This is the first in a series focused on the characteristics that, in combination, allow rare BOLD leaders to accomplish what others struggle to do: drive innovation and transformative change. In other words – they move their organizations forward beyond whatever exists today into exciting opportunities. They do this effectively, bringing others with them, achieving meaningful results. I’ve included personal reflections about some of my own change experiences and what I’ve learned along the way. 

The other day I was doing some research for an upcoming presentation and came across a couple articles where someone said a version of this: Organizations that have some history (longevity, scale, market presence) become complacent. Innovation slows. If performance is good enough, they become self-satisfied with the status quo. Thinking back over my career both inside companies and as a consultant to a wide variety of organizations, I’ve seen this phenomenon 1000 times over.

There is much in the way capital markets operate, customer expectations are set, and company cultures develop that keep organizations safely in the lane that they have created and grown over time. Short-term earnings expectations cause deferrals of long-term investments. Customers need what they’ve purchased from you today and they need it to work as promised. They have no sense of how your organization interprets their actions as signals to stay the course. Employees and managers get comfortable with what is and often completely miss the reality all around them that they’ve lost their competitive edge.

In my last corporate executive role before Aveus, I worked for a 125-year-old company. We were very innovative during my years there. We happily pushed the boundaries and ignored the market and industry naysayers who thought some of what we were doing was crazy. We, thankfully, had an ownership that believed in what we were doing and put their investments behind their beliefs. We had a great run – tripling in revenues and moving from the lowest quartile earnings performance in our industry to one of the highest – all in about 4 to 5 years. My boss, the CEO at the time, would often say to me, “Our success is our limiter – we have to keep pushing.” And so, we did. He was super bright, constantly learning, and curious about the next possibilities. He was a BOLD leader.

When you meet a BOLD leader, you realize how rare they are. These are the folks who are not driven by current performance – they want better; whose thinking is not constrained by organizational norms (formal and informal) – they initiate new norms; and who ask uncomfortable questions, raise the consciousness of others, and open new possibilities for their peers, colleagues and customers. Their curiosity spills out of them without prompting.

Through our BOLD leader initiative and research, we concluded that these leaders, at their core, have innate curiosity. That’s right: they were born with it and through their lives never lost it. In fact, it grows stronger with experiences and education – and with failures as much, or more, than successes.

They reject the status quo as sufficient. No matter how successful, they believe to their toes that more opportunity awaits – they just need to find new ways to unlock it. One of the primary ways they do this is by asking questions. Hard questions. Uncomfortable questions. Lots of questions. They also look for patterns in research and data. They listen to their customers – intently. They pay attention to how customers use their current products and what else they are doing. They accept the fact that others – fresh new disruptors out there – are doing interesting things worthy of study. They test and learn. In sum they continuously feed their own curiosity and unleash it in others.

So, you might ask: is it possible to find and nurture curiosity if your company has become one of those satisfied, complacent organizations? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Here is one example from our Aveus files. We had the opportunity to work with a large northeastern regional health plan on their customer experience efforts for a couple years. At the end of this and all our engagements, we ask a couple simple questions – one being about the impact of our work together. The COO at the time said, “You changed the pH in our organization.” What she was saying in a nutshell is that we helped them unleash and benefit from the untapped curiosity that was right there, within their organization.

Let me leave you with a couple first questions of the series: Where are the curious folks in your organization that can be tapped and nurtured for boldness? What are you doing to challenge, benefit from, and develop them?