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Totally Mind-Growing! Leadership and Learning Mindset

by Duncan Ferguson on

Vantage Leadership is exploring the challenges that leaders will be facing as they “lead into the future.” This is another in a series of articles where we will share some insights on the trends that we see taking shape. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and reactions.

I was recently driving from Chicago to Milwaukee when I wound up stuck in a traffic jam. So, finding myself with some involuntary reflective time, I turned to my phone and found a TED Radio Hour podcast. One of the people featured was Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor and world-renowned psychologist who has focused much of her research on why people succeed and how to foster success. A major area of Dr. Dweck’s studies examines the differences between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.”  According to Dweck, people with a fixed mindset believe qualities like intelligence and talent are inflexible traits. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that talent and capability are not solely predetermined, but can be grown through dedication and hard work. This creates a love of learning and resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Much of the podcast discussed children and the vital role that teachers and parents play in shaping the young brain. It was amazing to hear how a simple choice of words can push children towards either a fixed or growth mindset. As Dweck mentioned: “Teachers might, for example, intentionally praise student effort and perseverance instead of ascribing learning achievements to innate qualities or talents—e.g., giving feedback such as ‘You must have worked very hard!’ rather than ‘You are so smart.’” If you feel you missed this formative opportunity, not to worry – fixed-mindset adults can still switch to a growth mindset. This nugget of information got me thinking about the role that leaders play in helping their employees develop more expansive ways of thinking.

So, off to Google I went, and quickly found a 2016 Harvard Business Review article entitled “How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders.”  As I read, three things stood out. First, the initiative is being driven by Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, who is intent on differentiating the organization by establishing a culture of learning and creativity. Second, smart risk-taking is encouraged and rewarded – even if it is unsuccessful.  Lastly (and maybe most groundbreaking), is the broadening of Microsoft’s talent development processes.  While the organization has a traditional process where it identifies and develops a small group of high-potential leaders, there are also processes built to tap and cultivate potential throughout the organization, like “hackathons,” “moonshot” projects, “Talent Talks,” and more. This is because [Microsoft] assume[s] that everyone has potential, and that talent is neither predetermined or static.”

Reflecting upon this story, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the findings from our Best Boss study and the goals of Microsoft’s “Growth Mindset” culture. Our study taught us how Best Bosses “activate potential” by assuming everyone has unique capabilities. These leaders then believe it is their obligation to support individuals in the development of their talents.  The study also showed us that Best Bosses help people pioneer by encouraging and rewarding risk-taking, while never punishing failure.

It is a given that leaders of the future will be expected to identify, coach, and develop high-potential talent. As organizations grapple with the need to continually innovate in our fast-paced world, companies such as Microsoft will require leaders to foster a learning mindset culture, so that everyone has the chance to reach their potential.

What do you think?

Does your organization possess a learning mindset culture? Is so, why is this important?

What competencies will leaders need to create and sustain a learning mindset culture?

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