The leaders I talk to almost daily overwhelmingly report a sensation of feeling a little bit stuck. They know there’s room to improve in their leadership, and they generally want to get better, but it can become a daunting proposition. When, and how, will they ever find the time to pursue growth amidst their impossibly long to-do list, a list that grows longer each day, weighing them down in both their work and personal lives?
Based on my over 40 years of leadership experience, I have a lot of thoughts about small steps busy leaders can take to get unstuck and maximize their impact (in fact, I’m currently writing an entire book to help leaders with this very problem) but there is one concept I’ve found can instantly help lighten the mental load. Once you understand it, it can offer relief – and often hope – no matter how unforgiving your schedule or responsibilities. The concept is the growth mindset and internalizing it will allow you to improve, and increasingly thrive, in perpetuity.
What is a growth mindset?
The growth mindset is a term coined by researcher and esteemed psychologist, Carol Dweck. In simple terms, people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed and improved. It’s a fundamental belief in the ability to get better. It stands in sharp contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the limiting belief that intelligence is static and cannot grow or progress. What Dweck’s research shows is that people with a growth mindset, because they believe in their ability to improve, tend to put in more effort; they understand intuitively that their effort will result in positive change. So, they naturally tend to achieve more. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset do not see the point in putting in effort, because they believe their abilities will remain the same either way – so they avoid challenges and achieve less.
What’s the takeaway? The belief alone in your ability to improve usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who think they can get better, often do. So just by acknowledging that progress is possible, you are already one step ahead.
Let me share with you a perfect example of the tangible benefits a growth mindset can bestow.
A Star Student
In addition to teaching leaders at my signature Executive Development course, The ConantLeadership Boot Camp, I also co-teach a leadership development program with Mette Norgaard (my co-author on our book TouchPoints) at the Higher Ambition Leadership Institute (HALI). One of our best students ever at HALI was Renee Zaugg, who was VP of Enterprise Infrastructure and Cloud Services at Aetna at the time she attended. She never went to college and has no formal training, but she’s a remarkably effective technology leader in charge of a billion dollar budget and a flexible team of 4,000 employees under her purview. She’s been with Aetna for over 37 years, starting at the very bottom of the ladder working night shifts in their data center. Tirelessly, she worked her way up to a senior leadership role where she was constantly searching for opportunities to learn and grow. On her journey to VP, she was always alert to ways she could improve, absorbing lessons like a sponge, taking risks, and benefiting from the guidance of mentors and advocates.
When Renee’s boss wrote her a glowing write-up recommending her for the HALI program, she was ecstatic. Never having received a formal education but possessing a growth disposition, she innately understood the value of any opportunity to get better. But when she arrived, her excitement about the program turned into anxiety; faced with the pedigree of some of the other attendees, a nagging voice within her started to tell her she was out of her depth.
At HALI, and at the ConantLeadership Boot Camp, we partner participants with one another so they can collaboratively advance their skillset and create their leadership models. There is a method to our madness. Taking in to careful account each person’s unique experience, skill set, and temperament, we match people up based on how helpful we think they will be to the other leaders in their group. Strategically, to maximize the growth for everyone who attends, we profile and pair people so that their feedback will be most valuable to their teammates. But, of course, Renee didn’t know that.
The best leaders are always learning.
When Renee arrived at her table, she was surprised (and a bit dismayed) to find who she’d been partnered with, not because they weren’t perfectly nice people, but because of their bevy of titles and qualifications. In sharp contrast to her zero degrees, her tablemates were, if anything, over-educated. One gentleman had not one, but two, PhDs from MIT. The other was a highly trained surgeon with many advanced degrees who sat on several boards. She felt self-conscious. Often her own worst critic, Renee began to be discouraged by the little voice in her head telling her she wasn’t good enough and didn’t belong there (the same little voice that I suspect visits most leaders from time to time, no matter how successful they are).
I could see something was bothering Renee. In one of our walk-and-talks, away from the rest of the group, she confided in me, “Doug, I’m tapping out. I’m outgunned here.” Confused, I asked her why she would think that. She was a successful senior leader who had come to us highly recommended. “Well,” she said, “I never went to college.” Surprised, I said, “Renee, have you seen the results you get at your organization? Who cares if you went to college? You could teach college.” As she absorbed those words, her eyes began to well up with tears. She’d never heard it put quite like that before. I continued, explaining, “We didn’t pair you with these highly educated guys because you need to learn from them; we put you together because they need to learn from you.”
Reflecting back on that moment now, Renee reports it was a real turning point for her. This wasn’t a case of me merely telling her what she needed or wanted to hear at the time. It was all completely true. We knew from reviewing her profile that she had an improvement orientation that had served her well throughout her career. Whereas the academic participants, in my experience, despite all their schooling and degrees, can tend to be a bit more set in their ways (as counterintuitive as that may be). “Just give it a try,” I urged her, “I know you can do this.”
After our impromptu pep talk, Renee took to our improvement process like a duck to water. She embraced the reflection exercises with open arms, developed a suite of high-impact practices, designed and honed her leadership model, and continues to leverage all the learnings to great effect in her company. Eventually, she went on to present her leadership model to a group of 130 managers in her company (and Mette and I were proud to be in the audience that day). What’s more, she champions the importance of a learning process, and teaches the reflection and improvement exercises to her team. She also brings in speakers to train her employees and always imparts the value of pushing your thinking and exposing yourself to new ideas.
Inspired by the challenge of HALI, she sought to gain additional new and different experiences, so she now serves on Advisory Boards at Microsoft and Verizon. The icing on the cake? She has since taught a class at MIT (I knew she had it in her). And, in the wake of Aetna’s recent merger with CVS, Renee has been promoted yet again. Now, she’s SVP in charge of running both CVS and Aetna’s IT infrastructure, an advancement that is richly deserved.
What’s the big takeaway? The best leaders, like Renee, are always learning, improving, growing, and pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Putting the growth mindset to work, they believe they can get better, so they do. Understanding this is the most reliable way to improve and advance your career. It’s the secret to becoming the leader you want to be and the surest way to unlock your vast potential.
You Are Worthy
Always remember: just because somebody has an advanced degree or has reached a certain milestone in their career, it does not mean they have a growth mindset or a predisposition to learning. It does not mean they are more equipped or more deserving than you of opportunities. You are just as deserving. If you think you can do something, if you really believe it, and take steps towards achieving it, chances are, you will.
No matter what your background, schooling, or journey looks like — if you are willing to remain alert to possibilities and always push yourself, the world is more likely to reward you with a glorious journey of perpetual ‘becoming’ and infinite forward motion. Just remember, some people think they’ve got nothing left to learn. Those people remain stagnant. But other people know they’re never done learning. They’re the ones who get unstuck, thrive, and transform continuously throughout their life, just like Renee.
Want to apply your growth mindset this year to achieve extraordinary results? Join me at one of my upcoming ConantLeadership Boot Camps. I teach this course, based on my over 40 years of leadership experience, for real leaders, facing real problems, in the real world. Get unstuck, maximize your impact, transform your career. Space is limited. Apply today: https://conantleadership.com/bootcamp/
(Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash)