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Why leaders need to be more curious


The Art of Leadership

Blink and you may have missed it … but we are already at the start of FY19.  For most businesses, that means an all-to-brief respite followed by a quick ramping up to the usual, dizzying pace of activity. This week’s blog is about why curiosity is one of the qualities that will be most essential for leaders to adopt as they set and implement direction for the year ahead.   

Curiosity is a building block of trust and promotes a culture of openness and accountability—which as the royal commission continues to highlight—is indispensable.

In previous newsletters, we have shared with you about the new one-day workshop we launched earlier this year: Executive Presence and Impact, led by former director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) Peter Kingston. Many participants shared with us how, over the course of a day, Peter masterfully helped them unlock their confidence as communicators. We are delighted that Peter will be running this workshop again in Sydney on the 7th November.  Register here for what we expect – like the first two –  to be a fully sold-out event.

Virginia Mansell


Why leaders need to be more curious

In a recent report about the Commonwealth Bank, the financial regulator APRA highlighted a culture of complacency at the executive level, fuelled by an overconfidence that led to senior leaders becoming too insular.

One of APRA’s recommendations was that the board and executives need to demonstrate more intellectual curiosity and critical thinking about the ‘bigger picture’.

That’s no surprise. In our work over the last two decades with more than 6,000 senior leaders across more than 500 organisations in all industries and sectors, we’ve seen that intellectual curiosity too often gets lost behind a smokescreen of overconfidence.

In the context of leadership, we define ‘confidence’ as the feeling of certainty that a leader has in a decision, as well as their willingness to stand by that decision.

We define ‘curiosity’ as a strong desire and ability to make an informed decision through an open mind and willingness to look at the bigger picture. Curiosity, in a sense, is the antidote to overconfidence.

In their decision making, leaders need high levels of both confidence and curiosity. Too much or too little of either can have an adverse impact on the performance and engagement of individuals, teams and an organisation as a whole.

Through analysing senior leaders and their teams, we’ve mapped the relationship between confidence and curiosity in decision making in the form of ‘personas’:

“The Abdicator”

Low Confidence, Low Curiosity: Disengaged decision-making  

Low levels of belief in a decision, or an inability to assert a good decision coupled with insular thinking or indifference, means Abdicators tend to avoid tough decisions. They will create the illusion of empowerment when the real motivator is indifference. Trust quickly evaporates.

“The Over-Analyser”

High Curiosity, Low Confidence: Complex decision making

When there’s an over reliance on information-gathering borne of doubt, the decision-making process becomes complex and can grind to a halt. Alternatively, too much collaboration or collegiality can result in the loss of critical thinking and there can be slippage from outcomes, creating additional organisational risk.  Ultimately teams lose faith in the leader and the decision-making process.

“The Authority”

High Confidence, Low Curiosity: Biased decision-making   

An authoritative approach to decision-making can be useful but, in the absence of curiosity, decision making is distorted by unconscious biases. There is also dissonance between the leader’s feelings of confidence in a decision and that of the team, leading to push back or disengagement and, at worse, resignation.

“The Achiever”

High Confidence, High Curiosity: Agile decision-making

Grounded critical thinking and big picture analysis eliminates unconscious biases and offers certainty which leads to agility in decision-making. Demonstrated curiosity also galvanises teams, builds psychological safety and creates a ‘coalition of the willing’ who innovate, grow, and achieve organisational outcomes.

There are three requirements to ensure the right balance of confidence and curiosity:

1.Getting the dynamics right.

One way to do this is by categorising the types of decisions that need to be made and having the right people and processes in place to ensure agile decision-making. For example, a decision ‘on the run’ needs a different approach to one on which ‘you’re betting the house’.

2.Knowing your decision-making ‘style’.

How we make decisions is influenced strongly by our beliefs, values, experience and how our brains are ‘hard-wired’. Under pressure we tend to default to these thinking and behavioural styles: some people can make ‘snap judgments’ quickly while for others, quick decision-making creates anxiety or even mental paralysis.

3.Building the mindsets and skillsets of confidence and curiosity

Knowing your decision-making style is the first step of capability-building in decision-making. The next step is to develop the specific skills that build confidence, curiosity and dexterity, such as listening, critical thinking, probing, and developing a ‘growth’ mindset.

There’s an interesting paradox in all of this. In the complexity and ambiguity of today’s work environment, leaders are being asked to make the complex simple, and at speed.

But simplicity is the hardest thing of all.


About the Authors: 

Mehul Joshi is a Partner with the Stephenson Mansell Group, a former award-winning broadcast journalist for the BBC, and an experienced executive. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he has implemented successful interventions for some of the world’s biggest companies in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.


Joe Fischer is an Equity Partner and Executive Director with the Stephenson Mansell Group, an experienced international corporate executive, company director and executive coach. He has also run his own HR consultancy and held senior executive positions with Nestle and the P&O Group working in Australia, Switzerland, the UK, Asia, and the Middle East.


What’s On

Need to stand out from the crowd and take charge of your leadership journey?

Look no further than our Perspectives on Leadership for Women Program.

Designed to help female senior leaders to align who they are with how they lead, this program has a practical and hands-on approach and focuses on personal presence and communication; resilience; change and complexity; and finding your mentors and sponsors.

