Curiosity Is a Muscle That Fuels Innovation

My interview with Ann-Marie Archer

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Welcome to Create New Futures. Today I’m speaking with Ann-Marie Archer, the founder and CEO of Archer and Associates. Archer and Associates is an executive search, leadership development, and coaching services firm that delivers best in class talented candidates for clients and helps individuals and organizations achieve their potential. After 20 years in corporate America, where she experienced the unpredictable nature of the hiring process and the leadership gaps it creates, Ann-Marie launched her company to bring holistic solutions to leadership talent. She combines in her work deep insights to organizational dynamics dynamics and personal optimization with the use of intuition to formulating penetrating insights.

In this conversation, you will learn about the system approach that Ann-Marie brings to identifying leadership talents. We explore the power of conversation as the tool that creates the road map for transformation and how essential it is to become insanely curious. Ann-Marie talks about developing the ability to be in a place of not knowing and the courage and fearlessness required to uncover what is going to serve the situation. This is a rich conversation. I know you will want to capture and retain some of the ideas we discuss to bring these to your work and leadership journey.

Ann-Marie welcome. Great to have you here for this conversation today.

Great. Thank you Aviv, that was a lovely introduction. I appreciate that.

How are you?

I am excellent. I am wonderful. Thank you for asking. I love your book, the parts that I’ve been able to get through. I now truly get why when you and I are speaking on the phone, you say we need to continue this conversation. Everything I’m reading is just right down my belief system. It’s just I mean it’s as if I’m I’m talking to a mirror just a different version of it. You have different ways of expressing it but it’s the same the same idea.

I call this the Mona Lisa effect; wherever you stand she looks back at you.

Isn’t that beautiful. Yes. Well, the Michelangelo effect (at the end of book), I was like oh yes, that is exactly what I do. So I was like oh I just loved it. I can’t wait to finish it actually. I mean honestly I’m not saying that just to be nice. I really mean that I can’t wait to finish it.

Great. I appreciate it. So in the interest of full transparency we have met through the introduction of a mutual friend, Court Lorenzini. Court is one of the brightest people I know in business and I think we both had the same response. When Court says you need to meet someone you follow the brief and you start the conversation.

That’s exactly right. And he does that with great discernment. So whenever he does say that I do exactly what he says and in this situation he has definitely been right.

I think this exploration today will be as new for both of us as it will be for anyone listening because we have just recently started to develop our conversation.

That’s right.

So if it’s all right, I’d like to dive right in, and then just go with the flow of where this conversation wants to take us.

That would be great.

The place that I’d like to begin is that in my recently published book Create New Futures I make the point that a conversation is a discovery portal. I believe in your work as well, you use conversations as a discovery tool too. Tell me about the place and the significance of conversation in your work.

As a coach and as a person who does search work with executives that’s really our avenue and way of expressing and developing synergy back and forth between the two. Often what I have found with people in conversation that the exchange facilitates the collaboration. Two minds together create something beautiful, something that neither one knew before.

When I go in to do search there is what I call a mining of the company; a looking and seeing. My view is objective. My view is very different coming into the system; I’m not part of the system until I step in the door and start asking questions. I don’t know what I’m about to find. Often it needs me to use an intuition, data as well, and also experience — using the past to inform the future. But I’m also looking for where that next step is and where the gaps are in that organization.

The same occurs with with individuals. When I’m coaching executives and working with them it’s about looking for that hidden place, where they may not be able to see that it’s hidden from their view. We go and we look, and sometimes in the conversation we don’t know and have no ideas. We have to get very comfortable with the not knowing, with having no idea where it’s going to go. The conversation is the road map. The conversation is the exchange and our way of getting to that place of transformation.

Great. I want to go back through this and unpack the idea of mining the system, intuition and being in a space of not knowing. But even before we do that, let me ask you: when did you discover that you have a deep interest in the power of conversations? When did you discover that you have perhaps a gift and an intuition to decipher the sometimes invisible side of conversations? there must have been some earlier experience when you became present in yourself to this awareness, when you felt “oh this is a space, this is a world that I can travel through with ease and grace, and create meaning”? Share with me some of the early experiences where you discovered that.

I started my career in sales. I had intended to be a teacher actually. Then I went into sales which is again teaching in my world. I have a teaching way of being. Who I am is a teacher, a listener, and also a speaker. Those were always skills that I’ve had. But it was through the practice in sales of listening to my customers and my clients that I really got that when my mouth was talking I wasn’t learning anything.

What I was really deeply interested in was understanding and living the lives of the other people in front of me so I can understand them. I always wanted to be a teacher and also wanted to be a writer — I have a degree in English — and I’ve lived other lives was through the characters I interact with. When I was out with my customers, I could vicariously through those people, do what they were what they were doing. I was insanely curious. So I started asking questions and questions and questions. The more I learned, the more it took me down other roads and other forks in the road pathways that seemed natural to me.

