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Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays


In my last blog, I took a look into how the way we think can have a huge influence over how successful we are now and will be in the future. I personally believe that by approaching our work, and all the highs and lows that come along with it, with a mindset of unwavering growth will ultimately make us all more employable, and the businesses we work for more successful, particularly in changing times such as these.

Apparently, the topic really struck a chord with many of you and it’s been fascinating to read more about your views and perspectives via the hundreds of comments left. So, for this next blog, I want to dig a little deeper into this topic.

Firstly, a quick reminder of what is meant by a growth and a fixed mindset. According to Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is all about believing that you can develop your existing skills and abilities with practice and effort. Whereas, a fixed mindset is characterised by an internal belief that your skills and abilities are relatively fixed and unchangeable. In short, if you have a growth mindset, you believe that no matter what level of capability you possess right now, there’s always something new you can learn and become better at.

I believe that it has never been more important for us all to do everything we can to ensure that, whenever possible, a mindset of growth is our default mindset. After all, if we fail to keep our self-limiting beliefs in check and are fixed in our mindset, we run the risk of coming to an abrupt standstill in our careers, shutting ourselves off to self-improvement and learning, holding back our business, and all because an internal voice told us that was “The Truth”.

Of course, we own our own minds and therefore have ultimate control over how we think and choose to approach those situations we may see as challenging or stretching – but I do think that’s only half of the story. We, as employers, have a part to play here too.

It’s our job, as employers, to help our employees to change their mindsets


Dweck says that we’re all a mixture of a fixed and growth mindset, which is often dependent on the environment we are in. The key word that I want to underline and highlight here is ‘environment’.

As leaders of businesses, we are effectively the architects of our employees’ environments. Therefore, whether we realise it or not, we have a huge amount of power over how our people approach their work when they come into the office every day, and the mindset they have towards it.

Given we have so much influence, surely, we should be doing everything in our power to help our employees to change the way they think, and ultimately help them to become more successful? And surely, this is now even more important as the evolving world of work around us will undoubtedly throw more and more challenges and curve balls their way?

Building a growth mindset culture is more important than ever before


We now find ourselves leading businesses in the heart of the digital age – an exciting, yet challenging and potentially dangerous place to be, which will only be exaggerated if we aren’t consciously encouraging and facilitating our people to try new things, push themselves out of their comfort zones and ultimately reset their mindsets to one of growth. It’s simple – if our people are fixed, our businesses risk being fixed too and that’s not a healthy place to be.

That’s why I think it’s more important than ever to help our employees adopt a mindset of growth so our businesses don’t stagnate or become paralysed by fear of change and development. If we succeed in that, we’ll find that they will be more motivated to learn, improve and innovate, thereby helping to boost the skills, agility, creativity, competitiveness of our business in these unpredictable and changing times.

‘Make like Microsoft’ to instil a growth mindset in your staff


So, what can we do practically to ensure that more often than not, our employees approach each aspect of their work – no matter how challenging it might be – with a growth mindset?

We can certainly take some inspiration from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft here. The tech giant was slumbering in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but has since seen a considerable resurgence in its fortunes. This is largely thanks to the building of a growth-mindset-centred approach under the leadership of Nadella, ultimately helping Microsoft to create more than $250 billion in market value, to become the most valuable company in the world for the first time since 2002.

Nadella and Microsoft CHRO Kathleen Hogan took inspiration from Dweck in taking a range of steps to initiate long-term change, from the creation of interactive online modules incorporating rich storytelling and multimedia, to the implementation of conversation guides for managers and daily pulse surveys. Nadella’s ultimate aim here was to turn his workforce of 131,000 employees worldwide from “know-it-alls” into “learn-it-alls” – what a great way to put it!

You’re probably reading this thinking, “that’s all well and good, but my business isn’t Microsoft”, and I wouldn’t blame you for that. But I believe building a growth mindset culture should be a key priority for all businesses, of all sizes. After all, as a result, your teams are more likely to embrace change as an exciting opportunity to learn, rather than something to shy away from or avoid. And change, as we all know, is something we are only going to see more of.

So, having researched the topic and reflected on my own experiences, I’ve plotted out a few things that I think all business leaders can do to help their employees to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, no matter what their role or position might be.

  • Be a role model for growth: Even leaders at the top of their game struggle to approach every single task with a mindset of growth, they’d be lying if they said they didn’t. But as I said earlier, as leaders you are the architects of your employee’s environments – the environments that help them grow their growth mindset – part of that environment is the people around them, including you.

