Monday, January 22, 2018

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

A few years back, I struck up a casual conversation with a nice, unassuming guy in a baseball cap at a big outdoor event. I didn’t know it until his office reached out later, but it was Mickey Drexler, the then CEO of The Gap and Old Navy (now the CEO of J. Crew).

Mickey had been dragged to a kids event featuring popular children’s entertainers by his daughter. When he saw the kind of crowds show attracted, he thought he’d better learn more about it and see if it was a fit for his business.

Here he was, the captain of a Fortune 500. He didn’t send a marketing or PR person to check it out or cross reference pie charts with info graphs to come up with his answer. He went out, spent a nice day with his daughter, and talked to people in the crowd and involved with the event, but never as Mickey Drexler, the “merchant prince” (as he was nicknamed in the press) but just as a dad, some guy in the crowd, asking interesting questions.

Those questions resulted in him sponsoring our client’s event for the following year.  And I got to see a glimpse into how he worked and thought.

Mickey Drexler has, I believe, what Stanford University psychologist and author Carol Dweck in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”  calls a “growth mindset.” I say that because in my time with him, limited as it was, he was more about listening than talking, more about sharing ideas than being right. And he loved to talk with everyone — not at them, but really with them.

If you haven’t read Dweck’s book (and I recommend it highly), it contends that there are two types of people in the world: those with “fixed mindsets” and those with “growth mindsets.”

People with a growth mindset seek to always learn. They try not to see setbacks as failures or new ideas as threats. They are instead opportunities for growth and portals to new ways of doing things better.

People with “fixed mindsets” seek to blame others in the face of failure and position themselves to be right no matter what, even if it means rejecting people or ideas that can help their companies, projects or ideas. Any new way of thinking or of looking at an old problem isn’t a possibility; it’s a personal and professional affront.

The book was written five years ago or so and talks about the failures of leadership at some companies like Enron. It also looks at leaders who have turned companies around, not by knowing everything but rather, by being curious about how everything works from all the stakeholders perspectives, including those on the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder, and even from dissatisfied customers.

Leaders like that learn by NOT knowing everything and by celebrating that fact. They actively seek to see the world differently, and surround themselves with those who aren’t afraid to tell them what they probably won’t want to hear.

Really bold leaders reward dissent because they recognize that being told what they want to hear does not lead to breakthroughs or growth. Innovation and growth require awkward conversations with people who have different, sometimes contradictory ideas.

Here in Canada, we have an extraordinary social experiment called The Centre for Social Innovation, otherwise known as CSI. And yes, my American friends, we spell “center” “centre” – that’s just how we roll.  It was founded by Tonya Surman, an Ashoka Fellow and creative thinker determined to realize a better world.

CSI is premised around the idea that a shared space populated by diverse people with very different businesses, ideas and backgrounds will lead to outlandish and new ways of thinking that will better us all and maybe even solve age old problems.

Age old problems require new, radical solutions and fresh approaches. They must. Or we would have solved them by now. They require all involved to adopt a growth mentality, and to move away from a fixed mindset. Fortunately, growth mentality can be learned, and the book suggests how. But one way is by finding and learning from leaders wherever you/we can who embrace tough challenges not by relying on what they already know but by finding out what they can learn from others, even in unlikely places.

The growth mindset is essential for the longterm success of any brand, and given the state of the world right now, it may even be essential for our very survival.

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