Scaling a business can be challenging, but it means having the ability to grow without any hindrances to its progress. If you want to know how to overcome challenges so you can start scaling your business, this episode is for you. Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down with the Cofounder and CEO at Bolster, Matt Blumberg. Bolster is an on-demand executive talent marketplace that helps accelerate companies’ growth. Today, Matt shares some practical tips to scaling your business to greater heights. Tune in and discover how you can set the stage to support growth in your company today.
We have Matt Blumberg. He is the Cofounder and CEO at Bolster. He has a new book, Startup CXO. I’m so excited to have Matt here.
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Scaling Your Business To Greater Heights With Matt Blumberg
I am here with Matt Blumberg, who is the Cofounder and CEO at Bolster. He is the author of Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business and Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Company’s Critical Functions and Teams. It’s so nice to have you here, Matt.
Thanks, Diane. It’s great to be here.
I was looking forward to this. You work on a lot of very interesting things. Your second book was a very influential book that was embraced by so many entrepreneurs, CEOs and founders. It’s very exciting because you’re talking about scaling up, which is such a big issue for so many people. Before we get into that, I want to get a little backstory on you. In the bio you sent me, you were talking about 1999, where you founded Return Path. Tell me a little bit from that point.
I started working in the commercial internet in early 1995, which was the beginning of the whole thing. I had an interesting role from ‘95 through ’99, helping a company that had been started in the late ‘80s called Moviefone. People who have been around and went to the movies regularly in the 1980s and 1990s. I might remember 777 Film as an interactive telephone service. The company hired me in ‘95. My first job was to figure out what the internet was, whether the company should build a website or do some proprietary deal with one of the dialogues services, which is an interesting time to be alive and be in that field.
I got hooked. I ran the internet business for Moviefone for four and a half years. I was on the executive team at the company. We sold the company to AOL. That’s the thing I did before I started my company. I had a little bit of practice running a business inside of another company. After we sold Moviefone to AOL, I thought, “Conditions aren’t going to get any better than 1999 to go start something.” I had a pretty good experience set for it. I started Return Path, which was a company in the email marketing space in 1999. Twenty years later, we exited a good business.
We built a business that was over $100 million in revenue. We had about 500 employees and 12 locations around the globe. We had built a strong business and great culture. We had a lot of fun doing it and learned an awful lot of lessons along the way. After a little bit of time off for good behavior, a group of us started Bolster in April of 2020, just as the pandemic was getting into full swing. We have eight cofounders. All of us worked together at Return Path for years. We’re years in on Bolster. It’s still a pretty early-stage startup but we’ve been making some great progress quickly so far.
I was thinking about the Moviefone thing, is that the one that made fun of Seinfeld with Kramer?
There was a Seinfeld and Simpson episode about it. It was the phone service in a very distinct voice. One of the guys who was a founder and president of the company did the voice. It was very iconic in its day.
Everybody called Moviefone in the day. I’ve seen so many people talk about different things that were so ingrained in the culture for the time. It’s fun to talk to people who had gone through a lot of this stuff.
The thing that was so interesting about Moviefone was it was the internet before there was an internet. The company was started in the late ‘80s to take advantage of interactive telephone services. If you think about the company’s business model, it was ad-supported, free consumer service and interactive. It included an eCommerce component because you could purchase a ticket on the telephone. You touch tones, go to the theater, print it out on the wall and skip the line.
The price of the service for most consumers was listening to a twenty-second ad before they were able to search for showtimes. The business model was the internet before the internet. The company in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s was selling addressable media to Hollywood, which was something Hollywood didn’t even understand. What Hollywood did was buy TV, radio, outdoor and newspapers.
It is interesting to see what the Fandangos do. It was such a depth that you don’t get. It’s fun to see the growth and success that you’ve had. I’ve had people on my show who were billionaires, who told me that it was easier to run a billion-dollar company than a million-dollar company. A lot of the problems I hear from the company leaders is they hit the $1 million or $10 million point, they get stuck and have difficulty scaling. I’ve given talks for Forbes and the CMO groups that were their biggest thing, with even the messages getting out to people. You feel like you’re reaching people in a way. Scaling is a term that hurts in every area of business.
I’ve never run a billion-dollar company before but large companies have a lot of momentum. They have a mature product and huge customer base. Running one of those companies has challenges of its own. In the world of startups, which is the world that I’ve lived in for years and I love, there are two hard things. The first million dollars is hard. That’s the difference between I’ve got something and I’ve got nothing. The challenges of scaling a business are real and significant. You don’t just run into those challenges, once you run into them every day on the journey from $1 million to $10 million to $50 million to $100 million, more before your business is a large machine and has that momentum.The challenges of scaling a business are real and significant. Not everyone who starts a company is capable of running and scaling it. Click To Tweet
There are a lot of challenges. You write about that in your book. What are some of those major challenges that you address? There is not a blueprint to follow in your scale.