There was a point — and I wish I could pinpoint exactly the time — where I found that I had an innate ability to intuit and just know the right question. Sometimes it didn’t even make sense of why I would ask a particular question, but I would. What I learned in the deep listening with my customers is that there often was a place in the conversation that wasn’t mentioned. There was a place that always seemed like there was something missing. I would keep digging and mining around that place.

With experience over time of trusting my deep inner voice that would say and give me questions to ask that often wouldn’t be the question that would be expected in those communications, I would uncover something that was the missing piece. This piece would really make the difference on the team. It was a combination of intuition and then over time learning to trust that intuition. If you trust that 100% of the time, it will not let you down. There is a way to keep following that journey and the work and the route of the conversation that will eventually get you to a missing piece that the client or the people in the room can’t see from their view.

Absolutely. You spoke about how you started from sales and it’s almost as though you have the sales side, the teaching side, the writer side, and the speaker side too. These four roles or four capabilities are playing in an orchestra or some kind of band with you and the operative or driving force that you spoke to was curiosity. How do you understand and appreciate curiosity? Is it something that is there as a preponderance, an inclination, a talent; or is this a developed discipline; or is it both?

It’s both. It’s absolutely both. I have made it my life to follow and watch highly curious people. Curiosity is what fuels innovation, what fuels exploration. It’s what fuels any kind of new you any kind of new path forward. It’s stepping outside of the common way of looking and finding a new way to look, from a new place: a completely different spot. That’s what I play in what I call the ‘not knowing’. While this can be uncomfortable, it’s a place of deep curiosity. I consider it a belief. I have framed it as a belief but it is an inner inclination that I’ve always had.

Take, for instance, some of the things I would do when I was interviewing candidates. I would create questions about how serious these candidates are. I would put down my coffee cup and ask them to tell me what it’s used for. They would say “coffee”, and I’d say “well yeah, it’s commonly used for coffee, but I wonder what it might be uncommonly used for”. We get curious about it, and I’d curious answers that tell me about the person I am interviewing.

Over time I’ve noticed that innate ability that I have and has been in practice to the point where it’s now a discipline and I have enough data to back it up. That’s where the intersection of experience added with living into the future of being curious and ‘not knowing’ come together to create an added value inside of a business.

Right. This is my experience too. My experience corroborates that curiosity is actually a muscle that you can develop. We can become intensely curious because of these central inquiries that we have that are propelled for a variety of reasons by business or by other needs. That’s more laser-focused curiosity. We can also practice a broad range, wide spectrum curiosity. There are different kinds of curiosities and muscles of curiosity that we can develop in practice. I think what you’re describing is that, in today’s workplace where so much is changing so fast, you must be a very good learner. To be a very good learner you must be curious about how the world around you is changing and also about your ability and your capacity to address and meet these changing needs.

That’s right. I think what I would add to that is what I’ve noticed in these fast-changing times is that years and years ago it was a much more linear world, but now it is what I call a very organic world. It’s always been a very organic world. But I see it now in business even more, and we can see methodologies that will substantiate this. Things are being consumed in such a vast way; ideas are being consumed in such a fast way that they get from ideas to creation to actually moving things forward in a practical way. There’s a more organic decisiveness that’s required around that curiosity. Does that make sense?

Oh absolutely. I think what you’re describing is that we focus with curiosity. It is one of the currencies and one of the energies we bring to the table and how we deploy this resource is something we must be disciplined about so that it provides the yield we’re looking to create. Where it becomes even more exponentially interesting and complex, is being in the not knowing and being comfortable inside the ambiguity of not knowing. You’ve also spoken about the innate or developed capacity to speak the unspoken, to name the unnamed. How would you thread the relationship between these two: the capacity to be in the discomfort of not knowing, and in that place be able to intuit, and give voice to the unnamed, the unspoken, and daring to ask the questions that nobody dares to ask?

Being in the not knowing, in the place of being comfortable in the uncomfortable is where I see the distinction of leadership today. It’s being able to be in that risky spot on a regular basis. It’s a relationship between curiosity — the really wanting to know — and the things that aren’t said that hang in the air. You reach for them and say, “here’s what’s not being said”. I don’t always know when it’s going to be. But it’s being willing to stand on the edge of that cliff and being willing to risk that question. There is a sense of courage and a lack of fear that needs to be present inside of that moment. There must be a sense of safety: “no matter what occurs in this conversation, or meeting, or experience, I will be fine. I will be okay”. It isn’t about me in that moment, it really is about uncovering what’s going to serve in that conversation, uncovering what’s going to serve the person.

There is, in some spiritual practices, what’s called a hollow bone practice. Saying what there is to be said. What’s so great is being a hollow bone and allowing that to occur. Sometimes I will literally feel and experience myself standing on the edge of a precipice and being willing to state what is so. How that is able to occur again is the discipline of doing it over and over again with success. And it’s being able to mine the times that were successful and those times that weren’t. And seeing what worked and what didn’t work with people, how to phrase it, how to make it so that it’s able to be answered.

This post has been adapted from Aviv Consulting. Listen here for the full interview and story of Ann-Marie Archer and download a PDF of this entire conversation.

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