The frontline CEO empowers people with information in the organization, expecting them to make decisions. Dr. Diane Hamilton’s guest in this episode is Eric Strafel, the CEO and Founder of SUMMi7 and the Author of The Frontline CEO. Eric talks with Dr. Diane about how leaders need to lead by example. Intentional learning and active listening are essential factors to turn employees into decision-makers. When employees take the initiative, there’s a boost in morale and profits. If you’re passionate about raising decision-makers in your organization, this episode’s for you. Tune in!
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How To Be A Successful Frontline CEO With Eric Strafel
I’m here with Eric Strafel, who is the Founder of the consulting firm SUMMi7, who helps businesses grow profits and scale innovation. He was the President and CEO of Aviall and has a book, The Frontline CEO. It’s so nice to have you here, Eric.
Thanks, Diane. It’s good to be here.
I was looking forward to this. This is interesting. I noticed you spell summit as SUMMi7, which I get to find out what that’s about. I do want to get a backstory on you for people who aren’t familiar with your work yet.
I grew up in Upstate New York. I wanted to be an engineer because I like to solve problems and wanted to make a difference. I went to school and got into Engineering. I got into graduate school and leadership programs. In about 2000, I went to Honeywell. I became a Continuous Improvement Leader in the Six Sigma Black Belt. I started to engage with teams to make things better, the whole concept of engaging people to make things better carried with me into leadership for the next twenty years in bigger companies all the way through to Boeing.
That leads to some of the fundamentals behind what I call frontline leadership and how you engage large organizations in self-directed change on the front lines where work gets done. It all started there. I worked at every level of leadership. I had a lot of great mentors and role models along the way. That translated into a leadership philosophy that I ended up trying to put into a book, which is The Frontline CEO.
This is interesting that you bring this up because I’m speaking for Thinkers50 and our panel is about curiosity. One of the questions they were batting about that we might discuss is, “How can you encourage curiosity in small companies versus large companies? What if the leader at the top doesn’t buy in but the frontline does?” I’m curious to get your input on that.
I’m a big believer in lead by example where I talk about a learning organization or being curious. It starts with the CEO and top leadership team to always be learning too. Oftentimes, you’re either under pressure or have a track record and build intuition. It’s not that you intentionally stop learning but it’s not apparent that you are learning.
Being intentional about learning, talking about that, actively listening and sharing back with employees is important for the top leaders of a company to lead by example, which then opens the door to everybody else feeling like, “It’s an expectation for me to learn. This is what it looks like.” It’s okay to have open conversations when we don’t know all the answers and learn from each other. I do think you got to lead by example.
A lot of people ask me the question, “What if the CEO doesn’t buy in for the need for what kind of change?” Sometimes it’s time to cut bait. Do you used to think you can be on the frontline and not have a CEO embrace what you think is important?
That CEO probably isn’t going to last long but I have worked for leaders where I’ve been told to stay in my lane. I felt like I was pigeonholed and not able to learn. I was not happy at all. That’s where I either started to do my own learning outside of work which is unfortunate or I was quickly looking for a new job.
What is a frontline CEO? Is it an empowered person that’s not the CEO but thinking like a CEO?
I’ll start with the position of CEO. It’s flipping the organization upside down where you’re pushing decisions and empowering people with information down in the organization and expecting them to make decisions. Everybody is essentially acting like a CEO because they have the same information in the context that the CEO of the company has. Everybody can make decisions consistently within their own lane. They know their role in the company, operating transparently up and down the organization and are empowered to do things that sometimes only a CEO can do in a more traditional company.
How is that the same or different than servant leadership?
Servant leadership goes hand-in-hand with frontline leadership but there are some nuances with frontline leadership around transparency. Sharing information, empowering decision-making, shaping the culture and being more inclusive go beyond servant leadership. I looked at it as a little bit more of the how-to. With frontline leadership, you have to build the routines into your business through daily, weekly and monthly communication, operating rhythms and things like that to create the culture and the habits that allow for frontline leadership. Servant leadership is a philosophy that plays into that. I’m a believer in that as well.
