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The Winning Mindset For C-Level and Aspiring Executives is Growth.-But Maybe Not Like You Think

Adopting a growth mindset means acting on the belief that talents and abilities can be learned

If you’re among the 42.7 million people who watched the Superbowl or the more than 100 million who enjoyed the Olympics this year, you were likely treated to a plethora of commentary on the competitors’ mindsets. We as an audience are simply captivated by how winners prepare for their big moment.

Attitudes, beliefs, and state of mind truly influence outcomes, not just in sport but also in business. To enhance success, those operating in the C suite, as well as those aspiring to it, must build and maintain an effective leadership mindset.

What does that mean, though? A quick Google search of the topic won’t provide much clarity. A single Inc. article, for example, recommends seven beneficial leadership mindsets, ranging from a “self-trust mindset” to a “patient mindset.” A coaching organization suggests eight others, including humility and decisiveness.

The seemingly endless list of necessary mindsets is enough to intimidate the most experienced leader, not to mention someone newly promoted to management. Don’t despair! There is one fundamental mindset that contributes to the development of all the rest. It’s called the “growth mindset.”

What is a Growth Mindset?

A concept pioneered by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, the growth mindset is shorthand for a belief that our talents (and the talents of others) can be developed with appropriate effort and intentional learning. This perspective is best contrasted with a “fixed mindset,” the belief that talents are innate and largely unchanged over a lifetime.

Sounds simple, but imagine for a moment the differences between those operating on a fixed versus growth mindset:

  • Fixed Mindset

In this view, you are what you are and there’s no changing your fundamental talents and abilities. Thus, it’s not worth putting effort into areas you’re not naturally good at. What’s more, any critique or failure is a threat to your self-regard because it highlights a skill or aptitude you don’t have and can never build. As a result, you may avoid risk lest you bellyflop or you might become defensive at the first sign of criticism.

  • Growth Mindset

With a growth mindset, on the other hand, one is motivated to invest in learning because effort can and does lead to improvement. One can embrace challenges as an opportunity for professional, personal, intellectual, creative, physical, or other development. Failure isn’t a permanent stain, reflecting inborn inabilities, it’s a sign that adjustments are needed on the road to success.

As these overviews demonstrate, a growth mindset can have powerful impact on our thoughts and actions but it’s fair to ask—is it true that talent isn’t so much born as made? Consider this: Researchers in a study cited here administered IQ tests to chess players who had risen to the world’s top 10, an achievement thought to reflect “intelligence” by at least some measures.

Three of those top 10 had below-average IQ scores. They didn’t boast superior intelligence at all.

How had reached such an elite level? Just like Mom always said, practice makes perfect, or as close to it as humans can get.

Nothing is Permanent

Inhabiting a growth mindset opens us to greater potential within ourselves and can help us to see others as beautiful works in progress, too. An important caveat, however, having a growth mindset isn’t a fixed state. It’s not enough to say, “you’ve convinced me and I now believe in growth.” People fall into and out of a growth mindset hour to hour, day to day.

Different situations will tend to trigger a fixed mindset in different people. A simple example, an internalized believe that “I don’t test well” can cause someone to be anxious about an exam and view the results as an immutable statement about their abilities. Although such an individual might say, when asked, that they believe in learning and growth, they can still react with a fixed mindset in this circumstance.

Despite their many successes, C-level executives are no less vulnerable to fixed-mindset thinking. To the contrary, sometimes outward excellence masks deep internal uncertainty. Am I really talented and capable or just lucky? I’ve had a great career in finance but am I inherently creative enough to launch from CFO to CEO? Such preconceptions can hold us back.

A Three-Letter Mantra for Every Occasion

There is good news—anyone can adopt a growth mindset about having a growth mindset! Bear with me while I explain: We can each engage in practices and create environments that promote a growth mindset in ourselves and those around us, and we can work our way out of fixed-mindset thinking when it inevitably arises.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a newly promoted manager who is now responsible for compiling, interpreting, and acting on complex Excel reports. Your professional career has not required much quantitative analysis to date. You’re struggling and have defaulted to a fixed mindset in which you believe you’re a “people person not a numbers person.”

The voice in your head might be saying “I’m not good with Excel graphs,” as if this were written in stone. But what happens when we add one word? “I’m not good with Excel graphs yet.” These three letters add the concept of time and beg the question, what steps could be taken to realize improvement?

The same trick works whether you feel you’re not naturally creative, sporty, or capable of scaling your company from $1M in revenues to $10M+. You may not be where you want to be yet—you may not have all the beneficial leadership mindsets you want and need—but intentional learning can propel you along your journey toward these and other goals.

Growth Mindset for an Organization

Adopting a growth mindset is especially important for leaders because it enables you to bring out the best in a team. Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch, for instance, was known for hiring based on future potential rather than past achievements or credentials, focusing more on military veterans than Ivy League graduates. His results speak for themselves.

Conduct another quick thought experiment applying fixed and growth mindsets to a member of your team. You might say something like:

  • Fixed mindset

John Doe isn’t good at speaking in front of groups. I shouldn’t consider him to head up this large division.

  • Growth mindset

John Doe isn’t good at speaking in front of groups yet. What training and feedback could be provided to help him improve so we can benefit from his many talents when he’s ready to spearhead this large division?

When you consistently and intentionally view others through a growth mindset lens, much changes in how you lead. For example, an organization intent on fostering a growth mindset will:

  • Invest in development

By definition, an organization in growth-mindset mode will value opportunities for growth. Learning and development programs can play a big part in building skills and attitudes that help team members become more than they are today. Your own mentoring efforts can contribute as well.

  • Incentivize risk-taking

Innovation is one side of a coin, failure is the other. You cannot separate them. Leaders who reward risk-taking and accept (rather than punish) failure as long as learning ensues will communicate to their teams that it’s “safe enough” to try new things and grow from the experience.

  • Promote from within

An organization reflecting a growth mindset will seek to develop the talents of the individuals who are already part of the company, align with its culture, and have valuable institutional knowledge. Their leaders won’t always go searching for needed skills and abilities “out there.”

There are many ways to foster a growth mindset organization-wide and sometimes it’s worth seeking assistance to help drive the transformation. If you’re a C-suite executive looking to stretch your own ability to sustain a growth mindset, Vistage membership is almost guaranteed to challenge your preconceptions. The Vistage Emerging Leaders and Advancing Leaders programs—designed for new managers and rising executives respectively—are also prime opportunities to instill a growth mindset deeper within an organization.

Interested in learning more? Reach out to me here.


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