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Curiosity Makes the Director

ask great questions Jul 11, 2021

I often close my email messages with the words ‘Stay Curious.’

For me, it’s more than just a closing line like ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Yours truly.’ I mean it as a reminder to the reader – and to myself for that matter – to intentionally focus on always bringing a lively state of curiosity to the board table.

I firmly believe that curiosity is one of the attributes that separates a ho-hum board director from a Savvy Director.

And I’m not alone in thinking that.

“The best board members are inherently curious. ... They never settle for highlights or default to conventional methods. They don’t just analyze the information they’re given, but they pick up on the body language and interactions of the executive team. They’re obsessed with discovering the why.” - Brian Stafford, CEO of Diligent. Modern Governance 2.5: What Does it Mean to Be a Curious Board Director?

An emphasis on the value of curiosity is important for individual directors and the boards they serve on. And Savvy Directors have the opportunity – and maybe even the obligation - to demonstrate genuine curiosity and openness to exploring new ideas.

Dealing with Complexity

As board directors we constantly have to deal with a high, and rapidly escalating, level of complexity. In his HBR article, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains the three psychological qualities that enhance our ability to deal with complexity. You’re probably familiar with the first two, but the third may come as a surprise.

  1. IQ. Intelligence quotient refers to mental ability. Higher levels of IQ enable us to learn and solve complex problems faster.
  2. EQ. Emotional quotient refers to the ability to perceive, control, and express emotions, useful in adapting to uncertain, complex environments.
  3. CQ. Curiosity quotient is about having a hungry mind. People with high CQ are inquisitive and open to new experiences. CQ helps us tolerate ambiguity and leads us to be more interested in continuous learning - hallmarks of an effective board director.

Fortunately, although IQ is hard to coach, both EQ and CQ can be strengthened through coaching and intentional practice.

“In an age of information, the curious director acts as a sharp pair of eyes and ears, helping today’s companies detect the signal through the noise.” - Brian Stafford


Curiosity in the Boardroom

Have you sat through a meeting where the board members lack curiosity? I know I have. More than once. It’s not fun.

When a board lacks curiosity, it can result in complacency, disengagement, lost opportunities, addressing the wrong problems, choosing the wrong solutions, and general underperformance.

On the other hand, a board meeting with directors in a state of lively curiosity is a joy to participate in.

Boards that are intentionally curious tend to be deeply invested in the success of their organization. They create more rewarding experiences for directors, are better strategic partners with management, and challenge well-worn assumptions.

When we’re in a state of curiosity in the boardroom, it means:

  • We can view tough situations more creatively.
  • We’re less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias and stereotyping.
  • We’re more able to put ourselves in others’ shoes and take an interest in others’ ideas.
  • We tend to share information more openly and listen more carefully.
  • We work together more effectively and build stronger relationships.
  • We reach better solutions and achieve better outcomes.

This is not a controversial concept. There's broad agreement that curiosity is a valuable asset to bring to the board table. So, what are some of the barriers that get in the way?

First of all, sometimes we have contrary mindsets, like a belief that allowing ourselves to follow where our curiosity leads will end up in chaos, disagreement, and wasted time.

Second, our curiosity declines the longer we’re in a position. Once the novelty has worn off, everyone’s curiosity starts to drop off, meaning that long-serving directors find it harder to be curious than newcomers.

Third, routine is the enemy of curiosity. The routines of board work – with every meeting more or less the same - create expected patterns of behavior. In other words, we learn what to ask and what not to ask.

Fourth, the press of too much to do and too little time discourages pursuing our curiosity. There’s a tendency to seek efficiency over creativity.

Fifth, there can be social pressure to keep your questions to yourself. It’s hard to ask a curious question when you can feel the directors around you just waiting to get to the end of the meeting.

“If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that curiosity might kill cats, but it doesn't kill people.” - Tracy Morgan


How Boards Can Support Curiosity

Developing a culture that is defined by curious minds and encourages carefully and intentionally framed questions, will serve boards well. Fortunately, curiosity is contagious. Certain board practices can enable curiosity to thrive.

Break routines. Creating new routines sparks curiosity. Seating directors in small groups instead of around the board table can spur different interactions and holding meetings off-site can alter perspectives. If that seems too challenging, just changing the order of reports or assigning different directors to lead various sections of the agenda could help disrupt the commonplace.

