Matthew Lerner

Mar 162 min

How to foster a growth mindset?

Updated: Mar 17

First - Here's the object lesson that transformed my own thinking about growth mindset leadership:

Nine words changed PayPal

When David Marcus took over as President of PayPal in 2012, the culture was nothing like the startup Peter and Elon founded. Over 20,000 employees, slow, bureaucratic and inward-looking. But Marcus was able to effect a powerful transformation quickly by modelling the right behaviours.

In one of his first all-company meetings, after imploring employees to use PayPal’s products, listen to customers, take risks and learn from failures, he said these nine words…

9 Magic Words

David said: “Let me tell you about a mistake I made.” Then he spoke openly about a bad choice he'd made – selecting the wrong parts supplier for a card reader, which led to malfunctioning devices that caused expensive delays and angered customers. “That was on me” he declared. With those words, he showed us it was “safe" to talk about our mistakes and learn from them. Can you imagine how powerful that change was?

My Litmus Test for Your Team

When I work with a team, I can easily tell if they have a growth mindset culture. I just go around the table and ask each person to talk about a recent mistake - and watch if the mood changes. Do things get tense? Or do they feel comfortable reflecting openly?

If they get tense, that’s dangerous. And it’s on you. If your team can’t talk openly about mistakes, they won’t learn. And, as a startup, when you stop learning, you die.

Remember: Your employees will copy your behaviour. That can be your greatest lever or your greatest curse. So pull it in the right direction!

Can People Really Change?

Some people naturally have this “growth mindset” orientation, seeing mistakes as lessons and progress. But I’ve found, in about 80% of people, it’s easily teachable. (People want to learn, but they need to feel safe being imperfect). First, model the behaviour yourself! Next, create a safe environment where mistakes are welcomed as lessons. (In other words, when good people screw up, help them find the lesson).

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