I teach for a lot of different universities still and a lot of Servant Leadership, Greenleaf’s work is in a lot of these courses. They look at it in a way as flipping the pyramid. That’s why I was curious about how that fits in. You advocate for what’s called radical transparency. I want to know what you mean by that.
It’s a clear line of sight up and down the organization. An organization’s strategy in my view is how leaders spend their time and money. If you’re constantly communicating with people how the business is doing, what decisions and actions are being made and the investments down to the line-item level that a company is putting forward, that’s the level of transparency that we need to.
As soon as you watch a project, change initiative or make an investment, which is leading towards a strategy to change the company going forward, step 1 or 2, you’re going to stumble. It’s either a bunch of things are going to get stalled out as people escalate up the chain for direction or you’re going to empower everybody with the information to make the course corrections on their own. Transparency is up and down. Everybody has context, understands investment in a line-item level on why decisions and actions are being made and is empowered to make their own decisions to get back on track.
That ties in so much to the work I do with building curiosity in workplace settings. A question I get a lot of is, “What if they ask too many questions? What if they get off-track? Are there risks with sharing too much information with your employees?” What would you say to that?
The most common thing I’ve seen is getting uncomfortable sharing financial information, especially if you’re a public company but I do think you can talk about gross margin. You can get into some of the details of things like gross margin, how you’re allocating your money, cash allocation and what’s going into investment and sustaining operations for the company. At a minimum, every company can do that but it is uncomfortable. Sometimes it does bring up more questions than answers, which is why it typically takes time to transition into a highly transparent model.
Anytime you do any culture change, it’s such a fascinating thing to teach in my courses what it takes to make these changes. You talked about some of the bottom-line advantages of what I’m talking about. We talked about learning organizations and all that. I found it’s hard to find good data to quantify some of this stuff like, “If you build curiosity and learning organizations, you’re going to save X number of dollars.” What kind of research have you found?
You can feel it in a company because it comes across the speed and engagement in people. If you are in a brainstorming session or a problem-solving meeting and everybody is paying attention, no computer is up and actively engaged, that’s what it looks like. In terms of how it shows, that is hard. It’s easier to see what it looks like if you’re not doing that. What it looks like if you’re not doing that is a company that is stagnating flat-line growth for 5 to 10 years, which you see that in big companies that have stopped innovating.
I was reading about the breakup of GE into three separate businesses. That’s a great example of an innovative company for a century or more and then all of a sudden, it stagnated for whatever reason. That’s what it looks like when you lose some of that agility, engagement and empowerment on the front lines. It’s easier to see what it looks like when you don’t do it. When you are doing it, you can feel it in the culture and the level of engagement for every single employee at every level in the company.
Long-term, it will show in results with growth above whatever your industry averages. You’re going to get more innovation and have better customer engagement. The best place to see it is to talk to customers because a business is there to serve customers. If you’re doing that well in alignment with creating value for customers, your customers are going to see that. That’s the best point to figure out what you’re doing.
There are a lot of good anecdotal things to share. It will be interesting to see what happens with GE. They broke into three different companies. I worked for a bunch of people who used to work with Jack Welch and it’s a different time. I saw that CEO was hoping to avoid this for a long time but couldn’t. It’s going to be fascinating to see what these giant companies do down the road.
The Midwest used to be like the Silicon Valley of its time. What will be the next area? It will probably be Texas or wherever it moves. There’s so much that’s changing and a big focus is on inclusion and diversity. There’s so much labor shortage. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve gone and they said they couldn’t hire people to work there, which is a different time. Do you address any of this stuff in your book?
Yes, a little bit. One is I do think people want to work someplace where they feel valued. That goes a bit into showing that you care as a leader. You’ve got to authentically care about your people because otherwise, people aren’t going to be engaged. There’s a bit of work-life balance. Especially after COVID, there’s a bit of a renewed focus on people’s priorities in life where people aren’t splitting out work and life independently anymore. It’s more around, “What are my full life priorities? How do they integrate with work in a way where if something loses, it’s going to be work?”