Perspectives on Leadership for Women gave me more than a few opportunities to examine assumptions I wasn’t even aware I was making, and which were limiting my potential to bring the best of myself to the roles I play at work and in life.”  Director – Strategic HR Business Partnering

Melbourne – Perspectives on Leadership for Women – 5 September & 10 October 2018

Sydney – Perspectives on Leadership for Women – 19 October & 16 November 2018

Brisbane – Perspectives on Leadership for Women –   26 October & 30 November

Executive Presence and Impact Workshop with Peter Kingston, Specialist Communications Coach

Back by popular demand, a new workshop date has just been released for Sydney: 7th November.

Make the most of this opportunity to experience an immediate impact on your presence deliver your messages with improved confidence and clarity; understand how to quickly connect with audiences; and learn the secret to speaking less and saying more.

 “Peter was engaging, full of energy and came from a different viewpoint which added value“.

Click here to register.

Decoding the DNA of Decision Making  ||| 2-hour Free Masterclass  |||  10th August 2018, Sydney

Effective leadership decision-making is critical because leaders are being asked to make high-stakes decisions in the midst of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. At the same time, there’s little room for error: the organisational and reputational cost of getting it wrong is high.

Join Mehul Joshi, one of our Partners, as he tackles the question ‘How can leaders make the right decisions, at speed, and when the pressure is on?’

With special guest, Adjunct Professor Dr Barry Partridge, sharing his ground-breaking research into decision-making.

Places are strictly limited, email events@smgrp.com.au or ring us on (02) 9950 2000 to find out more.


Tribute to Helen Tribe

It is with great sadness that I share the news of the untimely passing of one of our dearest colleagues, Helen Tribe, who lost her two-year battle with several severe illnesses in late June.

Helen joined SMG in 2006 as our specialist Communications and Executive Presence Coach, a field in which she excelled following a rich career over more than three decades in communications strategy, delivery and training.

Helen’s final note to me, I think, says everything about Helen…

“I have been very proud to be part of the SMG team, hoping to make the world a better place, or at least some of those leaders leading others to be better people. I wish I had found this work earlier”

She certainly did this…

The notes and tributes which have been sent in over the last week by the SMG team also describe Helen as a unique and very special person: Always so bubbly and cheerful, always so amazingly positive, always so warm and empowering. She could always impart such self-belief and confidence in those with whom she worked. Helen was always such a strong, sweet, smart woman.

Helen was one of those amazing people who is like a wonderfully positive glue who connect and strengthens the relationships and communities of which she is a part.

Helen laid the foundations for SMG’s Women’s Program and her ability to transform leaders’ executive presence from the outside in is her lasting legacy  To those of you who knew her, I am sure you will join with me and the SMG team in our thoughts and prayers for her family.

Regards, Virginia

What’s Trending in Leadership?

Did curiosity really ‘kill the cat’?

Perhaps not… but this paper by Michael Harvey et al identifies the role that curiosity plays in initiating the learning process in newly appointed global managers.

Curiosity has been consistently identified as a key characteristic trait of global leaders; Neuroscientist Brie Linkenhoker, shares her views on why leaders must continually broaden their world views and approach with curiosity to be able to address future strategic challenges.

Understanding what style of decision maker you and your team members are can be a catalyst to more thorough and effective team decision making.

Take this quick quiz to identify what your decision making style is.


Meet our Team

This month in ‘Meet our Team’ … Meet Amanda Bickerstaff

Tell me about the industries and/or areas you specialise in?

I specialise in increasing self-awareness and achieving behaviour change in all aspects of Leadership Development, Emotional Intelligence, Conversational Intelligenceâ, Coach Development and Career Management. I enjoy working with individuals and groups.

I have coached and facilitated groups in many industries including Retail, Banking and Finance, Insurance, Technology, Telecommunications, Health, Biotech, Manufacturing, Legal, Education, Defence Force, and Federal and State Government.

Tell me about how you first became involved in the coaching space?

I had managed individual programs and facilitated groups in crisis situations in the change management space in organisations across many industries. This evolved into Career Coaching programs based on market demand and programs focused on how to lead, facilitate and manage change. The transition to Executive Coaching has been a seamless and natural evolution for me.

What has surprised you most about working as a coach?

How rewarding it is to support another human being in their search for meaning and achieve change in their work and life.  How insightful humans can be when supported.

What do you find most challenging about being a coach?

For me it is the mental challenge of working with complexity that is within each of us and surrounds us in the systems we operate in. I feel truly blessed in being trusted to work with my clients and help them unwind in this way.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about starting a coaching program?

Put the preparation in to be clear about what you want to achieve, own your development and commit to the process. If you are willing to do all of those, you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself—and the personal gains are definitely worth it.

Is there any advice you would give someone who is progressing their career toward a key leadership role?

  • Manage your education
  • Keep your personal development as a high priority.
  • Focus on building your self-awareness and seek honest feedback on your abilities, listen to the feedback with an open mind and use the information wisely.
  • Know your key stakeholders and build relationships.

 As you know we are always growing and learning. Is there any one thing you would like to take the time to learn more about?

I am learning most of the time

What are some of your passions outside the office?

The ocean, walking, reading, art and music and body work.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I have paddled around the Whitsunday Islands, trained as a Rescue Scuba Diver and walked the Camino de Santiago.

Where will we find you on your days off?

I’d love to say the beach.  However life is pretty busy.

The greatest lesson I learned years ago was to listen closely and trust my instincts.


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