Leadership with a Growth Mindset: Reconsidered

Here as we close out April of 2020, it’s hard to even reflect on a time that the Covid-19 crisis wasn’t the center of all issues and concerns. While it seems hard to remember back to November or December of last year, when this virus was nothing more than an emerging news report from the distant city of Wuhan China.   In the midst of this very â€œnow”focused time, I was nudged by a good friend and work partner Angie as she read and commented on one of my essays from 10+ years ago.  Her comments pushed me to re-look and re-consider some of my thoughts/essays and as I was digging through some of the old essays, I came upon the one below from late April of 2011.  The essay, titled â€œLeadership with a Growth Mindset”is one of the most read of my essays, hitting the #6 ranking out of 200+ published.  Additionally I published it as we were coming out of the very challenging â€œGreat Recession,”and it helped me (and hopefully hundreds of others) reorient ourselves for the growth path coming out of that tough period.
As I look back on the essay, I find a number of things still ringing very true, but I think there are a few ideas/ comments that I want to reconsider:
·      Where I sit now, I would put #6 as job #1!  Thinking that I put â€œTake care of yourself /your team”as the last item on my list, rather than the first seems really off track today.  We need to really work hard on insuring that we are being proactive with our own health, and that we are good role models for our teams as well! 
·      The ideas I put into #5 I want to make more important today.  I didn’t emphasize enough the importance of an â€œoutside orientation”when I wrote that â€œour opportunity as leaders is to work on ways to improve our organization’s ability to listen to/learn from the marketplace.”  Think how much has changed, not just from April 2011, but also from January of 2020!! We can never be â€œoutside oriented”enough and we as leaders need to work on modeling that orientation more today than I even considered nine years ago.
·      It’s interesting when you read your own writing and realize you are falling into a trap that you described!  In #1, I asked the reader if they ever heard someone say, â€œwith everything we are dealing with our performance is actually not that bad.”Here I was warning of this headset nine years ago and I was on a Zoom call just this week when that comment was exactly shared and I nodded along; not strongly objecting to the notion in the midst of our current challenges.  I (maybe along with others) need to take my own advice on this one for sure.
Take a moment when you can, and re-read the essay below and consider it in the context of our reality today.  See what themes hold true for you and what ideas that you might want to edit, correct, or emphasize in your world today!
Leadership with a Growth Mindset: April 29, 2011
The landscape is changing and while nothing is ever certain, I am a deep believer that “change is certain, progress is not”. The economy has come a long way from the heights of 2007, the collapse of 2008 and the low lows of 2009. Certainly the recovery is tepid, with job growth (and in fact gdp) growing slower than anyone would like; yet the trends are still positive. In this “new” landscape of growth, I believe that we as leaders need to refresh our thinking, our priorities and our skills in order to be successful leaders with a growth mindset. Just a few years ago, I remember being in a meeting with a customer who was describing their overall flat revenue trends as “you know Bill, flat is the new up.” It’s hard to say whether that perspective was appropriate for that moment; what is not certain is that for today’s business environment, “up is the new up!”
In thinking about this dynamic, I want to share a few ideas that might be productive as we lead with an increasing “growth mindset.”
1) Raise Expectations. As leaders, we need to raise our own expectations for accelerating results in the business, capabilities across our organizations, along with our own skill sets. The last few years have been tough, really tough! With that reality there comes an understanding and possibly a tolerance for average performance. Ask yourself whether you have ever heard yourself (or other leaders) say, “with everything we’re dealing with, that performance is actually not that bad.” While tinged with compassion, I actually think it’s a disabler for an organization. We need to be vocal about raising our expectations for accelerating results AND our work performance. Think of it as the “what” and the “how”. We need to accelerate the results in the business (the “what”) and we need to improve our business practices (the”how”) across organizations. It’s my experience that if the leader doesn’t “raise the bar”, it often never gets raised.
2) Improve Talent. Over the past few years, the job market has been very tight. As business trends improve, the job markets should/will follow. In this changing landscape, we need to insure that our best, highest performing people are engaged/challenged in their roles and excited/energized to come to work every day. What is equally true is that we need to take action to remove underperformers quickly. Nothing is more de-moralizing to a high performer than a tolerated/accepted low performer. Every job opening should be thought of as an opportunity to raise the talent “bar” for the organization as a whole. I use the acronym of PTI (Progressive Talent Improvement) to remind myself that every new hire should have the capabilities/experience above the average level of the current organization. By utilizing PTI over time, you can (and should) be continually improving the organizations capabilities and potential.
3) Increase Speed, NOW! This improving business landscape is not only occurring for you and your company. It’s occurring for your competitors and their executive teams. When working on innovating new products or services, improving customer service, building new skills, or even filling open positions, do it faster. It’s dangerous to assume that you have the time to wait, time is a luxury that few businesses have!
4) Be Paranoid, competitively. I learned early on in business that competition never sleeps nor takes vacations; they’re always trying to take your business. Now I am a complete proponent of work/life balance, taking your vacation days, and getting a break from the business as an individual. My council is to be careful/paranoid as an organization. Never under assume an adversary’s capabilities and intent. If you operate with a constant “nervous itch”, you will be more likely to compete and win in any competitive landscape.
5) Increase your organizational listening and learning. As markets improve, there WILL be more innovation competitively. New products, new packaging, new technologies, etc. have all been on the rise over the past few quarters. An improving business landscape will allow companies to take more risks than they have over the past few years. This reality is happening. Our opportunity as leaders is to work on ways to improve our organization’s ability to listen to, and learn from, the market place. Work to reinforce that all departments/functions could and should be more “outward” oriented; more tuned into the competitive landscape, hungrier at all times to capture and share insights and learnings from the marketplace.
6) Take care of yourself/take care of your team. As you can tell from the above topics, I clearly have the sense that the tempo and demands of business will be accelerating in the days/quarters ahead. As such, it is critical to insure that we are also taking care of our own health and the health of our teams. We all need to keep up with our sleep, our exercise, our physicals, etc. Keep an eye on your team members that are starting to work weekends and late nights regularly. Sure there will be moments when a key need/deadline requires extra-long hours, but week after week this behavior wears down an organization and ultimately reduces performance. 

In closing, I want to reinforce the idea that growth is not inevitable! Certainly improving business trends are welcome (very welcome), but without a more growth oriented leadership approach, the “change” that is happening across our economy will not be translated into “progress” for you, your team, and your organization.