Keep Growing Into Success

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
July, 2008

Janet Rae-Dupree of the New York Times asks an interesting question:  Why do some people reach their creative potential in business while other equally talented peers don’t?

Whether you are a senior leader tasked with developing others or an ambitious up-and-comer, have you asked yourself this question as well?  We’ve all seen the near-misses:  people who had talent to spare but never quite made it, and those like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, who enjoyed eventual success that seemed out of reach to most observers. 

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, argues that the answer lies in how people think about talent: Those who believe they were born with all the smarts and gifts they’re ever going to have approach life with what she calls a “fixed mind-set.” Those who believe that their own abilities can expand over time, however, live with a “growth mind-set.” Guess which ones prove to be most innovative over time.

In our experience as executive coaches, we encounter many people who have a stellar track record, off-the-chart IQ, great technical expertise and a good track history of success who go on to….reach a career plateau.  In contrast, we work with other individuals who, despite a rather pedestrian early track record, lack of Ivy League pedigree, et cetera, surpass those who appear to be the “chosen ones.”   How does this happen….and more importantly, what can we do about it?

This is good news for those of us who did not grow up feeling chosen or special, especially among schoolmates.  Feeling much more like the tortoise than the hare, I remember stumbling along while others seemed to sail through life more easily and successfully.  Or so it seemed.

It turns out, according to Dweck’s research, that the pampered and pedigreed are often the ones who stumble, due to adopting a fixed mindset.  We’ve all seen folks who were tapped as stars, often from early childhood.  Cheered on by doting, praise-lavishing parents, they develop the sense that their talents are God-given qualities that they can count on for future success. 

What’s the problem with this?  All too often, they feel entitled to succeed and become risk-avoidant, fearing the embarrassment of failure.  They deal with obstacles by giving up, feigning disinterest or blaming others.  Or, having enjoyed so many early wins, they keep on doing what has made them successful, despite the fact that the world changes around them.

Not a great recipe for ongoing success, as Dweck and Rae-Dupree point out. 

The topic of mindset reminds me of Mark, a vice president I recently coached.  An unassuming, salt-of-the-earth guy, he was a bright, results-oriented executive who turned off his peers with his brusque style and impatience.  His manager was pessimistic that he could…or would….change.  And Mark indeed had no patience with fluff.  He needed a clear business case for making any behavior change.  Once he understood that listening more and increasing his patience would lead to even better buy-in from others, which actually improved his department’s work product, he embraced the change enthusiastically.  Mark implemented his development plan diligently with great results, to the astonishment of his manager. 

What propelled Mark’s progress?  It turns out that Mark is a great example of someone who embraces a mindset of growth.  Never a natural star nor a charismatic presence, he’s a regular guy with a willingness to approach challenges with curiosity and interpret roadblocks as signs that he needs to change strategy, increase effort, stretch himself and try new behaviors.  Almost a textbook definition of good emotional intelligence.

In our early meetings, he took a learner’s approach to his 360-degree feedback.  Although surprised, he didn’t deflect or blame his stakeholders.  A very private man, he was willing to face his fear of disclosing more about himself to others, as long as he was clear that doing so would enhance his leadership.  In other words, he embraced the possible. 

We all have the ability to adopt an attitude which allows us to grow and change.  The key is to first listen….really listen….to yourself.   What are the internal music and lyrics that we hear inside our own heads?  Are we telling ourselves to give up?  That our challenges are the fault of other, less wonderful, less “enlightened” people?  Or do we tell ourselves that we can figure out what abilities we need to grow or stretch toward to succeed?  These belief systems are the underpinning of the success….and failure…of many.

Second, make sure that you create a regular time and space to reflect on who you are….your beliefs, your vision, your inner dialogue.  This will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for those who value speed and are used to a track record of stardom.  My advice: do it anyway. 

Third, find a partner to serve as “spotter” and dialogue partner as you grow.  This could be a trusted colleague or an experienced executive coach.  They’ll help you leverage your strengths and stay out of the way of your blind spots.

In my most recent conversation with Mark, I listened eagerly as he described how he now observed patterns in meetings.  “Now that I know myself better,” he said, “I see how other people use different behaviors to manage stress.  I’m less impatient with them because I know what they’re trying to do, and I don’t let it get to me.”  In fact, Mark has begun using his newfound knowledge in his developing and mentoring others.  His department is delivering results more effectively, and leaders throughout the company ask him and his team to participate in highly visible and strategic projects.

So what started out as a simple self-improvement project by an ordinary guy has turned into a big win for his company….largely because of his willingness to adopt and use a mindset of growth.


Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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