There is a tremendous number of challenges. Let’s call it product, market, people and operations. The challenges that entrepreneurs and founders face around their product-market fit can be pretty significant. Once in a blue moon, you have a company that explodes out of the gate. You have Facebook. For the other 99.99% of founders, it’s trying to figure out what product you want to build and what product-market fit looks like, how to go about assessing that in a meaningful way is tricky.
For a lot of founders, they have a vision that works for them. They’re trying to solve their problem and maybe not enough other people have that problem. You can follow a lot of the best practices or literature around product-market fit and customer discovery and still get it wrong. It’s a broader audience than just you but maybe it’s 10 customers that love it but not 1,000. Calibrating the feedback you get from the market and getting that product-market fit right for a big-enough audience through one area where that first million is tough but getting from 1 to 10 means that you have to have something that works for a broad group.
That’s the scaling challenge that founders have around the product. When it comes to people, there’s a challenge within and on the team. The challenge within is not everyone who starts a company is capable of running and scaling a company. They might not want to. They might not be good at those things because it takes different skillsets and temperaments sometimes. Founders that are intellectually honest with themselves about their hopes, dreams and capabilities are tricky.
You have to take a step back yourself. There is a people challenge with CEOs and founders. Are you the right person to be the CEO? Do you want to scale with the business? Do you want to learn and grow? Are you more attracted to the idea and you want to get something started, hand it to someone else and then go start something else?
A lot of people and startups have this idea that they want to be the next unicorn. I see so many waiting for that valuation before they go IPO, either they sell out or whatever they do. I get a lot of serial entrepreneurs on the show who are great at a certain point but then it’s time to move on to something else.
The reality of the numbers is at any point in time, most of the founders in the world are doing it for the first time. There are thousands of new companies created every year. Almost all of them are first-time entrepreneurs. The number of companies that are unicorns is measured in the hundreds. Most founders are added for the first time. I don’t know that a first-time founder necessarily even knows whether they are in it for the long haul or want to go to the next thing. You have to be in that situation to understand that. Scaling people is more than just you.
It’s making sure that you have the right organization in place and the right people on your team for whatever the business needs, as the founder might or might not be the right person for the next stage of the business’s life. The same could be said of anyone on the team and constantly pushing people who are on the team and calibrating, whether they’re the right people for today and doing your best to calibrate, whether they’re the right people for the future is very tricky. A lot of founders are very loyal to the people in the organization. They’re in the trenches and can be very hard to either move people out or make changes to people’s roles or scope.
You bring up a lot of good points. It makes me think of Elizabeth Holmes and the things that happened out there on some of the teams sound like this great startup. You’ve got this leader who sounds like they’ve got great products. How do you get away from some of the pressure to fake it until you make it?
Fake it until you make it in terms of a first-time founder’s self-confidence about their ability to lead an organization is one thing. Fake it until you make it in terms of my products would work or won’t work is something entirely different. That’s an interesting story. I haven’t stayed super close to it but that’s certainly the things that I’ve seen about it are problematic.
There is a lot of venture capital and all that to start up. They have this need to look bigger and better. You’re getting to the point where we are already in there to how do we get to the next level. Having a good team is a big part of it. As you put the people around you as the leader of this company, how do you know what CXOs to have around?
It’s a mix of art and science. Sometimes a little more art. The people who are great at leading their function, the great CXOs, whether they’re the CFO, CMO or Chief Revenue Officer, are the ones who are capable of doing three things. This is one of the things we talk about in Startup CXO. 1) They truly have command of the details of their department. They understand everything that’s going on underneath them. 2) They have a framework or a strategic approach to their function. They’re not just there to execute and manage details but there is a strategic imperative that they’ve internalized.
It’s something that is in agreement with the rest of the executive team or CEO that their function is going to be about X. For example, a section of Startup CXO written by Jackson, Claire who has founded both Return Path and Bolster with me and is a great CFO, his strategic framework for the finance accounting organization is financed as a partner. He writes about this a lot in the book that he has always viewed the mission of his team to help the rest of the organization aggregate and understand the numbers and make good decisions off them.