As a leader, you’ve got to see the whole person and understand what their life priorities are, family, hobbies, personal development and allow some flexibility for employees to pursue what’s important to their life which includes work, which is their contribution to society and to creating value in the economy which is important.
It also allows for more flexibility in career path development because the typical career ladder, I don’t think there is so much anymore. We’ve got to invest in people and help develop them within the company and their skills more holistically. If we do that, show people that we care about them and are invested in their future wherever that may lead, that’s what is going to keep people engaged in wanting to work for the company.You need to genuinely care for your people; otherwise, they won't be engaged with you. Click To Tweet
That came up quite a bit at a Forbes Summit I went to many years ago about how companies used to be, “When you left, you were gone.” People sometimes are welcomed back if they see, “Maybe you can’t get the next level of training or whatever here because we don’t have that department or whatever we don’t have. We understand if you go somewhere else and want to come back.” It used to be, “Don’t ever look at us again if you leave the door.” It’s a fascinating time to see how you’re looking at their long-term overall success and not just the success for your company. Do you think that’s more of a Millennial way of thinking and younger or is it across the board?
Millennials have a closer default position to that way of thinking but I do think more and more people are thinking that way in general. It’s because change is happening so fast. If we ground ourselves in one path, way of thinking or worldview, then we’re limiting our own ability to grow and develop. It’s becoming more of a broader worldview.
When I left Boeing, I worked for a great leader there. After a couple of conversations, he was very supportive of me leaving because I was going to pursue a mission which was to serve economic equity. That to me is the type of leadership that we want to see in all companies where we want people to find purpose and mission. If they find that, we want to encourage them to pursue that, whether it’s within the company or outside the company, because that’s going to make society better.
I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from working at Boeing. When I went to ASU in the ’80s, every single case study was either Boeing, Lockheed, some aircraft or something it seemed like. Later, when I worked at an aeronautical university, it was a fascinating look at how businesses are run. Do you feel like a lot of what you learned at Boeing was something that helped you later?
Yes. Boeing is a huge company in the industry of aviation, aerospace and defense that covers all kinds of technology. Seeing how a lot of smart people and advanced technology comes together to form different solutions and how hard that is when you’re a global company was eye-opening. With best efforts, it’s hard to do. It takes time. There are processes that you can build around that.
That’s where if you go to Silicon Valley, part of the challenge of scaling is, “How do you scale innovation when you have hundreds or thousands of people? How do you extend what I’ll call knowledge networks so that you can share the knowledge for some of the advanced thinking and technology application that’s out there?”
It’s challenging. I remember selling technology about that same time. I was selling System 36 and System 38 as part of IBM’s technology. It seemed so complicated and confusing at that time. We had no idea. It was before the internet and everything else. What I found was it was a good experience to work with these giants like IBM. I worked at AstraZeneca for nearly twenty years in different departments.
You learn a lot from that, but then when you get on your own and start your own consulting company or whatever company, you get a whole different perspective, which is fascinating. It’s easy to share your goals when you have a small company and make sure people are very aware of their goals. I found that as the company has got larger, a lot of times, people were doing stuff without knowing what they were doing or why. Do you find that’s true?
Yes. You’re going through the motions.
How do you share that as a frontline CEO to make sure everybody knows their goals and as they change, they see what they’re doing ties into the overall goals of the organization because isn’t that critical for engagement?
I’ll start with two key pivots. One is from vision to purpose. I grew up where a vision was where you were going. A lot of times, it was financial numbers but you weren’t sure exactly why. I’m a huge Simon Sinek fan, Start With Why. The why goes beyond where you’re trying to go as a company in your purpose but it’s in every decision made, if you have the why, then you know the intent that allows people not to just get into the motion but put some critical thinking around actions being taken because they have the context to do that.
The second one is around the goal deployment itself. I also have been part of many top-down goal deployment processes. I came to the conclusion that it’s effective. It’s a good starting point but it should be about a 50/50 split where you start with some general guidelines on, “Here’s where we’re headed down through the organization and how everybody contributes.”
