Why having a ‘growth mindset’​ is vital for startup founders

Today is the twenty fifth anniversary of one of my personal career highlights – I was Finance Director in a team that floated a business on the London Stock Exchange. The photo is the plaque the Stock Exchange issues to mark the event. Deciding to leave after fifteen years with the business in 2007, I claimed it for myself as a personal memento and it now rests in my study to remind me of a remarkable period of my professional life.

In just a few years we’d taken a private business from £10m turnover to a listing on the new AIM market in 1995, raised £5m, and made our first acquisition. We weren’t hanging around, two years later we moved onto the FTSE main market and hit £100m turnover. At times it was like trying to land a 200 pound blue marlin from the back of a rubber dingy.

Listing on FTSE was a professional goal and remains a notable personal landmark of endeavour, pride and fulfilment. I hold warm memories of the people I worked with along the way to the Listing, what we made happen together. The process and demands of achieving plc status was tough, challenging and at times overwhelming – but the old maxim of if something is worth it, its worth working for held true.

The following ten years were a roller coaster of growth, learning, success and disappointment – at both a personal and business level. I moved from FD to MD to CEO, we had great times of stellar profit growth and one week were in the top ten of FTSE share price increase; less good times of profit warnings, in the top ten of share price falls, where I was the sole survivor of a board room cull.

Operating in the public domain puts you in the permanent spotlight of performance visibility and constant transparency. The demands of shareholders and accountability I enjoyed, but at times it was fierce and unforgiving.  The relentlessness of publishing results every six months is a driver of focus and decision making but leaves little margin for error or space for long-term thinking. Taking other people’s money changes everything, you are tasked with creating a return and delivering on your promises. I was comfortable with putting that expectation on myself.

Looking back twenty-five years, personal reflection is clear on what I achieved – way beyond my initial expectations of myself – balanced with some regrets as to what I could and should have done better, although hindsight and the rear-view mirror of retrospectives is always filled with metaphorical ‘notes to self’ on what you would have done differently knowing what you know now.

I could tell you some tales of the experiences – presenting annual results to some of the City of London’s most hallowed, global institutional investors – one had an original Picasso hanging on the wall which was a bit distracting  but memorable. Equally the mix of insight and arrogance from analysts, fund managers and advisors. Some had never run a fish and chip shop but told me what I needed to do.

For a number of years I was living in my own version of Barbarians at the Gate, and personalities from Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co were in my everyday conversations. The culture was a world away from my upbringing. I recall one investment manager asking me what school did you go to? to which I replied, not one you’ve heard of, and receiving feedback that I was common, clever and juvenile – a sobriquet I liked which I’ve tried to sustain to this day.

So how did I make this happen for myself and a small business, where twelve-hour days were a welcome calm from the usual maelstrom? The 5am train from Manchester to London and the 8pm train back three days a week – I was not moving my family from the North so commuted – were the norm. My takeaway is that at all times I had a growth mindset. Mindset is everything, a fixation on I can do this I brought to every decision and action I took and shaped how I approached challenges and opportunities. It applied to me than as a leader in a plc as much as to a startup founder today.

In her book unpacking her research, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck distinguished two extremes of the mindsets people tend to have:

  • A fixed mindset where you assume your qualities are carved in stone, whatever skills, talents, and capabilities you have are predetermined and finite. Whatever you lack, you will continue to lack – I’m either good at it or not. I stick to what I know, feedback and criticism are personal;
  • A growth mindset whereby your qualities are things you can cultivate through effort, everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Failure is an opportunity to grow, I can learn to do anything I want, my effort and attitude determine my abilities.

I defined my mindset to be the lens from which I view the world. A growth mindset is an empowering lens from which I can see how to push, stretch and make myself better. Fundamentally, my takeaway is that success comes as a result of effort, learning, and persistence. I also have a decent helping of northern grit in me so when someone tells me you won’t be able to do that it’s just an invitation for me to go for it.

The distinction between fixed and growth mindsets has significant implications for how we address the pressures and demands upon us. The mindset paradox suggests that the greatest threat to success is avoiding failure.  For me fear of failure is a motivator but not the driver, it’s how high can I reach, what is possible, let’s stretch for it, is more the catalyst.

One of the most insightful aspects of Dweck’s work is what it says about our approach to challenges.  In a fixed mindset, you avoid challenging situations that might lead to failure because success depends upon protecting existing qualities and concealing your deficiencies. If you do fail, you focus on rationalising the failure rather than learning from it and developing your capabilities.

It’s not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers, learning to recognise when our fixed-mindset persona shows up and what it says to make us feel threatened and then become defensive.

To be a startup founder, you must operate a growth mindset. Here’s my framework, shaped by the personal experience and reflecting on the anniversary of taking a business to a FTSE listing, to cultivate a growth mindset to your startup endeavours:

Your whole goal is to not quit Most of the difficult part is to develop and retain the growth mindset orientation and just not quit. At the beginning we are doing everything and often we fall into the trap of thinking that the greater our input, the greater and the better the output will be. That’s just not true.

Takeaway: Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey: most of the times the difficult part is to retain your positive mindset.

Discomfort is your friend If you want to grow, you’re going to get uncomfortable. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, which is why discomfort should be accepted. Discomfort in itself is a good barometer to measure if you are stretching yourself. Growth mindset manifests itself in founders who are comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s often easier to stick with the things you know and follow the path of least resistance. Be conscious of this, and seek out activities that will challenge you, force you to learn new things, and to grow your skills.

Takeaway: If you are comfortable with what you are doing you are not pushing the boundaries enough

Prioritise thoughtfully – and do it fast A growth mindset is all about prioritisation at speed. You need a firm grasp on what will move the needle most for your venture. Do those projects first and most importantly, focus on work that really matters. Face forward, and move forward, at the best pace you can, and concentrate on yourself when needed.

Takeaway: Look forward, don’t look back, set your own priorities – you can’t press ahead while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing. Just like a runner can’t wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal

Assess your habits Even when you have the best intentions, your brain can rebel like a toddler throwing a tantrum. This is when habits can do the heavy lifting. Determination is a growth mindset characteristic. Resistance is a fixed mindset anchor, a myriad of mental and emotional forces that can self-sabotage us from doing the work and achieving our dreams.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves. It just takes the courage to explore. We are always a work-in-progress

Get out and stay out of your own bubble As an entrepreneur it’s easy to get caught up in your own ideas and become obsessive. In the end, it comes down to whether you have a genuine desire to really know yourself and your limits. We are hardwired to avoid change, especially once we’re comfortable. We don’t want to leave our safe, warm caves and head out to hunt the beasts, whatever they might be.

Takeaway: Open mindedness to being challenged and accept you don’t have the monopoly on the answers is a key trait of successful entrepreneurs.

Be yourself I’ve always just brought myself to work. By that I mean I’m the same person with my kids, at the football on a Saturday or in a business meeting. Simply be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

Takeaway: Better to be who you are and run the race your own way.

I believe the future belongs to those who adopt a growth mindset. A typical entrepreneurial state of mind of experiment, curiosity, open mindedness and lacking fear wins. Those with a fixed mindset will likely be overwhelmed by mounting and sustained uncertainty. Worse, the more they avoid failure, the more susceptible these individuals can be, not learning from mistakes and missing opportunities.

With a growth mindset you focus on new opportunities and actively pursue the types of challenges that you know will be hard but offer prospects for amazing experiences, expand your knowledge, achieve something remarkable and make your mark. For me it’s all about intrinsic motivation, what can I achieve? I’m glad I had that orientation twenty-five years ago and retain it to this day. There is never a right time to press pause and hold back.

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