Three Things Every CEO Needs to Know about Building a Curious Culture

Oct 01, 2019

Warning: much of what I'm about to tell you will be scary, because it is counterintuitive what is taught in business school or the ways most corporations operate.

It’s no secret that new ideas and innovative thinking starts with a dash of curiosity. There is also a lot of research that proves curious people solve problems better and faster. They’re more resilient. They also show more empathy, work better collaboratively, demonstrate continuous learning and deliver greater value for the companies they work for. Knowing all of this, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the question I get asked the most as CEO of an advertising agency is, 

“How did you create a culture that consistently attracts the kind of people who have that ‘X’ factor?”

The truth is, I still wonder about this answer every day. You see a curious culture is very much like a delicate ecosystem that is constantly changing and evolving. I've noticed most CEO's (and Wall Street) prize consistency and data to prove out the ROI on their marketing investments and strategies, and this often leads to what I call, ‘constrained creativity.’  Which is a polite way of saying let's be ‘creative,’ but let's not go crazy and make big mistakes we’ll regret later. In other words, management knows how to talk the talk, but is not necessarily willing to invest in walking the walk. This leaves an awful gap between what they desire and what they can achieve. What's worse, this practice is considered okay, since it is difficult to overcome. 

Instead of phoning a friend, I think I’m ready to give my final answer. In my opinion, here are three things that are fundamentally true if you want to create a thriving curious culture. 

Let them play. You hired the right people who you believe possess all the qualities of curious problem solvers. So now what? You must willingly encourage the chaos theory to take hold. Since most new and innovative thinking happens on the fringes of the sandbox, you must be prepared to get out of the way and let your staff do what they do best. That means you need to examine very carefully the processes and productivity measurements you have in place and determine if they promote curiosity or choke it. If you sense the latter, change them until you get the right balance. You also might need to demonstrate to your staff in tangible ways you are serious. One example of how we do this at Curiosity Advertising is we give each employee and intern a paid day in addition to their PTO benefits to go out in the world to experience something they are curious about. The only catch is they are required to share at our bi-weekly company what they did and what they learned. What our staff has done over the years is the subject of another article, but it's safe to say the Curiosity Day sharing is one of the most engaging and entertaining parts of our team meetings. 

Let them fail. I always say, “If you can learn to fail successfully, you'll never fail at being successful.” As we all know, if there is no risk involved in solving a problem at hand, then it's probably not worth pursuing the solution in the first place. Risk of Failure = Great rewards. As a leader, get comfortable with taking face plants in the pursuit of the breakthrough idea. In a healthy, curious culture, people realize failure is part of the learning process, and it comes with the territory. So promoting trust and collaboration, without finger-pointing, are critical to creating an environment where experimentation, engagement, innovation happily live with each other. This is easy to say, but hard to do. I get that. But if you hire the right team, and give them your trust, amazing things will start to happen. Every day.

Let them tell the truth. We've all seen the "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome in the business world. This is where opinions are forcefully placed, and they shut down innovation, collaboration and communication. That's why radical candor is sacrosanct in a curious culture, because if you don't have it, points one and two become meaningless. Telling the truth creates accountability and promotes progress. So it starts with the leaders, and it is their responsibility to create an environment where telling the truth is treasured. I'm not going to lie; it will be painful, it will be hard, and your ego is going to take a bashing. And if we’re being honest, we leaders are often the biggest problem, and I include myself in this category. But you'll quickly notice many new benefits. Passive-aggressive behavior will begin to disappear; political positioning and blame-gaming will take a back seat to actual progress. And, most importantly, your staff will reward you with incredible creativity and problem-solving. Our clients rely on us to tell them the truth, and if we can't do that with each other, then how can we expect our clients to believe us? 

So in the end, this comes down to common sense and hiring the right people who can handle the responsibilities I outlined above. Hiring for specific skill sets is easy. Can they excel at the day-to-day tasks required of their role? Hiring for a culture fit is a totally different lens. For sure, not everyone is equipped to thrive in this kind of culture, but knowing your goals and having the courage to create your own roadmap will help you get started. At Curiosity, we believe happy and engaged employees create happy and engaged clients. And this magical combination can only lead to business success for both partners. 

We at Curiosity wish you a happy, curious journey. And if you have any specific questions regarding on how we cultivate our curious culture, feel free to reach out to me directly at