Half of it is backed up, frontline teams setting their own priorities, identifying their own ways to measure success and then shaping their own scorecards in alignment with those guidelines. Collaborative goal deployment is the way to go. That’s very different from the first 15 or 20 years of my career.
It has been changing so much and it’s a challenge. When I researched curiosity, I looked at Simon’s work, Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck and all the great books about that thing. To me, I believe that to get people to get past this sense of status-quo thinking, you have to see what stops them. For me, to develop curiosity, I found four things to stop them. It’s fear, assumptions, the voice in their heads, technology, over and under-utilization of it and environment. If you know what’s stopping you, you can move forward. For me, that’s a big piece of advice. You work on those kinds of things. If you can share one piece of leadership advice, what would it be?
My one thing is always to be authentic. I say that because I feel like when I started my leadership journey, I tried to fit a mold. That got me so far but that doesn’t help me be my best. I learned that the more I’m willing to open up a little bit and share my own priorities, belief system and family values even, the more I can connect with people in an authentic way. That was powerful. It shows your imperfections because the more you try to be perfect as a leader, the less effective you are almost. You got to be yourself and it was hard for me to do. It took many years of trying to figure out who I was.
Not everybody knows everything. If you don’t know something, it’s better to say you don’t. In sales, it’s one of the big things they taught us, “If you don’t know, say, ‘I don’t know. I’ll find the answer and get right back to you.'” That’s an important lesson. I mentioned at the beginning your company is spelled SUMMi7. Why did you spell summit that way?
There were two thoughts we were trying to build into our identity as a company. One was the whole person when you’re pursuing things. Depending on what research you look at, there are 5 or 7 areas of life’s pursuits, vocation and wellness. We started there and then something that became even more powerful was around inclusion and the ability of equity, meritocracy and helping everybody rise up. The seven became the tallest peaks on each continent in helping everybody climb. Summit is a verb.
What we’re trying to promote is the act of pursuing your path, recognizing that everybody’s path is different and doing so in a way that acknowledges that there’s a global perspective here to be considered. We’ve got to start to open our eyes and thinking to, “There’s more than one right way.” That’s what we were trying to get at with SUMMi7.
What you deal with is important. A lot of people can get a lot of information that is critical from your book, The Frontline CEO. We already mentioned your company name. Is there some website that you think would be the best way for them to find you? Do you want them to follow your social media? Are there any links or anything you would like to share?
It’s SUMMi7.com. That’s where you can connect with our blog. We’re going to be launching a newsletter. You’ll see some more information in the book. You can buy the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Porchlight or a lot of the normal sites. If you do buy it, connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear your feedback on what you think and how you’re applying it.
What we’re trying to do with SUMMi7 is take all of our learning plus everybody. Build a community of what we call the muddy middle, small and mid-size companies that can support each other. That’s where most of the job creation is in the world. We want to create a muddy middle that’s as powerful as the big companies in the world.
I hope a lot of people take some time to take a look at your book and site. This was fascinating and you’ve touched on some important things. I’ll share some of this with my students because we talked so much about servant leadership and other aspects that tie into this. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thanks, Diane. I appreciate the conversation.
This show is going to be a little bit different and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest. I’m Dr. Diane Hamilton. In addition to hosting this show, I’m also the creator of the Curiosity Code Index and I wrote the book Cracking the Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of status-quo thinking. It sometimes helps if I share a story that you might find fascinating.
A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I shared on stage about a hidden camera experiment, where they looked at how quickly people go along with the group. This woman went into a doctor’s office, thinking she was getting an eye exam but not known to her, everybody in the waiting room weren’t patients. They were actors.
Every so often, an experiment, what was going on, is they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all of the actors around her, who she thought were patients, would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down, conforming with the group. They thought, “This is interesting. She is going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.” They called everybody back as if they were patients one at a time.If we ground ourselves on one way of thinking, we're limiting our own ability to grow and develop. Click To Tweet
Eventually, she is alone in the room and the bell rings. What she does is she stands up and sits down. She doesn’t know why she is doing it. She is going along with what everybody else has done. They thought, “This is fascinating. Let’s add some people to the room who are patients and see how she responds to the bell ringing and see how they respond.” The bell goes off and she stands up and sits down. The gentleman next to her looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.” The next time the bell rings, he gets up and sits down with her.
Slowly but surely, what became a random rule for one woman is now the social rule for everybody in the waiting room. It’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it.” We reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded. It’s the part of how conformity can be comfortable but going along with it, sometimes you get bad habits, stunt growth and get the status-quo thinking. That can be the downfall of organizations.
When we do things because they have always been done a certain way, we don’t progress and don’t look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know, “Why are we doing things? Why is it important? What are we trying to accomplish?” That’s what I talked to companies about because they need to look at like, “How and where are they modeling and fostering curiosity? What action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking? Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes?”
It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T to self-driving cars. We know that leaders believe they encourage curiosity and exploration. I’ve had Francesca Gino on the show, who has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most of the employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we have to help them through leaders developing that desire to explore.
My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living. I do that through the show, teaching and speaking everything I do. It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s such a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody is trying to achieve. Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients. You have eggs, milk, flour and whatever it takes to bake the cake. You mix it together and put it in the pan and oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo. Nothing happens.
That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get. Instead of cake, they are trying to get productivity or make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication and all of the soft skills. They are mixing those ingredients and what they are not doing is turning on the oven. The oven or the spark is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about.
We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two adorable little girls, looking through this break on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent. They are supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art but what the kids do is they want to see what’s behind the vent. We were all that way. Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day. At that age, you are curious. You want to find out how everything works. There’s some time that we eventually lose some of that.
Think about it. When did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that. Get up. You are getting dirty. Don’t look behind there?” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave but we have seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity. There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in similarly to curiosity and what we see. It peaks around age five and then it tanks as soon as you go through school about the age of 18 through 31, even. We are seeing very low levels.
Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and competencies. George Land also has a great talk about his work with NASA. He looked at the kids. He followed them at age five and found that 98% of children were creative geniuses. By the time they were 31, only 2% were and it was a huge difference. George Land says that we have convergent and divergent thinking. He talks about it in terms of, we put on the gas and try to come up with all these great ideas but at the same time, we over-criticize them and put on the brake.
Anybody who drives a car knows that when you put the brake on and at the same time, you put on the gas, you don’t go very far. That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought this was interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results and CEOs get that. A lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity but some of them are doing some amazing things. I want to talk about the cost of lost curiosity.
There are so many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they are losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for EI. If you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement. I have seen everything. Communication, Holmes has it at $37 billion. I have seen how much higher. It depends where you look but we are talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues, emotional intelligence, communication and engagement. It’s a huge problem out there and companies know that. They are losing money but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity.
When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor because we want to be more innovative but we are worried about job loss and jobs being automated. We know that if we are not innovative, the majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak and Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is that they looked at things from the status-quo way that they have always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product or whatever success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
It was interesting to me to study curiosity. There is a lot of research in curiosity, but there are no great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018. It showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than in smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20%. Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China, but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s one report. I would like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity.
Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article that she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing. In that report, she talked about leaders recognize curiosity is important and they think that they are encouraging it but we found that most of the employees don’t believe that. Only 24% feel like they are curious about their jobs and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She did some great research. If you get a chance, I would recommend reading that show and also check out that HBR article.
I have had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. We talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he couldn’t see why I developed a measure of curiosity because I’m very curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future. That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about younger generations having questions of organizational missions more than older generations. We’ve got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read that.
Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson, who has an incredible TED Talk. She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming. She gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved because a lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You’ve got to look at what are you trying to get done, your goal. What is in your way, your concerns, worries and barriers? What resources, talent, skills and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It’s worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.
