how hard it is for us to see what other people are thinking. We have to work on curiosity to develop our perception to be able to work in a global climate. Did that come up at all in your training?

I’m with you that the solutions that we had years ago are not helping us anymore. The entire notion of problem-solving and everybody that we teach problem-solving has to move towards problem finding. You need curiosity, creativity, and openness to know about a problem even before it arises. That can be done in any different environment like in sales and technology, but the entire notion of self-awareness and curiosity are part of that. I don’t think curiosity will go away. If we don’t do this right, then AI will take away a lot of opportunities. We don’t rise to our natural capabilities. If you’re looking at some of the racist issues that we had in North America and other parts of the world, if you’re not curious about the other, society will not improve. Curiosity is all putting yourself in the shoes of another and being empathic.

Empathy is a big part of it. When I wrote the book, I started to put chapters based on what they hired me to speak, about emotional intelligence, engagement, and all these things that we’re talking about. If you look at what you’re talking about, it ties into an engagement. We know in the US we’re losing $500 billion a year according to Gallup. You’ve got all these people who are disengaged and they’re not loving life. They are going to their jobs as walking dead. If we could get all those people, maybe technology is going to replace some of these jobs. If we start working with people now to let them explore and look into different areas and create new positions.

I’ve interviewed people like Olin Oedekoven who hires people and then designs jobs based on how cool what they can do. If they can figure out what they’re able to do. A lot of them can’t afford to do that, but that’s a cool idea. You find out, what are you good at? What can you offer? If we’re not letting people explore, they’re not going to even know what they’re good at. You don’t know what you don’t know is the problem. When you’re doing this with people when you’re at the Curiosity Institute and you’re working with these leaders, what kind of things are they doing to help people? What are you talking about with them day-in and day-out to help them?

We’re just starting with the Curiosity Institute. I don’t have any experience of working in workshops with managers yet outside of Cognizant or my previous organization. The feedback I am getting and the quotes I’m getting from managers, leaders, CEOs, learning leaders, and HR leaders is tremendous like, “This is something we needed. We realized that we have this humility now because we need that. Something is missing because of COVID and the changes. We see it as a missing ingredient. What do you have? What can you help us with?” I think we’re on to something.

Curiosity Leadership: Problem solving has to move towards problem finding, and you need curiosity, creativity and openness to know about a problem even before it arises.


You have hit on such an important topic. You’re going to hear a lot more. When I started posting all this about curiosity, I set up a Google alert for when people posted things about curiosity. I then put minus Mars because everything was coming in as Mars. I didn’t get that much at the beginning when all of my research first came out, but now, every day you’re hearing people talking about this. This is becoming a huge term. COVID made us aware that we lacked foresight. We weren’t proactive and having all these ideas. Some of that stems from not asking questions from not saying, “What if? Why are we doing things this way? Why aren’t we doing things this way? What could we be doing differently?”

There are many great companies that have improved. Disney improved its turnover by asking their employees in their laundry. How can we make your job better? Little questions like that made huge differences. Doug Conant has been on my show. He’s in every business class. I’ve talked more than a thousand business classes and he is almost in every one of them for how we turn Campbell’s super round, the CEO asking people, “What can we do to make your job better? What makes you passionate about your job?” He wrote 30,000 handwritten notes in his time. You maybe don’t have to write 30,000 notes, but the fact that, as leaders, we got to get out there and show that we want this.

A lot of leaders are afraid to be humble and say that they don’t know what they get. They don’t know anything. There’s that fear of looking like you should know more. We got to look to be a little bit more humble sometimes and go, “I don’t know.” If I’m in a meeting and I’m a leader and I’m trying to instill curiosity in the rest of the group, I would say, “I wouldn’t normally ask this question because it was making me look dumb, but I don’t care. I’m going to ask it because I want to have a culture of curiosity. Maybe one of you has the answer.” Do you think that leaders are doing enough of that or are they’re afraid to look dumb?

That will depend on the culture. Different country cultures will be different, but there are different needs in some of that. Most of the managers that are in their position because of past experiences, not because of how good they are on the day itself. My identity is made up of my past. I’m supposed to say the right things because of the good salary I’m making and all the rest of it. That it’s different, but the other side of the coin is, if you’re looking at the innovation research, there’s a direct correlation between asking the right questions and new ideas. New ideas are not just fluffy ideas, you have to go through an entire innovation cycle before these ideas turn into products. The more ideas you have, the more products you will have, and the more questions you let your people ask. Assuming that it’s only the small group of managers who are allowed to ask the questions is counterproductive.

I love that you are focusing on curiosity and I was excited that you took my assessment and we got a chance to talk about this. There is so much to be done throughout the world. I had just launched a course through FutureLearn, which is out there in the UK. The number of people that signed up to learn about curiosity and conversations from all around the world is fascinating and the impact that this message is having on the world. I love that you’ve opened this Institute and I’m excited for you. Thank you for doing this. I would like to know though, for people who want to follow you find out more about your Institute and learn more from you in general, is there a place to follow you?

I think LinkedIn and Twitter would be the immediate go-to places. The website is almost done for the Institute, but LinkedIn is going to be the tool to get information and to start a dialogue from that. Thank you for having me.

This was my pleasure.

I would like to thank Stefaan for being my guest. We get many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to Anything about curiosity there. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode.

Important Links:

About Stefaan Van Hooydonk

TTL 752 | Curiosity LeadershipStefaan van Hooydonk is the ex CLO and Corporate University head for Cognizant, Flipkart, Philips, Nokia, and Agfa. He is the Founder of the Curiosity Institute.




Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!

Join the Take The Lead community today:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *