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Is Curiosity Part of Leadership?

Howard Scott |

Lee Iacocca just came out with a new book, Where Have All The Leaders Gone? In it, he defines his “Nine Cs” of leadership. They are, he says, Curiosity, Creativity, Communication, Character, Courage, Conviction, Charisma, Competence and Common Sense.
Since Iacocca has proven to be one of our nation’s greatest managers, first as president of Ford Motor Co. and later as the brilliant turnaround CEO of Chrysler Corp., we should listen to what he says. I would like to examine his first C in this article, Curiosity.
Curiosity is an unusual leadership attribute to mention. Certainly, therapists should be curious about their patients’ inner lives. Professors are undoubtedly curious; they are paid to have insights. But managers? Managers are too busy to be curious.
Managers must be decision-makers who have the courage and tenacity to go forward with their plans. Managers need tunnel vision to pursue their goals with relentless drive and fortitude. Curiosity would simply retard such iron discipline, right? Wrong. Curiosity is actually a virtue to such industry.
Iacocca posits that it is largely curiosity that drives effective managers. Curiosity about what works and what doesn’t (will Plan A or Plan B work better?). Curiosity about pinpointing customer needs (why does this individual buy our service?). Curiosity about how to motivate employees (what makes employees care enough to do a good job?).
Curiosity about how business works (will investing in equipment deliver the needed boost in efficiency?). Curiosity about the marketplace (what neighborhood is best for home pickup and delivery?). Curiosity about the intersection of expenses and revenues (would a longer production day be less costly that opening production on Saturdays?).
Executives try new strategies because they want to gain market share. But there’s a deeper motive: They want to understand how and why businesses succeed and fail. They are genuinely curious as to how change happens. That way, when change doesn’t go well for them, they aren’t disappointed. They roll up their sleeves and devise a new plan, because it’s another opportunity to test a theory in the marketplace.
How many drycleaners would list curiosity as one of their motivations? Not many. Yet Iacocca says that in his more than 50 years in executive corridors, this characteristic is one of the primary qualities that indicate future potential. He says that effective executives are always trying to understand, always asking questions. Like the best students, they take notes and deliver  responses. They are receptive to new ideas and theories. Iacocca likens effectiveness in management to the drive to understand.A Quick Study. How can a drycleaner develop his or her curiosity? It’s not a simple process, but it usually means revamping your outlook. Make yourself into a Student of Business. You own a business and want to succeed, so you’re going to try different strategies. Some will work; some won’t.
From time to time, you hit upon a combination of programs that works, and the business prospers. But the market will change, and you must adapt to it. There will also be times when your tactics aren’t working. The market will change again, and you will alter your package of offerings.
For instance, when you lose a good, long-standing customer, you won’t hang your head in despair. Instead, you will analyze why the customer was lost, and what programs can be initiated that will minimize the chance of losing another good customer. It’s a puzzle—and all part of the challenge of being a good manager.
A curious manager is more capable of handling the vicissitudes of commerce because he or she views the process as a learning experience. Win, lose or draw, understanding and wisdom accrue.
You’ll also be curious about people. What makes your most recent presser be so silent and glum most of the time? Why doesn’t your drop-store manager take more pride in the store’s appearance? Why does your evening counterstaffer make so many counting mistakes? Why does a key supplier seem so hard-nosed all of a sudden?
How cohesive is your staff, and what  could be done to give them more team spirit? What is the customer perception of your shops compared to the competition? Do customers see you as overpriced? Is your shop viewed as a worker of wonders, able to remove even tough stains 95% of the time?
You will also be curious about yourself as a manager. Have your decisions generally been right over the last five years? If so, what helped you make right decisions? If not, what has caused you to make poor decisions? If you’re so smart, why aren’t you more successful? Why do you have trouble defending your quality standards? Why can’t you stand up to customers without driving them away?
Finally, you’ll ponder your role in the greater economic system. As a business entity, you bring together resources to provide a service. You employ and support people. You contribute buying power through your purchases. If you raise your prices 6% every year, would you add to the general trend of inflation?
If you pay unemployment to an employee, will you add to the government’s budget deficit? If you buy several pieces of equipment, it adds to capital expenditures, making you part of a vast system. The motions you make are a ripple that spreads throughout the entire organism and influences everything else.
Make yourself a curious businessperson. It will help you perform your job better.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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