A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, the guy who turned around Campbell Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes, six days a week. He counted at 30,000-plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had a 12% engagement. By 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.
Another great guest of the show was Zander Lurie, who is the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They are so much into curiosity. They’ve got permission to change their street address to One Curiosity Way. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They ask, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He said that they do skip-level meetings so that they can find out what works and what doesn’t. Those are some examples of people who are on the show.
There are other examples that are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s and VanMoof bicycles, I have looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further. Monopoly did some research because they always come out with the dogs or cats version. They didn’t want to come out with another version.
They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they could learn about it. They found out that over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly. They came out with the Cheaters Edition. That was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing.
Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information in what they do in terms of not getting into the status quo of thinking. They don’t keep flavors around forever. They research to find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor? What’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. They even have a headstone on their website where they show, “This flavor was alive from this year to this year.” They celebrate their success and then they move on.
The interesting story is VanMoof. They make these bikes. They would send them in packages in the mail, UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them ended up broken and they kept trying to fix these bikes. There was an issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because if you make the package twice the size, you get a lot more expenses. They are trying to figure out how to do this to make their bikes not break and yet not go over on the spending.
What they have looked at was the type of box they were using. They noticed it was similar to a flat-screen television box. They looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink and see what happens.” There was a dramatic difference in the number of damaged bicycles.
Think outside of the box. Sometimes it’s asking questions. Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The Laundry Division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds, is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there and they couldn’t figure out why. They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?”
They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about but they did. They’ve got back great things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace. Make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “Yes, we can fix that,” and they did. Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee can say, “How can we make this better?” was huge for them.
Sometimes it’s not the employee. Sometimes it’s leaders. In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They were having a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other. Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 race car event one night and were impressed by how quickly the Formula 1 pit crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They were looking at this going, “They did that with no problems and we can’t transfer people from here to here.”
They thought, “Why don’t we have this Ferrari team and they can show us any improvements that we could make?” They did get some great ideas, which reduced their errors by more than 50%. We think inside of our cubicles and silos but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I have given you some examples. We know we came up with Velcro from a Swiss engineer hunting with his dog and came back with burrs in his fur.
He was like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it. He saw a hook-and-eye, the way it hooked together and he thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something $93 million in Velcro and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well. You have to build a culture of learning. To do that, it’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it.Pursue your path while recognizing that everybody's path is different. Click To Tweet
A top company I work with that does that is Novartis. Novartis does a great job because curiosity is part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests. They do everything from paying for them to watch videos to having them perform in mini-TED events, having employees be the actual speakers and things like that. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their Curiosity Month and I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this.
If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of the employees surveyed approved the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing. I know they are doing some ongoing research with curiosity with me and I’m excited for that. One of their employees is writing her doctoral dissertation.
We are looking at curiosity and how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for a lot of my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code. I looked at so much that’s out there.
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink. He wrote Drive. We’ve got a great book, Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all the stuff that he is talking about. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. All those are huge. I started to look at, “What is this curiosity thing?” The Max Planck Institute coined the term The Curiosity Gene. It’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine and makes us feel good. If you are a bird flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you are going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to go look at another bush.
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I was like, “Where’s the assessment that tells you what stops it? There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments all told you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The Big Five Factors will tell you if you are open to experience and things like that. I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that, so I did. I wanted to know what holds us back and I found out what it is.
It’s FATE. It stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment. I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment and loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we are all prepared. We are all in the meeting and thinking, “I want to ask that but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean next to Joe, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s better for Joe to look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb.
That’s a huge problem with companies. You get a lot of yes-men and yes-women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they are trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way. I have had leaders look at me and say things like, “I have one guy. He asked me to do something.” I said, “Sure, I would be happy to do that. I have never had to. How do I do that?” He looked at me with disgust and said, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you’re an idiot. It tells you that you should know this, lie or pretend you know things. We get a lot of leaders who will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions.” That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers that didn’t have any ideas but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that, then we are saying, “We don’t want to know about problems.” That’s a huge issue.