That’s a different orientation of the finance and accounting department than someone whose framework is produced timely and accurate financial reporting. I’m not suggesting that one is right and the other is wrong but the great CXOs are the ones that at least have one. They have a framework and point-of-view. They shape their organization and deliverables around it. They have that contract with their peers who run other departments about what it is their team is going to do.
The third thing that you want to look for in a CXO, which when you’re talking about a high-growth organization, maybe the most important one is the ability to see around corners. What I mean by that is you’re not just in charge of your department. You have to figure out what it’s going to be like to be in charge of your department in 1, 2 or 3 years.
One way of doing that is you’ve done it before at a larger scale but that’s not the only way to do it. There are plenty of people that grow with their job but there are people that are manic about staying on top of that and what’s next. I don’t want to just solve yesterday’s problem. I want to solve tomorrow’s problem. I want to make sure that I’m building the capabilities underneath me, whether it’s people, processes or systems, to handle what’s about to happen.
You don’t have to be a fortune teller to do that. You have to spend time understanding the craft of what you’re doing, study larger companies, network and maybe have mentors who are in your CXO swim lane but have been there and done that at a larger scale. The gray ones are the ones that never get caught flat-footed because they didn’t anticipate something that should have been anticipated.
Curiosity plays a big part in that. What’s next, asking questions and it comes up a lot when I work with all kinds of companies about this where curiosity plays its part. As a leader, you may be highly curious but if you’re not instilling it in your people or having it as part of the corporate culture, I’ve found it’s a problem. Where do you find curiosity plays a role in being a successful CXO?
It’s incredibly important. It’s not about just instilling it and making sure that it’s appreciated and safe in your corporate values, although all of that is true. You have to look for it in the interview process. CEOs and companies that have strong corporate cultures and values will interview against those. If it is embedded deep in your culture to have a culture of intellectual curiosity, where failing fast is valued and not discouraged, that’s all good and well. You have to interview against that and make sure that you’re pulling people in who have some innate level of curiosity. I’m not suggesting you can’t teach it. You can certainly foster it but it helps if you have people who are, by nature, curious.
It’s such a critical component. We touched on so many important aspects of being a great CXO and a leader, in general. I enjoyed having you on the show, Matt. This has been fascinating. I hope everybody takes some time to check out your books, website and blog.
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. In addition to hosting this show, I am 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 just go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I share on stage about hidden camera experiments, 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 wasn’t patient. They were actors. Every so often, an experiment was going on where they would have a bell ring.
Every time that bell would ring, all the actors around her, which 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 call everybody back one at a time as if they were patients and eventually, she is alone in the room and the bell rings.
What she does is she stands up and sat 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, what do you think he does? He gets up and sits down with her.
Slowly but surely, what was 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 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 just because they have always been done in a certain way, we don’t progress and look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know why we are doing things, why is it important and what are we trying to accomplish? That’s what I talked to companies about because they need to look at how and where they are modeling and fostering curiosity and 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?Most of the founders in the world are scaling businesses for the first time. Click To Tweet
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 have had Francesca Gino on the show. She has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we must help them develop that desire to explore through leaders. 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 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 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. They were trying to make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication, all the soft skills and stuff. They are mixing those ingredients and what they are not doing is turning on the oven. The oven, 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 little girls who are adorable looking through this grate 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 do the kids do? 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 just 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 similar to what we see in curiosity. It peaks around age five and then it tanks as soon as you go through school and about the age of 18 through 31. We are even seeing 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 and followed them. At age five, he found that 98% of children were creative geniuses and then by the time they were 31, only 2% were. 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 trying 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 if you put the brake at the same time you put on the gas, you don’t go far. That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought, “This is interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results.” CEOs get that but a lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity but some of them are doing some amazing things, so I want to talk about what is the cost of lost curiosity. There are 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 or if you look at Gallup’s numbers, they are losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement. I have seen everything with communications. Holmes has it at $37 billion and I have seen much higher. It depends on 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. 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. We want to be more innovative but we are worried about job loss and jobs being automated. The majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak or 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 and the success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
What was interesting to me to study curiosity is that there are a lot of researches on curiosity but there are not the great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018 and it showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20% and then 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 just 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 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. 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 has done some great research. If you get a chance, I recommend reading that show and also checking out that HBR article.
I have had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. He talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he couldn’t see why I developed a measure of curiosity. It’s because I’m 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 questioning organizational missions more than older generations. We’ve got into a great discussion about that.
