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November 2018


-Karthik Gurumurthy

The more experiences I have, the more I realize I don't know. The more I realize there's more out there, the more curiosity I have, the more I learn. What I try to do is I do a lot of things that are outside my comfort zone. I say yes to things that will allow me to have a different experience. That's very difficult because you also want to make sure that you're focused, so you have to be very intentional about those experiences. I don't mean intentional that it has to make sense, I mean intentional about that interests me. Curiosity is critical for the process of learning and development. Evidence suggests that learning with curiosity leads us to remember more of what we learn and moreover, to enjoy the learning process more.

What do we mean by curiosity? Philosopher and psychologist William James defined curiosity as the impulse towards better cognition, or in other words, a desire to learn and know more. Contemporary definitions of psychology consider curiosity an internal motivation to seek information. These are semantically different, but the meaning is the same. It's an individual desire, an internal desire to want to go out and find something new. Some might argue that curiosity is a fixed and innate trait. Either have it or you don't. We can all probably think of people that immediately come to mind as curious people and others that don't seem so curious. But what if that is more of a state of being than an intrinsic trait? What if we thought about curiosity as a competency or a skill to be developed? To be fair, most of us have gone through an education system that values the acquisition of knowledge and there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But often curiosity goes against the norm and therefore it's hindered instead of cultivated.

When you were younger, especially in early elementary school, did you ever experience that kid in your class who all of a sudden, out of nowhere asked a question that seemed completely unrelated to whatever was going on in the class at the moment? Chances are that student was told to pipe down or wait until later. Or have you ever been in a meeting where you are close to consensus on some decision with your team and then someone pipes up with a question that no one had yet thought to ask, and then that person gets shut down? These are examples of curiosity at work.

Throughout our lives, most of us get graded and evaluated on what we know, how much we studied, how much we remembered, how we will be able to work through a problem to get to the right answer. Because of this, we grow into knowers. We believe we have the answers and we stopped checking our own assumptions. This makes us feel confident and in control. It helps us to demonstrate to others our values so we can get that promotion or take on that new project. But it also completely gets in the way of our ability to be curious, our ability to learn. Cultivating our curiosity is about shifting from being a knower to a learner. This doesn't mean we don't have any knowledge, it means we are open to constantly updating our assumptions by taking in new information. It makes it more likely that we'll engage in a dialogue in which all voices in a team contribute instead of a debate that turns into an uncomfortable conversation. It means that when we face disappointment, we will explore that experience for what we can take away from it instead of letting it shut us down.

Question is, how do you get into a learner mindset or how do you know you're not in a newer mindset? I think you have to almost catch yourself or if somebody else can catch you with it and say, well, that's a solution that you're thinking about and it's not a problem. So that might be one way to do it is you might just say to yourself, am I thinking in terms of a solution without a problem defined? Or my thinking about a problem and my asking all the right questions to try to find out all the different aspects of this interdependent problem situation that is going on. I think that might be the simplest way of asking yourself, am I a knower or am I a learner? A knower would be like Richard Feynman and his dad versus his friend. Feynman was a theoretical physicist, brilliant guy.

The story goes that they would go out into the forest and see birds and trees and his friend and his father would say to him, that's a cardinal or that's a birch tree or he would explain to him what he was seeing, and of course, his friend would memorize that, he would be a knower of all of those things. Richard's father would say to him, "So why do you think the beacon that bird has that shape?"

I mean, it's a completely different thing. So it opens up a set of questions. I think to that example, I would say that maybe the way you become a learner always start with a set of questions that you don't understand the answer to, and then you ask how can I get answers to my questions? That puts you into a learner mode. Curiosity is powerful.


-Karthik Gurumurthy

Let's talk a bit about courage and its relevance for leadership growth. Dr Brené Brown, whose work on vulnerability has become widely known, defines vulnerability as uncertainty risk and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is when we are at our most human and it is not a sign of weakness rather our willingness to get into that state of discomfort and emotional exposure is exactly a measure of how brave we are willing to be. Based on her research she argues that vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage and it is a prerequisite to the behaviors that her research has found are important for what she calls daring leadership, which are rumbling with vulnerability, braving trust, living our values and learning to rise.

