Questioning everything: why leaders need constant curiosity
Global innovation expert, ideas connector and head of Graduate Management at UQ Business School, Associate Professor Tim Kastelle discusses why leaders need constant curiosity and how the need to know shaped his own career journey.
As individuals and as organisations, we are continually charting new territory, whether it is new technology, business practices, markets, or environments – nothing is static anymore. To successfully navigate this rapidly changing world, leaders need new skills; top among these for me is critical thinking, the ability to run experiments, empathy and comfort with ambiguity. However, there is one trait that underpins them all – a sense of constant curiosity.
Curiosity has certainly been a feature of my own career journey. My parents instilled a love of learning in me; they were both the first generation in their respective families to attend university.
For my father, who was the son of a farmer, education would have been out of his reach were it not for the GI Bill – a law that provided a range of benefits for returning war veterans in the US. This essentially gave him the opportunity to attend university on a scholarship after serving in the Korean War, and gave him a deep appreciation for education and the opportunity it offers. My mother was a teacher and a librarian, so had a natural affinity for learning too.
When it came time to decide on tertiary education, I didn’t have a clear career goal in mind, but I did know I wanted to get into the best possible university and the rest I'd work out from there. When I was accepted into Princeton University, I'd achieved my first goal, but now I needed to decide what I wanted to do.
Ultimately, it was my love of punk rock and garage music combined with my curiosity about how things work that led me to find my interest in people management. I took a job at the college radio station because it played the music I loved, eventually working my way up to management.
Managers of college radio stations face an interesting management challenge – the workforce are students and probably should be studying instead of working at the station. Therefore, I quickly learnt that if I took a traditional authoritative approach to management, people would just leave. I had to understand what motivated them and use it to manage in a way that kept them not only performing in their job, but enjoying it enough to stick with it.
From this experience, I developed a deep interest in learning about what motivates people that would stay with me during my entire career. It was this curiosity that made me a good manager at the station and has held me in good stead in the various management roles I have held since.
After graduation, I was a manager for 12 years. I came to academia later in life in 2007 when I studied a UQ Master of Business Administration (MBA) and discovered that an academic career would be a great fit for my curiosity.
Today, I am passionate about innovation – a topic that is also underpinned by curiosity. I define innovation as executing ideas to create value, and it’s the second part of this definition that organisations often miss. Innovation is not just about the ideas, but how you experiment and execute them to create value for stakeholders, from shareholders to employees and even communities.
There are two things I love most about being an academic; one is that I get to indulge that curiosity and love of learning, and the other is that I get to work with organisations to have an impact, to change the way they operate. I am fortunate to have worked with organisations of various types to deliver real results, whether that is about delivering on financial targets, launching a product, commercialising a piece of research, motivating people, or achieving social impact.
Now, as head of the newly launched Graduate Management discipline within UQ Business School, I am privileged to work with individuals and organisations to shape the future of business and management.
With the shifting trends we are seeing in the workplace, such as higher job mobility, an ageing workforce, multi-generational teams and even changing working hours; the way we learn is also changing too. As a leading Business School, UQ must be at the forefront of that change.
Graduate Management brings together the UQ MBA and Executive Education to create a specialist unit that is designed to support learning throughout the lifecycle of organisations and individuals.
Learning isn’t an activity we complete in isolation, the curiosity I mention means we are constantly learning. The daily disruption we face in the business world means our mindset, knowledge and skills need assistance to stay up-to-date regularly; not just to keep up, but to stay in front.
I came into the role also wanting to grow the value that we add to industry, to help solve the problems that keep company leaders awake at night. I think co-creating this value with businesses is really important – this is evident in our custom courses, research partnerships and even our MBA.
In the MBA program, students find solutions to real business problems, as they work with industry partners from startups to multinational brands to provide new directions of growth.
My goal is to help individuals and organisations build the skills to adapt to the challenges of today while preparing for the uncertainties of tomorrow.
This is not only about building the capability to navigate ambiguity, but also about developing the courage to question everything. It is this courage that will help individuals to have real impact, shaping the future of their careers, their organisations, and even their industries.