10 signs of an IT leader with a growth mindset

People with a growth mindset can prove crucial to IT teams chasing ambitious goals. Look for these characteristics and behaviors in your team – and nurture them within yourself
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Organizational psychologist Carol Dweck made a name for herself measuring the impact of mindset on human performance. More than a decade ago, she synthesized her research on the subject in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In that book, Dweck distinguished people with “fixed mindsets”, who believe that basic qualities like intelligence or talent are static, from those with “growth mindsets,” who believe that they can develop talents and capabilities over time through effort. Those who fall in the latter group, Dweck found, thrive on challenge; as a result, they are better at problem solving and adapting to change.

It’s no surprise, then, that her study of personality has grown in popularity among business leaders in recent years of continual and often dramatic shifts. Indeed, some companies like Microsoft, have institutionalized her work and built entire business strategies around it.

Why growth mindset matters to IT

“Growth mindset is important because the world is dynamic and changing more quickly than ever,” says Lenovo Group senior vice president and CIO Arthur Hu. “With nobody able to stay at the cutting edge of every technology field, it is an invaluable orientation that ensures you stay focused on learning how to embrace the latest challenges and focus on discovering the best ideas to capitalize on these challenges, rather than spending energy defending your own ego as the person who has to have all the answers.”

“Digital transformation is the leading business case for growth mindset.”

IT organizations, in particular, can certainly benefit when team members have a growth mindset. As NeuroLeadership Institute research points out: “Digital transformation is the leading business case for growth mindset.”

When a leader role models a growth mindset, adds Hu, this “also creates a more inclusive work environment as you recognize that each team member has an opportunity to learn from others’ strengths and talents.”

On a related note, a growth mindset is critical for leaders who want to listen to and learn from their early-career employees, adds Dave Egts, chief technologist, North America Public Sector, Red Hat. “Quite often, the foundational skills learned by the leader learned in college decades ago are no longer applicable in today’s world,” Egts says. “As such, curiosity about early-career employees’ experiences and ways of thinking can get leaders to approach problems in ways they were never formally taught.”

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

10 signs of a growth mindset

Mindsets, which can be defined as a set of assumptions and beliefs, are impossible to see, points out Dr. Sunni Lampasso, a psychologist and professional coach with consultancy Shaping Success, but there are ways to recognize them. The following are some characteristics and behaviors indicative of the growth mindset that IT leaders can keep an eye out for in their teams – or nurture within themselves:

1. Curiosity

“You want to continue to source ideas from multiple places outside of your daily work.”

Those with a growth mindset are naturally curious: They enjoy learning and doing new things.

“Curiosity puts you in a more open frame of mind, and you are more receptive and able to make those intuitive leaps or recognize flashes of insight when in that state,” says Hu. “You want to continue to source ideas from multiple places outside of your daily work.”

Hu makes it a point to schedule in engagement around the organization, whether one-on-ones or roundtables, for this reason. “Staying connected and ensuring that there’s a good flow is a specific tactic that I think is very helpful.”

2. Desire for more

“A leader with a growth mindset does not allow his or her team to rest on the laurels of their accomplishments and skills of the past,” says Peter A. High, author of Getting to Nimble: How to Transform Your Company into a Digital Leader and president of the technology and business advisory firm, Metis Strategy.

“Growth oriented leaders must drive teams to have a learning agility, curious and gritty enough to constantly seek new skills and credentials in order to build toward the future.”

3. Creativity

Those with a growth mindset think in terms of “what it can be” as opposed to “it is what it is,” says Cliff Milles, lead technical recruiter at Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS). “Anything in a person’s background that includes creativity, coaching, psychology, et cetera can indicate that the individual has a growth mindset.”

4. Courage

Indications might include learning a new language, trying a new sport, or making career changes.

“People with fixed mindsets typically maintain the status quo rather than planning ahead and adapting to unforeseen circumstances,” says Scott Deakins, chief operating officer at ERP platform provider Deacom.

“Professionals with growth mindsets, on the other hand, tend to move the needle of an organization, making meaningful progress on projects and organizational goals because they are agile and resilient, which makes it easier for them to pivot before it’s too late.”

