Curiosity in top cats
hw sp 14 4 It’s so much for the old warning ‘curiosity killed the cat’ whose roots began in 16th century British literature. Today curiosity has been identified as the major differentiator of potential for future success among candidates and employees.

Recent research by Egon Zehnder International1 explains why a new measure of potential is needed for our high velocity 21st century world. The firm analysed the career trajectories of more than 1,000 C-level executives and 2,500 non-C level executives and validated their model with CEOs and board members of major companies and leading academics. In their report ‘Digging for hidden treasure’ EZI identifies the traits that really promise great leadership:

hw sp 14.2 4‘The most sophisticated business leaders we work with are deeply conscious that measuring potential is extremely difficult,’ explains EZI consultant James Martin2 , who co-wrote the report. ‘For most, potential is a proxy for performance today. When they say someone has potential, they actually mean that the individual is doing a great job in their current role. Predicting whether someone will be successful in a more complex position with more variables and higher levels of ambiguity is really tricky.’

EZI identifies four most important markers of potential as curiosity, insight, engagement and determination - of which the former is seen as the most important. ‘For us curiosity is all about both interest in the world about us coupled with an innate desire to continue growing and developing as an individual and a leader,’ he adds. ‘It is more than pure learning agility, where someone could score highly but be constrained by a narrow range of interests. Without high levels of curiosity, development in any dimension is likely to be highly limited.’

How can companies ensure that curiosity is accurately assessed, rather than feigned by canny candidates? ‘One of the greatest sources of error in selection is the propensity for most people to think they are great judges of character and good interviewers. We train extensively to hone our interview skills and look beyond the words spoken to understand what is genuine vs. superficial. At its simplest, assessing potential is more about understanding where energy lies than what has been achieved.’

AHEAD’s Guy Vereecke concurs. ‘Interviews can be considered an unreliable and subjective method of assessment. Indeed they are … in the wrong hands. Yet training and years of experience as professional assessors bring a level of objectivity to the process which adds real value – particularly when other methods, like assessment centres or tests – may be less appropriate for senior and sought-after middle management candidates. Besides, tracking candidates who outperform their peers and go from strength to strength with client companies further serves to hone and reinforce our processes.’

1Egon Zehnder International ( was the parent company of YESS International Brussels, which became AHEAD in 1998, following an amicable MBO.
2James Martin is a consultant with Egon Zehnder in London. He joined the firm in 2000 and is a member of the Leadership Strategy Services and Human Resources Practices.