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How empathy and intellectual curiosity can shape your company’s future


When I entered the workforce in the early ’90s, Bill Clinton was president, LinkedIn was a decade away, and hiring managers were (slowly) sorting through crisp paper résumés.

The digital revolution upended just about every aspect of our world, hiring included. Last year, nearly 3 million graduates entered the American workforce with decidedly digital résumés and high expectations of authenticity. Companies will have to mold their cultures, hierarchies, and roles to attract and retain them.

Hiring has changed on the other side of the desk, too. Social media has transformed talent acquisition, and what we look for in candidates has shifted. In January, Penguin Random House knocked education off its pedestal, announcing candidates didn’t need a degree to land a job.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen two traits that separate the A team from the B team: empathy and intellectual curiosity, both of which lie at the core of authenticity.

Empathy promotes positive change

Empathy’s a soft skill, but we’re not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings (though I’m known as a hugger). Teammates who communicate sincerely and authentically can navigate thorny situations like Zen masters, and humans who feel recognized are more willing to do their part. One study found that people are more efficient when they see their work’s positive impacts.

We issue a monthly award to employees who deliver “raving fan” service to clients and colleagues. Recipients are recognized for their above-and-beyond client work, but more than that, they’re rewarded for ensuring others’ challenges and concerns are seen, heard, and understood. Empathy is at the heart of great internal and external workplace relationships.

Gauge empathy in job candidates by asking who inspires them, how they worked to cultivate meaningful workplace relationships, and how they might teach you new concepts. I always ask candidates to tell me about a time they failed — it tells me about their sense of self.

Keep your eyes peeled for change agents who are motivated but also prioritize work-life balance. People who know how to achieve without sacrificing their well-being are usually empathetic and emotionally intelligent.

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Curiosity keeps your company alive

I was privileged to meet the first female chief technology officer of the U.S., Megan Smith. She runs the highest office in the nation for technology — a male-dominated field — as a married gay woman. She’s knocked down more than a few barriers. When I asked her what trait contributed most to her success, she replied, “Intellectual curiosity.”

In a rapidly changing environment, intellectual curiosity is integral to success. Curious people aren’t gratified by punching the clock; they’re interested in what the company is doing and how to do it better.

An inquisitive team holds powerful collective knowledge, creates innovative products, and generates interesting solutions. As the pace of business accelerates, building an intellectually curious team will future-proof your company.

Gauge curiosity by asking candidates to describe how they’ve taught themselves new skills. One candidate said she was taking marketing courses in between jobs; another learned a foreign language at night school. Honing skills on the side screams “curious” and “motivated.”

I often ask how candidates would get up to speed in the first 90 days. One candidate surprised me when she flipped my question around, asking me to define “success.” Her inquiry indicated deep curiosity and interest. Bottom line: Candidates who don’t ask questions don’t get an offer.

Creating human connections both inside and outside your company is critical; empathy makes that possible. As empathy creates cohesive teams, curiosity drives those teams to explore new solutions, leading to innovation. In this business climate, it’s worth it to dig for empathetic, intellectually curious hires.


Kelly Wenzel is the CMO of Centro. Centro develops digital advertising software to help advertisers streamline and scale digital campaigns.

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