What Do We Mean by Development Mindset?

By: Ed C. Ryterband

A key predictor of executives’ success lies beyond their prior performance, their current talents, and their experience. We refer to it as their development mindset. Some executives have less or none of this mindset. They are difficult to develop and might be described as “what you see is what you get.” They may work hard but will not work differently when their role changes or when they are in a different role. In either case, their continued success calls for a change in their approach to leading, but they do not change: they work harder but not smarter.

Leaders who possess a development mindset are more elastic. They have more capacity for increased responsibilities because they have an ability and desire to learn and grow, to develop new skills, and to respond in innovative ways to new and unforeseen developments. In the current business world, with so much changing, it is increasingly valuable for organizations to look for that development mindset in their leaders. Who has it, and how can it be identified so it can be assessed and cultivated?

Executives with development mindsets possess two key motivations. First, they are curious. They want an objective and future-oriented picture of their business and of their strengths and gaps as leaders in that business. They do not assume that if their business grows, it will operate under the same rules as it presently does. They also don’t assume, consciously or otherwise, that the formula that got them to their current level will be the formula that will take them to the next.

Second, they are action oriented. They go beyond working for good performance evaluations and looking for confirmation of their value in the compensation they receive at year-end. They take initiative as active learners. They translate their curiosity into an ongoing solicitation of real-time feedback about their impact at work and use that feedback to seek learning opportunities that upgrade their skills. The value they place on that feedback draws them to the possibilities of new projects, to seek out information from a variety of sources and in various media that may give them new and valuable information.

A development mindset shows itself in five key behaviors that can be assessed and cultivated. People with development mindsets:

Think and act strategically. They think beyond their current circumstance. They think about where their world is headed, have a clear picture of their destination in that world, and realize what it will take to get there.

Experiment with new behavior. Tried-and-true is not enough for them. If something new is needed (e.g., delegating more to manage a larger organization), they find ways to try it—even if they are uncomfortable doing so.

Are persistent. They are not just involved in a brief experiment; they are committed to trying out new behavior over a period of time. They do not discourage easily, and they keep at it in the face of obstacles and challenges.

Seek meaningful feedback. They stay alert for opportunities to obtain information about their real impact from many sources—from their customers, the people above them, their peers, their direct reports, the whole organization.

Act courageously: They are willing to try new behavior, but also to ask for help. They ask it from people who can make a difference, and they are willing to absorb the feedback they receive. They also admit when they have not succeeded, understand how they contributed to the shortfall in results, refresh their view of their gaps, and formulate ways of making adjustments.

The importance of these behaviors lies in their fit to purpose. The purpose of people who show these behaviors is not to look in the rear-view mirror for recognition but to look ahead and figure out how to contribute in a changing world. Organizations succeed over time because they have a value proposition that their marketplace responds to favorably. Markets change, however—new competitors, laws, and technologies emerge. Successful organizations anticipate and respond to such changes because the people in key roles are agile—and that agility comes from having a development mindset.

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