Commit the time. Board agendas are often very full and overly scripted. Building in time for reflection and discourse, and finding ways to steal time for probing questions, can encourage curiosity. Allocating time to board education can also be powerful.

Calculate your statement-question ratio. Not sure if your board is curious? Assign someone the task of tallying the number of curiosity-driven questions on one hand, and the number of statements and clarification questions on the other hand. The comparison could be revealing.

Give permission to be curious. Board chairs may need to go beyond just inviting questions from others by demonstrating curiosity themselves. 

Relabel problems as puzzles. Puzzles can be invigorating in ways that problems rarely are. Issues framed as ‘problems’ invoke a negative emotion and the search for solutions, limiting curiosity. The same issue framed as a ‘puzzle’ can lead to a mindset geared toward exploration and divergent thinking.

Use questions as agenda items. Board agendas are framed around statements when what’s really needed are questions. A list of topics doesn’t create the expectation for curiosity, but agendas posed as questions lead to curious inquiry.

Encourage curiosity with small changes. Before an agenda item, the board could engage in a 90-second brainstorm where each director writes down a list of questions associated with the topic. Or, at the end of the meeting, directors could be asked to write down one question that they had earlier but didn’t ask. Reading the responses back to the group encourages curiosity.


Bringing a State of Curiosity to the Table

We all have the potential to be curious, under the right conditions. In her blog post Curiosity: Why and How It Can Define Your Board Career, Tamara Paton suggests that we can achieve a state of curiosity more often with these three practices:

  1. Read from a variety of sources. The highest-performing directors read constantly, gathering insights from news media, industry journals, and internal reports. Try reading from a fresh information source each morning to kick start your day with intellectual fuel.
  2. Take your time. Spend focused time with the board material, then spend some soak time with the ideas before reconnecting with the material later to develop a list of questions. Taking your time may just give you a new commitment to the task of preparation. Our PREP Framework can guide you through the process.
  3. Pose a curious question. In each board meeting, challenge yourself to pose a genuinely interesting question — one that opens an information gap. Focus on a topic that invites others to expand and enhance the path of inquiry. A discussion opener that invites collaboration boosts the entire board’s curiosity factor.


The ‘You Idiot’ Test

Not all questions are equal. As directors, we should never ask a question just for the sake of being heard. Let’s be curious with intention.

Some questions can lead to curiosity, while others are simply interrogations posed to assign blame, and still others are merely rhetorical - intended to go unanswered because they are part of a soapbox by those who like to hear themselves talk.

Roger Schwartz, in the Harvard Business Review article Increase Your Team’s Curiosity, said it best:

“… it’s not enough to ask questions. You have to be genuinely curious. When you are genuinely curious, you ask questions to learn what others are thinking. When you aren’t genuinely curious, you ask questions to make a point.”

Asking rhetorical questions feels good if all you want to do is score some quick verbal points. But pointed rhetorical questions can leave people feeling defensive and impair trust, undermining relationships and reducing a group’s ability to make good decisions.

My favorite part of Schwarz’s article is the ‘You Idiot’ test. Here’s how it works:

Privately say to yourself the question you plan to ask. At the end of your private question, add the words ‘you idiot.’ If the question still sounds natural with ‘you idiot’ at its end, don’t ask it. It’s really a statement — a pointed rhetorical question.

Instead, ask a curious question by changing it to a statement of your view and your feelings. Then add a genuine question that helps you learn more about the situation.

With this technique, the rhetorical question “Why do you think I asked you to finish the work before the end of this fiscal year (you idiot)?” becomes “That really bothers me because it already puts next year’s budget at risk. Help me understand; what happened to make project expenses spill over into next fiscal year?”


Your takeaways:

  • Savvy Directors bring a state of curiosity to the boardroom.
  • A high curiosity quotient (CQ) helps directors deal with complexity.
  • Boards can support curiosity with intentional practices.
  • To boost your own state of curiosity, try reading from a variety of sources, taking the time to prepare well, and resolving to pose at least one interesting question at each meeting.
  • Be curious with intention, don't ask questions just to be heard.
  • Use the ‘You Idiot’ test to root out pointed rhetorical questions.




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Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

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