Stop worrying about your own personal gain

Over the past 20 years, I have met roughly 5,000 CEOs and senior executives who lead companies in virtually every industry and are reinventing how the world works.

Not everyone has the opportunity to meet so many intelligent and passionate leaders in their normal course of business. If you want to understand how incredibly rewarding this opportunity is, I highly recommend reading “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” by Brian Grazer, the Academy award-winning producer of such great movies as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13” and TV shows like “Arrested Development.”

Earlier in his career, Grazer made it a goal to have a “curiosity conversation” with at least one person per month. He tells the story of how he started his career at Warner Brothers as a lowly courier delivering documents to Hollywood writers, directors, producers and stars.

He decided to take advantage of his meager role by telling receptionists that he was instructed to only deliver the documents directly to the person.

He quickly learned that he could not only meet these important people, but have conversations with them. He never asked these important people for anything, but simply asked questions and learned how they thought and lived.

See the world differently
Grazer vowed to continue his curiosity conversations for his entire life and made a list of people he most wanted to meet.

He sought out interesting people in all walks of life — from Nobel laureates to artists, politicians, astronauts and CEOs such as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. Grazer wanted to understand what success looked like and felt like to those who have reached the pinnacles of their fields of endeavor.

“We are all trapped in our own way of thinking,” Grazer writes. “We get so used to seeing the world our way that we come to think that the world is the way we see it.”

The conversations helped Grazer see the world through other people’s eyes. He had a critical rule — he never had a curiosity conversation with the intent to find an idea for a new movie or any other personal gain. He met with people simply to get to know them and in doing so, gained a deep reservoir of experiences and wide-ranging points of view.

Great CEOs are able to imagine themselves in their customers’ shoes. Instead of simply hoping that customers will want to buy their products or services, they use curiosity to connect to their customers’ reality.

I felt “connected” to Grazer when he talked about how his conversations forced him to expose his lack of knowledge. Every day I speak with CEOs who are far more intelligent and accomplished than I. Many are experts in highly technical industries that I will never truly understand.

Like Grazer, I am willing to ask questions that confirm my ignorance. And, like Grazer, I found that successful people are very willing to share their knowledge with those of us who ask good questions with a sincere interest in learning. ●

Paul Witkay is founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives.