This article is co-authored by Mara Swan, ManpowerGroup’s Executive VP of Global Strategy and Talent, and Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Hogan Assessments.

In an age of ubiquitous access to information and rapid job automation, curiosity has been hailed as one of the critical markers of human potential. A report presented by ManpowerGroup at the latest World Economic Forum highlighted that learnability, the desire to adapt one’s skill set to remain employable throughout one’s working life, is arguably the main antidote to job automation. Simply put, unless people keep learning and developing their skillset and expertise, technology will most likely make their jobs redundant. HR is responsible for the learning in organizations. It should be making curiosity a top priority, starting with the hiring process, as companies such as Google and EY have done. But does curiosity really have a place within HR?

Co-Author Mara Swan, ManpowerGroup’s Executive VP of Global Strategy and Talent

Although a growing number of HR competency models now include curiosity as a central quality of effective HR leaders, it is still quite common for executives to regard their CHROs as bureaucratic, rule-bound creatures. Indeed, despite the recent rise of strategic talent management and people analytics, HR’s reputation is still tied to the traditional role of HR professionals as employee record keepers – a bunch of risk-averse, process-loving people who are as far from innovation and disruption as the health and safety operator of a government nuclear plant.

And yet, there is no doubt that HR leaders need as much curiosity as a Chief Innovation Officer. In fact, since no innovation (internal or external) can happen without first implementing the relevant talent management processes to enable it, HR plays a pivotal role in driving organizational progress. Accordingly, a PWC report shows that transformational HR teams excel primarily in two areas, namely upgrading the talent pool and reshaping the culture of their organizations. Both of these goals will be significantly easier to attain when HR leaders have a hungry mind. In fact, the most transformative HR professionals we have worked with standout not so much for their experience or track record, but for their insatiable appetite for learning and their willingness to harness curiosity in their organizations. Here are four critical qualities these individuals tend to display:

A healthy degree of skepticism: Much like good scientists, curious HR leaders will display a healthy dose of skepticism when evaluating the wide range of promising claims made by self-proclaimed gurus and consultants in the field of talent management. For a fairly uncreative field, the prevalence of fads and shiny new objects is indeed quite remarkable, and nothing hurts well-meaning HR professionals more than being overly naïve or trusting. Of course, extreme skepticism turns HR leaders into cynical destroyers of ideas, but that is arguably still preferable to being naïve.

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Co-Author Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Awareness of their own limitations: In a world that celebrates self-belief and habitually promotes strengths-based coaching, it is easy to forget just how important it is to be aware of one’s flaws and limitations. Curious HR leaders are brutally honest with themselves, to the point of being excessively self-critical. This helps them understand what they don’t understand, and in turn close the gap between their actual and desired knowledge state. But for such individuals to succeed, organizations – particularly those in charge of appointing and promoting them – must first realize that there is an upside to insecurity, and that excessive confidence is often indicative of incompetence. As the great Bertrand Russell noted, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Openness to change and experimentation: Even if HR leaders are not naturally creative, they can help translate creative ideas into actual innovations simply by being open to change and experimentation. Curious HR leaders welcome proposals and suggestions from others, no matter how unusual or wacky they may seem. What stops organizations from innovating is not a shortage of ideas. In fact, most organizations have a surplus of creative ideas that are stagnant or dormant, but they rarely turn into innovations because of the Darwinian force that naturally selects conventional and familiar ideas instead. Curious HR leaders can act as a catalyst for innovation by championing ideas for change and creating a culture of risk tolerance. It all starts with a willingness to experiment and an acceptance that many ideas may fail. As Jeff Bezos says “if you know it’s going to work, then it isn’t an experiment”.

Unselfish competitiveness: Finally, the most effective HR leaders we have worked with also display a relentless drive to succeed. They are clearly competitive to the point of being fearless and obsessive in the pursuit of their goals, yet at the same time they are not individualistic. Their focus is not their own career success, but the success of the organization. What’s good for the organization is good for them, but what’s good for them is not necessarily good for the organization. This universal quality of true leadership potential forces great HR leaders to collaborate with their key stakeholders and subordinates in order to get ahead of the external competition. When they succeed, they manage to instill a highly-competitive spirit in their own teams. Their success does not stop them from wanting to achieve more; true ambition is the ability to remain unhappy with one’s accomplishments.

While we welcome the advent of HR analytics and the related prospect of making the field more data-driven and evidence-based, our concern is that without curiosity and the willingness to learn and develop expertise, no amount of data will suffice to make HR more effective. HR leaders need curiosity to determine new solutions to new problems and more effective solutions for old problems as the complexity of the world of work increases. You can give HR leaders all the data in the world but if they are only interested in finding quick and easy solutions to their everyday problems they will at best ignore the data, and at worst be replaced by it – or is it the other way around?

About Co-Author Mary Swan, ManpowerGroup’s Executive VP of Global Strategy and Talent
A recognized expert in Human Resources, Swan is vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Gender Parity. She is a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources and sits on the Executive Committees of the Peer Round Table for CHROs and the HR Policy Association, where she also currently leads the Association’s Workforce 2020 Initiative.

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