Cultivating a Growth Mindset Leadership Style | Mark MacLeod

February 21, 2024 - Mark MacLeod

Cultivating a Growth Mindset Leadership Style

characteristics of a growth mindset

Leading a startup is different from leading a “normal” company.

With a startup, especially one that has raised venture capital, the goal is revenue growth.

Speed is the primary strategy and primary tactic. Getting to a destination faster than your competitor tends to be valuable.

Many CEOs struggle to deliver the growth that VCs expect. And many of the CEOs who do deliver that growth struggle to keep up with it.

What is needed, both to create and keep up with that speed, is growth mindset leadership.

Introducing the Growth Mindset & Growth Mindset Leadership

This concept was first coined by Carol Dweck PhD in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Her premise is simple, yet powerful: in all domains where performance matters, how we approach our goals has a massive impact.

In sports, arts, business, and other areas, if we have an open mind, we will achieve more.

This is particularly true in the startup context where so much is unknown:

In the beginning, we don’t know if there is a market.

We don’t know if the market wants our product.

We don’t know how to reach that market at scale

The list goes on and on.

With a fixed mindset you either:

1.)  Assume you know (and hence are not open to new possibilities); or

2.) Give up thinking it is impossible if you don’t know the answer.

Startup success is rarely a straight line up and to the right. Cultivating a growth mindset is essential to help navigate the inevitable ups and downs.

Let’s go deeper into this concept and see how you can apply it to yourself, your leadership, and your business. 

Characteristics of a Growth Mindset

What does it mean to have a growth mindset? Here are a few of the main characteristics:

You embrace challenges: You see obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than threats to success. Your mindset is “I get to do this”, not “I have to”.

Startups face existential threats and issues all the time. You welcome these challenges and enjoy the competition of them.

Persistence in the face of setbacks: This is a similar concept. You don’t take failure personally. You understand that failure is not a negative reflection of your ability but a stepping stone to success.

Looking back on my career, I have had some spectacular failures. I learned way more from those chapters than from the easy ones.

My ability to coach CEOs today is largely shaped by the setbacks I faced along the way.

One of the magical things about Silicon Valley, San Francisco is that there is no stigma to failing there. It is completely accepted and seen as inevitable when you are trying to achieve great things.

Effort as a pathway to mastery:  You recognize that hard work and dedication are essential.

Malcolm Gladwell tells us that mastery of any domain takes 10,000 hours. You put the work in so you can get the 10,00 hours faster.

When you master any craft, it becomes a core part of who you are. It is your identity.

CEO leadership is a craft that can be mastered just like anything else.

Openness to feedback: You value constructive criticism as a tool for improvement and growth.

The most successful CEOs are learning machines. They seek input and inspiration from everywhere. They do 360 reviews to get feedback. They look to grow faster than their businesses.

You are inspired by the success of others: You don’t compare. You don’t think less of yourself when someone succeeds. It motivates you to grow yourself.

Benefits of a Growth Mindset

Hopefully, you already see that an open mindset like this is powerful. Here are just a few of the benefits of a growth mindset approach to leadership.

Enhanced creativity and innovation: You are completely open to new ideas. You experiment. You test, iterate, and learn.

In the early days of Shopify, they tested four go-to-market experiments. They had no idea if they would work. All four did. That’s when they figured they had better raise venture capital and “go for it”.

Improved performance and productivity: Great ideas can come from anywhere.

A leader that recognizes this encourages ideas from all parts of the company. This enhances engagement and performance. Everyone is part of solving the biggest problems and capturing the biggest opportunities.

Stronger collaboration and communication: This is another way of looking at the point above. We are all in it together solving unknowns. This promotes teamwork. It encourages collaboration.

Greater adaptability and resilience: Culture starts at the top, with the CEO. If the CEO welcomes challenges that will flow down, your entire company will become more competitive and resilient. You will have a team of warriors.

Sustained personal and professional development: With a fixed mindset you think you know it all. You are not open to learning.

With an open, growth mindset you are actively learning and growing. Every day is a school day.

Again with Shopify: Tobi Lutke, Shopify CEO has a mantra: “Get 1% better every day”. His method for doing this is reviewing each day and looking for opportunities to improve.

1% better each day = 37x better in a year. It is transformative!

growth leadership

Take a Growth Leadership Approach in Your Company 

How do you apply a growth leadership approach in your business? This gets into human psychology.

If you find you naturally have a fixed mindset, then the root of that is fear.

You are afraid of something: making a mistake, being wrong, failing.

To unlock your performance (and happiness) you need to get to the root of that. I am biased, but this is where the right coach can help.

But in the meantime, give these suggestions a try:

Start small: Being open to new ideas and looking for ways to grow is a habit. A reflex that you need to build. Start small.

Next time an issue or opportunity comes up, ask yourself “What is the most open way I can approach this?”.

Cast a wide net to find ideas and approaches. Engage your team. Get inspiration from outside.

Just try it on for size and see how it feels.

Modeling growth mindset behaviors: Culture starts at the top. If you are making baby steps towards a growth mindset, others will follow.

Set the example by demonstrating your own commitment to growth and learning.

Creating a culture of continuous learning:  Make learning an explicit part of your weekly leadership team meeting: Ask your leaders “What did you learn last week?”.

Invest in coaching and professional development for yourself and your key people.

Encouraging risk-taking and learning from mistakes: There are no failures, only lessons learned.

As Thomas Edison famously said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Establish a safe environment where failure is a part of the learning process and is celebrated.

Providing constructive and actionable feedback: This ties back into learning and speed. Give team members crisp, direct feedback. This accelerates learning and growth.

Direct feedback reinforces our openness to growth. We get used to feedback, whether it is positive or negative.

Celebrating progress and effort: Recognize and reward not just outcomes but the effort and growth along the way. Recognize where your team is stretching, growing, and learning.

Are You Ready for Growth Mindset Leadership?

A growth mindset is essential for the CEOs of high-growth startups. It is only through this mindset that you will unlock your and your businesses’ potential.

Give the suggestions here a try. Start small. Build confidence. Try it on lower-priority projects to start. Build confidence and momentum.

It will bring you and your business to the next level.

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