Great leadership is a multiplier. It tears down roadblocks, creates an environment conducive to great work, and amplifies the impact of everyone in the company.
Playing to everyone’s strongest traits involves knowing who you are working with and what they are working around.
In July 2012, I had the honor of attending a lecture for students hosted by Seth Godin. We learned about the connection economy, bootstrapping, creativity, fear, and shipping. There was one exercise that changed the way I view characteristics within a team, and in turn, myself.
Seth created three columns on a white board, and each received a label: Gift, Attitude, Skill.
“What kind of person would you want to work with? Call out some traits,” said Seth.
Smart. Passionate. Talented. A great listener. Problem solver . . . and so on.
As each trait was placed in the appropriate category, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate an attitude and a skill. At one point we all looked like confused puppies.
As the list narrowed down a pattern began to emerge: attitudes and skills cannot exist without one another.
When hiring or deciding the direction of the company culture, it’s easy to mistake what we’re looking for. Gifts are the shiny attributes that are unique to the individual, like innate talent. Attitudes and skills are malleable traits that denote “the person they’ll become,” as Jason Fried describes it:
While it’s a bonus to find that perfect person today, I find it more rewarding (for me and them) to pluck the future perfect person out of their mediocre job today. I love betting on people with potential. When they finally get that chance to do their best work, they blossom in such a special way.
And as the owner of a company, few things make me prouder than seeing someone excelling in a way that their resume/portfolio/references wouldn’t have suggested they could.
So when I ask what kind of person you want to work with, it’s possible that what you’re searching for is not specific gifts, but people who are willing to harness the ability to develop new traits and skills that not only benefit the company but also fulfill their own personal lives. What you see is not all that you get—there’s so much more to be unearthed and so much potential to be unlocked, but only with the right mindset and environment.
The Science Behind Traits
Psychologist Carol Dweck is renowned for her work regarding the two different kinds of mindsets that we possess and how those influence the way we lead our lives.
The “fixed mindset” is believing that your traits are concrete—that your level of intelligence is fixed and cannot improve no matter the effort put in, like the color of your eyes.
The “growth mindset” is all about improving through effort and learning from failure. Mishaps are not indications of a flawed character, but rather, opportunities to learn. As Dweck said in her insightful book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
To encourage the development of new traits or skills, it’s important to identify the mindset that permeates the company. In short, what do you believe? Do you believe you can become a better writer, designer, manager, and leader? Are you born creative or do you become creative?
This simple testament of “Yes, I can learn this” versus “No, I was born this way” has a profound impact on our behavior as well as the quality of our lives. But to grow the team, there must be harmony between internal beliefs and the team environment.
Check out this 8-minute film by the awarding-winning filmmaker Tiffany Shlain on The Science of Character:
Why Environment Is as Important as Your Mindset
We previously discussed how the Red Cross reinvented the process of donating blood by changing their environment. By empathizing with the customer experience, they realized what compelled strangers to donate in the first place and then tailored the environment accordingly.
A change in environment can encourage or reduce desired behaviors. Tina Seelig, author of inGenius and Professor of the Practice at Stanford, shares a fascinating example of this in action.
Seelig divided her classroom into two ecosystems. Each ecosystem was divided into four teams of students, and each team had to complete a jigsaw puzzle. One ecosystem had tables but no chairs; the other ecosystem had chairs but no tables.
The students in the ecosystem with the chairs but no tables instantly started working with each other. Chairs were arranged into a circle or pushed aside, and they did the puzzle on the floor. However, the team with tables but no chairs couldn’t see past the function of the table. They hunkered down.
Professor Seelig says:
Since the tables in the room have wheels and move easily, it would have been a trivial matter to push them together to create one big team. However, in the dozens of times I have run this exercise, this never happens. The participants are always shocked when I point this out to them. They think that they have been making well-thought-out strategic decisions and are blown away by the realization that the space literally dictated what they would do.
Changing the workplace environment to nurture the growth mindset is not an impossible feat but a necessary one. Employees or new hires may have a growth mindset, but if the environment isn’t suitable, no amount of water or sunlight will cultivate growth.
What you invest into your team impacts the growth of the business. Employees should not be seen as furniture being added into a room; they’re the pillars in the foundation that remain resilient during times of adversity and adaptive in times of change.
a Nurturing Environment
I say this with complete humility in hopes that by sharing how Help Scout champions the growth mindset and provides a nurturing environment, you can take away something useful and apply it to your own endeavors. The size or type of company should be no limitation to creating a prolific environment that helps your team become their best selves.
When I first joined Help Scout, Nick Francis, our CEO and co-founder, surprised me by saying, “You can pursue any project you like. I do not want to stifle your creativity. I love that you have your own blog.” That reflected a lot about his values and how he’s building the company, and in turn, this invigorated me.
The opposite would have been demoralizing: “Stop whatever you’re doing and only focus on us. No writing for other websites. No side projects.”
And it’s not just Nick; the whole team understands the power of the growth mindset, and their nurturing has made me a better employee and writer. Here are a few ways:
- Weekly meetings: Besides the 20-minute team meeting, I also get coaching from our resident marketer, Greg. He reviews my drafts, provides candid feedback, outlines critical steps for me to take for the next post, and is available via Slack or text message. If there is anything that will make me a better writer and marketer, it’s this.
- Company Retreat: In September we had our first company retreat. Most of our team is remote, so meeting everyone in person was necessary. Relationships strengthened, bonds were formed, and great conversations happened over great food. This of course carries over when we’re messaging each other on Slack or talking on the phone.
- Bi-weekly meetings with my manager: Besides the performance review and what the week ahead looks like, my manager Ivana asks me, “What can I do to help you be more productive? What can I do to make your work better? What do you need from us? How’s life?” You can identify a workplace that encourages the growth mindset and nurtures the team by looking at the questions that are being asked. This kind of support is invaluable, not only to a new hire, but for someone who wants to stick with the company for the long haul.
- Book stipends: Learning never ends, and to ensure this, I’m given a monthly stipend to purchase any books that I need. As a voracious reader and a lover of books, there is no greater gift than this. This asset simply implies, “We want you to learn. Let us help.”
In a perfect world, managers are understanding and nurturing, the CEO’s door is always open, and teammates are always around to provide feedback and coaching. A tired employee is not a sign of weakness but of one who’s simply human. Taking breaks is not a sign of laziness but rather an understanding of how to truly be productive and efficient. A lack of sleep will not merit applause.
The bottom line: how you nurture employees impacts their output and happiness.
The interplay between the growth mindset and a nurturing environment is worthy of rumination, and in turn, application. A vehicle that can travel far distances is a by-product of a fine-tuned engine.
What Jason Fried said was golden: “I love betting on people with potential. When they finally get that chance to do their best work, they blossom in such a special way.”
This potential begins with and is multiplied by great leadership, and all of this can only blossom in a favorable environment. A great, thriving business? That’s the by-product of a good foundation on which everything else is built.