That’s particularly valuable in the dynamic technology space. “The best leaders proactively evaluate their talent, strategy, and risk to push their team members to execute their vision on a day-to-day basis,” Deakins says.

Those with a growth mindset enjoy taking risks. They thrive on trying new things. Some telltale indications of those with a growth mindset, according to Lampasso, might be learning a new language, trying a new sport, or making career changes.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

5. Openness to possibilities

“A leader with a growth mindset always tends to look at and recognize the potential of an individual,” says Milles of Sungard AS. “They see what the person is capable of doing, not just what they’ve done.” The growth mindset looks at traits, soft skills, and the “how” of a person’s accomplishments rather than simply the “what,” Milles says.

6. Compassion and resilience

Those with a growth mindset tend to be more caring and kinder to themselves when mistakes happen.

This one may seem a little less obvious. However, those with a growth mindset tend to be more caring and kinder to themselves when mistakes happen, Lampasso says. For them, any failure is another learning opportunity.

Individuals with a growth mindset view problems as opportunities to learn and grow, Lampasso says. They view change as something to embrace. “They can bounce back after going through hard times,” says Lampasso.

7. Appreciation for serendipity

Demanding a process is less valuable than architecting for innovation (and growth). “Whenever I’ve tried to say, ‘innovate here right now’, it’s never worked,” says Hu of Lenovo Group.

“You can’t mandate innovation directly in terms of a time and place. It’s really about creating some of the preconditions where you encourage applied curiosity at the margins and then you can actually figure out some of the things that are interesting because they’re gaining traction.”

8. Optimism

Because challenges or mistakes don’t deter people who have a growth mindset, they tend to have a ‘glass half full’ point of view, says Lampasso. “As a result, they are able to maintain optimism and are better prepared to handle life challenges.”

9. Comfort with discomfort

“A growth mindset forces us out of our comfort zone,” says Red Hat’s Egts. “For me, the desire to have new experiences doesn’t come naturally so I need to make a conscious effort. Even if new experiences are exciting to you, keep in mind that your team may have some reluctance. To address this reluctance, psychological safety and empathy are critical when encouraging teams to grow in ways they never thought possible.”

[ Are you a toxic boss – or are you dealing with one? Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss. ]

10. Open-mindedness and self-awareness

"We might have a tendency to have a growth mindset related to certain topics while not as much for others,"

Growth mindset is not an absolute state but should be seen on a spectrum, notes Red Hat’s Shabnoor Shah, Open Leadership Global Lead and Executive Coach, Red Hat Open Innovation Labs. “Depending on our personality, behavioral and cultural orientation, personal values, etc. we might have a tendency to have a growth mindset related to certain topics while not as much for others,” Shah says. Example topics might include decision making, practices around employee engagement, discipline, governance, and formality and informality, she notes.

“In my coaching practice, I have observed that often, the more knowledgeable and experienced we become on a topic or in our specialized fields of expertise, the more we are at risk of unconsciously slipping towards a fixed mindset,” Shah says. “We could start blocking input or feedback or become highly resistant to new ideas.”

How can you fight this - and seek to nurture your growth mindset? Here are some tactics Shah offers for consideration for leaders:

  • Try mindfulness practices
  • Explore your own stress patterns
  • Become aware of your own judgements and biases
  • Seek regular feedback to discover your blindspots
  • Get coaching support to create observable and measurable development goals
  • Acquire new and diverse knowledge
  • Open up to new viewpoints and experiences
  • Practice listening deeply to understand

Benefits of a growth mindset for IT leaders

Does all this sound like a lot of work? Consider the potential benefits. “In IT organizations, leaders are having to deal with constant change, “ Shah notes. IT leaders stay close to the changing external technology environment – and recognize the impact and costs to the business if they don’t keep up with the pace of change, she says. “They have a dual responsibility of maintaining a positive organization subculture in IT organizations and also keeping the internal business stakeholders informed…to stay relevant, successful and profitable,” Shah says.

But silos and siloed thinking are a common occurrence.

“When IT leaders become siloed they risk losing a great opportunity to positively influence business strategy and decision-making,” Shah says. “Growth mindset could help in shifting away from siloed thinking and operating and toward promoting a collaborative enterprise mindset.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.