The unexpected quality that drives early career success

Dan Richards is a serial founder and former public company CEO, and an award-winning member of the marketing faculty at the Rotman School of Management, where he oversees the credit course associated with MBA student internships.

A common question students ask when they are about to graduate is what it takes to excel in their first job and build early momentum in their career. To answer that and help my students, I’ve had more than 250 conversations over the past three years with successful business leaders about the one or two qualities that the most successful young people in their organizations have in common.

A variety of themes emerged. Some I anticipated: showing enthusiasm and a strong work ethic, earning the trust of managers, finding a mentor, building relationships with co-workers and demonstrating the ability to work effectively on teams.

But one other theme emerged that I wasn’t expecting – the importance for employees early in their careers to demonstrate genuine curiosity. As we discussed further, I heard four reasons that curiosity is essential in accelerating careers.

Curiosity leads to great questions

The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was among the top thinkers on strategy. Here’s what he had to say about questions: Questions are the places in your mind where the answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question the answer has nowhere to go.”

Nancie Lataille, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles expressed it this way: The best among today’s graduates ask more and better questions – the power of a good question is formidable, challenging assumptions in a respectful fashion. One area where companies assess junior staff is their depth of their thinking and curiosity.”

Along similar lines, here’s a tip from Neil Wechsler, chief executive officer of alternative lender Ondeck Canada: “My No. 1 piece of advice is to work at being an outstanding listener, because listening well leads to intellectual curiosity and triggers thought-provoking questions. In a meeting or while doing your work, asking good questions can lead everyone around you to learn.”

Erin Miller, who I came to know when she ran career services at Rotman and who today is assistant vice-president for talent acquisition at Canada Life said, “When you start out, it can be hard to set yourself apart. Reading everything you can and learning everything possible about your company, your competitors, industry trends and your role will set you up to ask the right questions and to add value in early meetings.

Curiosity demonstrates initiative

A common theme in my conversations was that successful young people showed initiative and the willingness to go beyond the minimum that was expected. A second reason curiosity is important is because it lets you demonstrate that quality.

CIBC chief executive Victor Dodig had this to say: Something that successful young people I’ve worked with had in common was curiosity. They didn’t just look narrowly at the job they were being asked to do. Instead, they read and thought broadly outside of their role. If they worked for a bank, they’d read a report in The Economist on The Future of Banking and would ask how it was relevant to their role and what it meant for the bank going forward.”

Roy Firth spent 15 years at Manulife Financial, retiring as executive vice-president. Here’s his experience: As I think back to the young people who stood out, what they had in common was real curiosity. They researched our competition and read everything they could to understand their role and our industry and asked good questions as a result. My experience was that very few people demonstrated the curiosity and interest to dig beneath the surface. The good news is that this creates an opportunity as demonstrating interest and initiative and bridging the curiosity gap will set you apart.”

Curiosity helps you learn

Something that today’s companies look for among high-potential employees is an intense desire to continuously learn and improve. Curiosity can be critical in helping early stage staff show that desire to learn.

Here’s a comment from Rick Headrick, president of Capital Group Canada: “The most successful young employees I’ve worked with always wanted to learn. I like to say that my door is always open if anyone has questions or wants to ask about the business. I have been struck by the number of young people who have taken me up on my invitation. They came well prepared and asked good questions, with genuine curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. Showing that curiosity and drive to learn is one of the things that will let you stand apart and progress in your career.”

And here’s the experience of Tea Nicola, co-founder of financial technology company Wealthbar: “Constant curiosity helped in my quest for a fulfilling career. When I thought about what made some of the young people we were hired to stand out and the things we looked for in evaluating potential hires, curiosity and the desire to learn were among the key things we looked for.

Curiosity makes you stand out

One of the challenges for early stage employees is to stand out from everyone around them. Jason Mullins, chief executive of Go Easy Financial, (which is among Canada’s fintech success stories) says “The best way to do that is to show insatiable curiosity and a thirst to learn. You need to be super hungry to learn and to understand how things work. To do that, don’t tune out conversations outside of your immediate area. This not only fuels development but also signals a strong degree of ambition and showcases your drive.”

A final comment came from Jeanne Lam, who last December stepped down as president of the tech success story Wattpad: “One watershed moment in my career was when my manager told me that I was unique in terms of my curiosity. Until then, I had assumed that everyone was the same as me and that everyone else was super curious. This comment made me lean into that curiosity to this day and has helped me remain confident through the normal challenges we all encounter.”

This spring, university graduates will be launching their careers in many different roles and across many different industries. Regardless of the role and industry, bringing genuine curiosity will lead to great questions, show initiative, demonstrate a desire to learn and allow them to stand out and set them up for success as a result.

This column is part of the Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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