Being a leader takes courage, takes courage to let go of the assumption that we as leaders have it all figured out. It takes courage to let an employee or team member take ownership over a project. It takes courage to have a difficult conversation with members of our team. It takes courage to look at ourselves and be willing to say, I'm going to try to grow as a leader even if it's hard. Again it's kind of a sobering responsibility and is it that you're being watched all the time? And the answer is unfortunately yeah, a lot of times we have unrealistic expectations of our leaders. I remember being junior in Allergan and being in a meeting and sitting with the director and I was like, they must know everything. When I was a Director I was like, yeah, I don't really know anything, coz sometimes you don't know anything about the topic and you have to have the humility to ask the questions. But people often will have unrealistic expectations and part of what you can do and part of that is being very human and being willing to be vulnerable sometimes. And that's part of the challenge with that authentic style of leadership and leading because there's some vulnerability but there are ways to protect yourself as well, right? But at the end of the day you were much more fulfilled and you feel much better. And when you put your head down on the pillow at night, you can rest better knowing that you are authentic self and you are bringing your best to your team or whatever situation you're working in as a leader.

As leaders, we are in a prime position to have to deal with uncertainty risk and emotional exposure, meaning we have to get messy with vulnerability. Just think about it, relationships with people who are looking to you to make decisions, to be a role model, to empower them, to do great work and to grow themselves as leaders. Just to name a few of the responsibilities of leaders that require us to be vulnerable, because of all of this, it can be easy to build up a sort of emotional armor. So what does this armor look like?

Defaulting to making a decision without listening to others, avoiding hard conversations, being a no or instead of a learner, blaming others instead of considering our own role in the situation. Being courageous is about getting vulnerable and learning to lower that armor. So how do we practice lowering the armor? How do we develop that sense of courage requires practicing vulnerability? Play with vulnerability, Brené Brown calls this rumbling with vulnerability and I like that to test out what it feels like to acknowledge your vulnerability instead of hiding from it.

Start by acknowledging those places of risk, uncertainty and emotion with people you trust employees, team members supervise or maybe even family members. I have to get vulnerable to be a good leader, get curious, ask yourself? I wonder where vulnerability appears for me, look for opportunities to shift from blame to internalization. Good problem solvers look for the source of a problem and in teams and organizations that often turns into finding someone to blame. This is a great place to practice being vulnerable. It's easy to blame others, it's harder to acknowledge our own role in a problem or sometimes even to forgive when someone has done something wrong. If you find yourself leaning toward blaming someone, turn inward, acknowledge any resistance you are feeling and see if you can figure out why, then consider other elements of the system around you that may be playing in a role in this problem.

Good change agents

-Karthik Gurumurthy

I am excited to work with the new team for last couple of months here in Amex. Learning a lot from the team members as well as getting an opportunity to execute lot of good stuff and be  a positive change agent. This is what I have observed from Great leaders that I have worked in the past and I strive my best to follow them.

  • Adaptive/Flexible: They simply want progress towards the overall vision. These change agents are never stubborn on matters that seem to have no vision-altering value. They navigate towards a solution, letting others have “their” way. Everyone walks away feeling as though they have won.
  • Open to criticism: They know how to filter through what is valid criticism and when it is simply a venting of personal interest. They unwaveringly push through the junk and cruise with good takeaways in the process. They value the opinions of other people and work hard to gain trust. 
  • Prioritize actions: They have a keen sense of discernment when it comes to knowing when to pull the trigger, when to wait, and when to pull the plug completely.
  • Follow-up/Follow-through: They always follows through on commitments made and sees the change to fruition. They don’t give up until the post evaluation is complete and the lessons of change have been learned.