“What’s the most important mindset for success in business?”
A video podcaster named Nina asked me earlier today. (Watch my interview here.)
For a second, I doubted I would be able to identify just one key mindset for success.
I find questions about “what one thing?” sort of over-simplifying.
As trusted advisors to CEOs and investors of large companies, our consultants at ghSMART typically emphasize the importance of context. There is no “perfect candidate” to hire for a job, for example. Success depends mostly on a leader fitting a given context, which has many variables—the customer landscape, strategic challenges, operating challenges, financial or legal factors, culture, etc. A salesy person might succeed in a job that requires persuasive communication, but fail in a job that requires detailed process management.
But then it dawned on me.
There is one mindset that I have observed in successful vs. unsuccessful Fortune 500 CEOs. Board members. Private equity investors. Government leaders. Education reformers. ghSMART consultants.
And by “observed” I don’t mean casually observed. My firm has formally conducted over 17,000 in-depth interviews of leaders of all size companies, in every industry SIC code, in every major region of the world. So we get to see what various mindsets and behaviors work, or don’t work, in lots and lots of different situations.
So what is the most important word in business, which you rarely hear?
Not “honesty.” Honesty is the lowest possible table stakes mindset value you can have as a person or a business. I think it’s weird when companies must remind their people to not be dishonest. “Let’s not commit any crimes today, people!”
Not “kindness.” Mere kindness doesn’t always lead to delivering real value to people. “Have a nice day!” doesn’t make someone’s day much better. An act of generosity makes someone’s day much better.
Not “respect.” Respect is such a low bar. Generosity is 3 dial clicks up from mere respect. To show someone generosity, you are giving them respect + giving them something valuable.
Not “learning.” Having a learning mindset is an input. Like data entry. It’s not an expression of any value to others. Which would you rather have–a company or colleague that learns a lot, or one that generously gives you value?
Not “empathy.” Empathy without action is the same thing as commiseration. Generosity has an action component that makes it the most important mindset in business.
Even an “abundance” mindset isn’t quite there. You can be indifferent to others having stuff, and still not be a proactive agent for giving people stuff. An abundance mindset is passive. A generosity mindset is active.
Leaders who succeed are generous.
And they treat people—customers, employees, shareholders, and the community—with a fundamental mindset of generosity. In contrast, people who lack a spirit of generosity don’t succeed over the long term.
Here are some examples of selfishness and generosity that I’ve witnessed.
(DON’T) TRICK THE CUSTOMER: I remember talking with the CEO of a mortgage company, and I instantly got a bad feeling about his character. His mindset was selfish. He implied that his business succeeded by “tricking” low income homeowners into signing up for mortgages that had hidden terms that were unfavorable to them. Well, that mindset backfired. When the housing crisis happened in 2008/2009 (caused in part by bad actors like this guy), his company and his career were snuffed out under a pile of lawsuits.
(DO) GIVE CUSTOMERS SOMETHING THAT REDUCES THEIR STRESS: In contrast, I remember being impressed early in my career by the mindset of a self-made billionaire named Ted Waitt. Remember Gateway, the computer company, with those cow-spotted boxes? How in the world did a ripped-jeans wearing, cowboy-boot clad, pony-tailed rebel like Ted build a multi-BILLION-dollar computer manufacturing company smack in the middle of a cornfield in South Dakota? What struck me initially was his generosity of spirit. When asked about his success, Ted talked about making computers, which were scary for most people, much more friendly and fun—hence the cow-spotted boxes and the folksy customer support people. Ted loved making technology less stressful for customers. Giving people good value for their dollar. Giving customers an enjoyable buying experience. Being genuinely excited to make customers’ lives better through his products. And the spirit of generosity was reflected in the culture. One quarter, the company missed its earnings forecast. A factory worker heard the news and came up to the executive floor and knocked on Ted’s door, the CEO. “I heard we missed our number this quarter,” the worker said. “So I want you to keep my bonus check; every little bit helps, right?” The man handed the CEO his bonus check. Ted graciously gave the man his check back and thanked him for his generosity. Have you ever heard such a thing? Generosity crackled in the air at that place. Gateway was eventually acquired, and it’s one-of-a-kind culture of generosity became a story for the history books.
(DON’T) MILK YOUR EMPLOYEES: There once was a law firm that had a special sub group of lawyers who made most of the money for the firm. But that group was “milked” and not paid at a level proportionate to the value of their contribution. The senior partners could have made compensation more generous, but they insisted on underpaying people. You know what happened next. The high-producers left the firm. And the firm went out of business.
(DO) ELEVATE YOUR EMPLOYEES’ FULFILLMENT: The Governor of my State (of Colorado) is known for hiring super talented people from the private sector into government jobs. How does he do it? As far as I can tell, his mindset is to give these people something very special–to elevate their level of fulfillment. He emphasizes how their leadership skills will prove useful in directly improving the quality of human life. He emphasizes how much autonomy and support he will give them to make bold improvements in their organizations. He gives them the spotlight, and does not seek to hog it for himself. He appeals to “what’s in it for you” rather than guilt-tripping them into serving out of some sense of duty. He genuinely wants his teammates to have a fulfilling work experience. That spirit of generosity allows this governor to recruit an all-start team.
- (DO) CREATE UNEXPECTED EXPERIENCES: At ghSMART, one of our colleagues expressed an interest in improving his “story telling” skills. It was Alan Foster, a charming Brit who leads our UK office, and coauthor of our book Power Score. For anybody who knows Alan, he’s already an amazing story teller. But he wanted to take his game up a notch, to further dazzle audiences when he gave talks about leading talented teams. So some other colleagues took the initiative to research opportunities, and found an upcoming special 2-day seminar hosted by a star Hollywood movie screenwriter, a master story teller. They got Alan admission to this exclusive seminar, comped the cost, and gave the experience to him as a present. How cool is that? Could you imagine working at a firm where people were on the lookout for ways to generously give you what you need or want? As the Chairman & Founder, it makes me very happy to see our culture of generosity & gratitude continue to blossom as we grow.
Bottom line? Gordon Gekko said “Greed is good.”
But a mindset of generosity is better, if you want to be successful in your career, and fulfilled in your life.
I don’t have any tools for you to download to make you or your team more generous. But to access free tools to hire and lead talented teams based on our bestselling books Who and Power Score, please click here SMARTtools for Leaders™.
Watch the video podcast I mentioned here.