I hope you take some time to read to that show. 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 and she gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved. 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’s in your way, your concerns, worries, barriers and stuff like that. What resources, talents, 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 is 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’s 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 30,000-plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had 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 1 Curiosity Way. I love that. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They asked, “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 they do skip-level meetings so that he can find out what works and what doesn’t. Those are some examples of people who were on the show. Other examples are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s, 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 dog’s or cat’s 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 a lot of people cheat. Over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly, so they came out with the Cheater’s 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. What they do in terms of not getting into status-quo thinking is they don’t keep flavors around forever. They research to find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor and 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. I love that. They even have a headstone or whatever on their website. They show this flavor was live from this year to this year. They celebrate their success and then they move on. An interesting story is VanMoof. They make these bikes and they would send them in packages in the mail through UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them were ending up broken and they kept trying to fix these bikes and this 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 have noticed it was very 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.” It was a dramatic difference in the number of damaged bicycles. It’s thinking outside the box. Sometimes it’s just 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. They’ve got back things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace or make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “We can fix that,” and they did. Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee said, “How can we make this better,” was huge for them. Sometimes it’s not just an employee and sometimes, it’s leaders.
In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They had 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 that Formula 1 pit crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They are 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 these guys come in, this Ferrari team and 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 cubicle and inside of our 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’s like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it and saw the way it hooked together and thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something like $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. I know a top company I work with that does that, which 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, having them perform in mini TED events and having employees be the actual speakers, 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 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 about curiosity with me. I’m excited about that. One of their employees is writing her Doctoral dissertation and we are looking at the curiosity, 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 my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code and I looked at so much that’s out there.Make sure that you have the right organization in place and the right people on your team for whatever the business needs today and tomorrow. Click To Tweet
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive. What a great book. Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all the stuff that he’s talking about. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. All those are huge. I started to look at this curiosity thing. It’s the Max Planck Institute that coined the term curiosity gene because it’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine and it makes us feel good. If you are a bird and just flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you are going to die if you don’t have the curiosity to look at another bush.
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity but I was like, “Where is the assessment that tells you what stops it?” I’m like, “There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments tell 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 but I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that, so I did. I want to know what holds us back and I found out what it is. It is FATE, which 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 in 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 had one guy who asked me to do something. I said, “I would be happy to do it. 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 are an idiot. It tells you that you should know this. You should lie and 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, apathetic or it’s unnecessary, “The last time I did that, they gave me more work.” We all have that voice that talks us out of stuff.
Sometimes I will hold up a bottle of water in the talk that I’m giving and ask, “How heavy is this?” They will say 6 or 8 ounces or whatever. 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 or the voice in our head. It’s a fleeting thought, no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to it a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us.
We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all these things we could maybe be interested in or somebody would help us learn but we talk ourselves out of it. 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 can either do it for you, you are not trained in it or you are overwhelmed by it. Some people had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning and 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 just threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you are 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, we learn behind it and then there‘s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how can we 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 about age five with 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 many students in class and they can‘t answer why all the time. Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don‘t think is cool, 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. Fear from 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 in LinkedIn and asking people and then I thought, “I‘ve got interested in that.”
I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my 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 did inhibit 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.
I would like to see more research done. It is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is train people. First of all, they take the Curiosity Code Index. I either go do the training at companies myself, I train consultants to give it or I train HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM recertification credit. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer. What’s interesting is when they go through the training class, the employees, when they are training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI.
It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs, a DISC or something. You get the big report back, a PDF, within a few minutes of taking it. It’s simple. They get to get their results and then they go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals, measurable goals, those things 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, to the 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 innovation, engagement, 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 cake?” You find out and the trainers 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 in the future of companies that people have to try it, explore, poke at it 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 you are 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 and a lot of people can get a lot of value out of it if they 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 and you can learn a lot more about curiosity, the factors and see lots of videos from 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 and I hope you check out The Curiosity Code.
- Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business
- Curiosity Code Index
- Cracking the Curiosity Code
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- Sir Ken Robinson – TEDx Talk
- George Land – YouTube
- Consortium for EI
- State of Curiosity Report 2018
- The Business Case for Curiosity
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Claudio Fernández-Aráoz – From Curious to Competent
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- TED Talk – How to turn a group of strangers into a team
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- Zander Lurie – Previous episode
- Monopoly Game: Cheaters Edition
- Find Your Why
- Max Planck Institute
- The Curiosity Code
About Matt Blumberg
Matt Blumberg is the Co-Founder and CEO at Bolster. He is the author of Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business (Wiley, 2020), a highly influential book embraced by entrepreneurs, CEOs, founders, and board of directors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that was an outgrowth of his blog, StartupCEO.com. His most recent book is Startup CXO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Company’s Critical Functions and Teams (Techstars).
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