Why is it that some innately talented athletes never fulfill their potential, yet others, with less natural talent rise to the top? Why do some charismatic business leaders rise quickly, then crash and burn, while lesser-known executives lead their companies to long, sustained success?
Carol Dweck’s book Mindset has part of the answer. Though this book was written in 2006, its lessons are still relevant today. Powerful in its simplicity, applying the core ideas in this book will transform your entire life, from the way you interact with colleagues at work to raising children and your relationships with loved ones.
Dweck describes two basic mindsets that guide our approach to the world: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. These mindsets are extremes on a continuum. Most of us have a fixed mindset toward some aspects of our lives, and a growth mindset towards others. These mindsets are not set in stone, and change over the course of our lives.
A fixed mindset is finite and limited
A person with a fixed mindset believes their success is a reflection of their innate abilities, and there is little they can do to alter them. Success validates their self image, while any failures or setbacks are a personal affront. Any failure must have a source outside of the self.
John McEnroe is one of Dweck’s examples of the fixed mindset in the sports world. McEnroe threw screaming tantrums on the tennis court when games didn’t go his way. Losses were always attributed to the weather, his shoes, the court, problems with equipment, the crowd — anything but his own effort and ability.
In business, a fixed mindset is characteristic of many of the “larger than life” CEOs and business leaders who may lead a business to a brief triumph, but who struggle to maintain the growth trajectory. One of Dweck’s examples is Lee Iacocca, who led Chrysler out of bankruptcy, but then focused his efforts on enhancing his public image, believing that he was inherently smarter and better than anyone else.
When Japanese imports began to dominate the US market, Iacocca refused to use that as an impetus to develop new cars that would appeal to buyers who preferred the Japanese cars which ran better and looked better. Instead, he lashed out against the Japanese car makers and demanded that the US government impose tariffs and quotas to make them less available to Americans.
A growth mindset sees infinite possibilities
A person with a growth mindset, in contrast, sees their success as the result of their hard work. A growth mindset acknowledges innate ability, but is always seeking to improve. With hard work, they can always improve their skills. Their success comes from the effort they put in. Failures are lessons, messages that more work must be done, or that a different approach is required.
Michael Jordan is one of the many athletes cited by Dweck as exemplifying the growth mindset. Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, which to a fixed mindset athlete, would have put an end to any athletic pursuit. Yet Jordan, as we all know, used that failure as a challenge to overcome, an opportunity for greatness.
Another athlete with the growth mindset, Bruce Jenner, said, “ If I wasn’t dyslexic. I probably wouldn’t have won the Games. If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily… and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work.”
Business leaders who exemplify the growth mindset are rarely household names. Lou Gerstner, who was brought in as CEO of Xerox in 1993, is one such business leader described in Dweck’s book.
Gerstner came on board when the company was flailing. Customers were angry at the high prices for mainframe computers and the lack of support to integrate the computers into their systems.
Gerstner transformed the company by opening channels of communication and attacking elitism within the company. “Hierarchy means very little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a problem, regardless of position.”
He encouraged teamwork by basing executive bonuses more on the company’s overall performance and less on the performance of the individual units. Nine years later, IBM’s stock had risen in value by 800 percent and the company was once again number one in its market.
A growth mindset listens and learns
Having a growth mindset means looking bravely at failures and setbacks, and charting a new direction, even if that means dropping a pet project. It means learning new ideas and mastering new technologies. It means listening to feedback. It means seeing things in a new way.
A growth mindset takes personal responsibility for mistakes, and makes changes to prevent their recurrence. Growth mindset leaders encourage everyone on the team to seek their highest potential, even if (and especially if) that leads to displacement of the current leaders.
Growth-minded leaders dispense praise not for the mind that produced the brilliant solution, but for the dogged persistence, teamwork, and creative thinking that made the solution possible.
Mindsets can change
As Dweck points out from her own personal experience, a fixed mindset can be transformed into a growth mindset. All that’s needed is the desire to grow and improve. As Dweck writes in the last chapter of her book, those who change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset “change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.”
Here are Dweck’s takeaways to help develop a growth mindset in the business world:
- Turn off the self-judgement. Try to be less defensive when you make a mistake you or you receive constructive criticism. See mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow instead of lashing out.
- Notice how you treat others. Do you judge others when they challenge your ideas? Do you focus more on your own status and power or on the well-being of your employees and co-workers? Be tolerant of mistakes.
- Help your employees become the best they can be. Explore and implement programs to help everyone at your company master their jobs. Give feedback that recognizes hard work, effort and creativity.
- Think of your employees as a team of collaborators who are ready to build a better business. Create an environment of self-examination, open collaboration and free communication.
- Beware of groupthink. When no one speaks up out of fear of rocking the boat, or because they assume that the leaders have everything under control, this can lead to disaster. Foster open dialogue and constructive criticism. Encourage some team members to play devil’s advocate.
As I have worked with accountants and bookkeepers around the world, I have found many who embody the growth mindset. These are the accountants who are always seeking ways to better serve their clients and who encourage their staff members to grow and develop to their full potential.
With technology and artificial intelligence automating much of what we as accountants have done ourselves for decades, a fixed mindset sees the new technologies as a threat that will make our jobs obsolete.
With a growth mindset, the new technologies are a tool that enables us to give deeper insights to our clients. The leaders who embrace the “learn-and-help-learn framework” will guide their clients to their fullest potential.
A fixed mindset sees only limited possibilities. But with a growth mindset, we can guide today’s business leaders to levels of achievement and satisfaction beyond those limits. There is no limit to what can be achieved when we apply our imagination to today’s problems.