The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us, “We are not going to be interested. I’m apathetic. It’s unnecessary. Last time I did that, they gave me more work.” Whatever it is, we all have that voice. It talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I will hold up a bottle of water at a talk that I’m giving and I will ask, “How heavy is this?” They will say 6 or 8 ounces. I will say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it doesn’t bother me. My arm is fine. If I hold it for an hour, my arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.”
That’s how our assumptions are. The voice in our head, if it’s a fleeting thought, it’s no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us. We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all of these things that we could maybe be interested in or maybe somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of them. Assumptions are a big thing.
What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor. Curiosity is impacted by the over and under-utilization of technology. It could either do it for you, you are not trained in it or you are overwhelmed by it. Some people have had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning in technology. Steve Wozniak is one. I love his book iWoz. He talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires and get things from work and show him how the electronics should be connected, why this wire was necessary and how it brought electricity.
A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world but if somebody threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you’re not ever going to have the foundation behind it. There’s got to be times where we have high-foundation days where we build without technology and learn behind it. There’s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how we can use it and not become overwhelmed by it.
The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it’s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders and everybody you have ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we are around. The numbers I gave earlier about how it peaks at age five of curiosity and then it tanks after that, a lot of that could be going into school and the teachers don’t have time because they are teaching to the test. They’ve got so many students in class. You can’t answer why all the time.
Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don’t think is cool, then you can take the wrath from that. It’s challenging to look at what has impacted us. That’s one of the reasons why my research was interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment, FATE. Those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index. They were pretty evenly matched. Assumptions and the environment were higher than technology, maybe but then you can have an overlap. You could have a fear of technology, for example.
It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them. I started by putting a thread on LinkedIn and asking people and then I’ve got interested in that. I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my own research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you are curious or not. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out what inhibits us.
It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women in technology but then maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I have seen and I would like to see more research done but it is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is train people to take the Curiosity Code Index. I either do the training at companies myself or I train consultants or HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM Recertification credits. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer.
What’s interesting is when they go through the training class that employees are training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI and then they get to learn. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs or DiSC. It takes ten minutes. You get the big report back on a PDF within a few minutes of taking it. It’s simple and they get to get their results. They go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them.
Not only do they do that but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole, back to how they did it in Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth or employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?” If there are issues with the innovation, engagement or whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get a cake?”
You find out and the trainers would go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.” It’s important for the future of companies that people have to try, explore, poke at and question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers.” Think about, “What are you doing to foster curiosity? What action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time?” Thinking about this, it’s challenging for a lot of people.
I have created a free course. A lot of people can get a lot of value out of it if you are interested in taking it. If you go to DrDianeHamilton.com and scroll down to the bottom, it offers a free course. If you sign up, it’s a simple thing. They send it right to you. You can learn a lot more about curiosity and the factors and see a lot of videos from some of the talks I have given. Some of the stuff I have talked about here is in there. A lot of the chapters from the book are in there. It’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information. I hope you check out DrDianeHamilton.com and CuriosityCode.com.
- The Frontline CEO
- Servant Leadership
- Start With Why
- Amazon – The Frontline CEO
- Barnes & Noble – The Frontline CEO
- Porchlight – The Frontline CEO
- LinkedIn – Eric Strafel
- Curiosity Code Index
- Cracking the Curiosity Code
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- State of Curiosity Report 2018
- HBR article – Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Claudio Fernández-Aráoz – 21st-Century Talent Spotting
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- TED Talk – How to turn a group of strangers into a team
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- Monopoly Game: Cheaters Edition
- Find Your Why
- Max Planck Institute
About Eric Strafel
Eric Strafel is the founder of the consulting firm SUMMi7, which helps businesses grow profits and scale innovation with mission-driven purpose. He was the President and CEO of Aviall, a global provider of new aviation parts, supply chain management, and other services to the aerospace aftermarket, which was acquired by Boeing. Previously, he held leadership and program management positions at L3 Communications, Honeywell, and Precision Conversions.
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