So, first and foremost, you must be a role model and demonstrate you have a growth mindset wherever possible. Are you practising all of the good habits I told you about in my first blog, such as consistently choosing challenging tasks over safer ones, making a conscious effort to dedicate the time and effort needed get better, and opening yourself up to opportunities to learn?

  • Change your business’s view of, and response to failure: Your employees need to be ‘given permission’ to fail – in other words, to be told that it’s not only OK to fail, but that risk-taking, failure and learning are actively celebrated end embraced in your organisation. In as much as failure should be understood and accepted as a key driver of innovation and growth in your business, it should also be recognised as an important opportunity for personal growth and learning.

So, observe your own reactions to your employees’ failures – do you respond negatively to them or even gloss over them, or do you productively and positively assess them and help your team to learn from them? Do your employees feel able to take risks and experiment? Or do they fear being judged or treated harshly if they make a mistake or something doesn’t go quite to plan? It’s also important, as Heidi Grant, Director of Research Development at NLI says, to share these of mistakes and learning across your teams.

The aim here is to take steps to embed a sense of psychological safety within your culture, and as Dweck says, give your people permission to grow through learning. And learning requires trying, and trying implies unexpected outcomes and occasional failure.

  • Help your employees to work through problems: Part of building this sense of psychological safety is operating an open-door policy where you can – particularly when a member of your team might be faced with a problem or challenge they’re feeling daunted or overwhelmed by.

Spend ten short minutes chatting the issue through, supporting them to plot out the logical next steps. Appreciate the process they are going through, show interest in it, ask them questions and encourage them to persevere to find a solution.

As a result of that single ten-minute exchange, you’ll be able to demonstrate to that person that you that are genuinely committed to their growth, and have confidence and belief in their ability to find a resolution. They’ll in turn feel encouraged and empowered to overcome future challenges, all the time learning and growing.

  • Remind your employees of how much they’ve already learnt and developed: Is there a particular skill that one of your employees didn’t have last year that they have now? Is it in an area they have previously struggled with? Yes? Then don’t hesitate to remind them. Another way you could do this is when discussing projects with your team, talk through the progress you’ve made to date, and where you want to be in X months’ time.

Nurturing a growth mindset isn’t just about encouraging your workers to look forward – it’s also about making them realise how far they’ve come. After all, once they have a greater awareness of just how much progress they’ve made in driving a project forward (and learning along the way), they’ll feel more confident and empowered to continue pushing forward. They’ll also feel even more motivated by knowing that you see their potential and have belief in them to do just that.

And whatever you do, don’t just keep this kind of positive, forward-looking reinforcement for an annual performance appraisal. Make these conversations about progress and skills development part of your regular, day-to-day conversations. By doing so, you’re signalling that your team’s personal development is important to you, and is key to the wider team’s success – which leads me to my next point…

  • Emphasise your interest in personal growth, not just company growth: It might seem like common sense, but your employees will be more motivated and inspired to change if they feel that you genuinely care about their personal career ambitions and progression, instead of solely being interested in their skills as a driver of growth and profit.

For instance, writing for Inc., author and CEO John Eades, talks of how he encourages staff to start their own podcast to cover vital topics around organisational health, explaining that the task of hosting the show required them to invest in their own personal growth, and gave them a license to do so. I think this is hugely powerful, as it feels sincere and isn’t directly linked to driving company performance in the eyes of employees.

I’d also recommend that you assign your people stretch assignments, those which you know will challenge and push themselves out of their comfort zones, whilst supporting them along the way. It’s also important to realise that people with a growth mindset are active learners of others, they seek out opportunities to develop and grow, so encourage your people to learn from others, rather than feel threatened by them.

Essentially, you have the power to orchestrate opportunities in which your people can grow in a way that feels meaningful to them, all the time demonstrating that their personal growth is genuinely important to the business. So, it’s time for you to exercise that power.

  • Be consistent with all of the above: As I touched on above and in my previous blog, no one ever has a growth mindset in every area all of the time, or even keeps it permanently once they have it. That’s why it’s so crucial to constantly revisit and reinforce all of the above to preserve and facilitate a mindset of growth throughout your organisation, now and in the future.

The worrying truth is that if most of the time your people have a fixed rather than a growth mindset, then your business risks being fixed too. If your people aren’t growing, then neither is your organisation.

Strangely I haven’t seen many strategic plans outlining corporate stagnation, so is enough effort going into the cultural strategy to avoid that actually becoming the case? Maybe not, and if that’s the case, you run the risk of failing to have the necessary ingredients to challenge, problem-solve and innovate in the ways that are so fundamental in both today’s and tomorrow’s world of work.

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Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.

He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.

In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.



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