he Truth About Human Potential Top Leaders Know

The Truth About Human Potential That Top Leaders Know

he Truth About Human Potential Top Leaders Know

Around 2005, I got caught in the middle of a heated debate among corporate leaders. Now, over ten years later, I wish I could go back in time, because some recent research would help determine who was right and who was wrong.

I was sitting at a lunch table at a conference and a debate broke out about the human potential to change. Half the table supported the idea that people had an immense capacity to change. One of the more extreme supporters of this idea believed that people could become anything they put their mind to. The other half, who considered themselves the realists, believed that the talents people have are fixed—they have them or they don’t.

Tangled Up

The debate got pretty heated, and tangled. One of the change supporters gave her own personal story as evidence—a story about growing up poor and doing badly at school and then going on to get a scholarship at an IVY league school and working her way up to a VP position at a large company. One of the fixed supporters argued that the story was evidence of her innate talent—and that while her circumstances changed, she didn’t really change. She always had the capacity to become successful.

As the debate raged on, it became clear that the beliefs each leader had informed their leadership philosophy. The change supporters were more likely to invest in training, coaching, and mentoring, and to bring on people they thought had potential. The fixed supporters were more likely to hire people who had already proven themselves to be stars, and to spend less time and effort developing people, preferring to quickly weed out anyone who wasn’t performing.

Who Was Right?

It would have been nice to know who among these leaders had the most successful team, and which leadership approach typically resulted in higher-performing teams. Do the change supporters waste too many resources on developing people who don’t realize their potential? Do the fixed supporters waste resources hunting for superstars while failing to bring out the best in their people?

In the ten years since this debate, researchers have been exploring several areas that help point to what leadership approach is most likely to work best.

Mindset Matters

One of those areas is on the impact of different mindsets on performance. Carol Dweck, a psychologist and Stanford University, has shown that how we think about human potential influences the performance levels we can achieve. As Dweck puts it, there are two essential mindsets. People with a Fixed Mindset are like half the leaders I described above. They believe that we can’t change who we are. People with a Growth Mindset are like the other half, believing that people can do better with effort.

Dweck has done extensive research on the impact of these two mindsets on students. As she wrote recently in Education Week, “students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).”

Don’t Tell People They’re Smart

As Dweck warns, one sure-fire way to instil a fixed mindset in children is to tell them they’re smart (I’m constantly catching myself with my daughter on this one). The reasoning is, when you tell someone they’re smart, you encourage them to avoid challenging things that have the potential to make them look not-so-smart, stunting their development. Business Insider recently quoted Dweck saying, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

Plastic Brain

Dweck’s research is in line with the exploration of neuroplasticity, which shows that our brain has the ability to change and develop over time, even during adulthood. We now know that something like one’s IQ is actually quite flexible, and as LiveScience has reported, can fluctuate as much as 20 points one way or the other.

Given all this research, it seems that the so-called realists aren’t giving human beings enough credit and are likely missing out on opportunities to raise the performance of their people. So, does this mean we hand the debate win over to the leaders who embraced the human potential to change? Well, not so fast…

How We Are Built

There’s another line of research we have to reckon with, and that’s the research into who we are and how we are built. You could think of this as the core attributes that make us tick. For example, traits like how open we are to new experiences or how well we tolerate stress are part of who we are. They’re core attributes. So, how changeable are these? If you have someone on your team who reacts badly to stress, is it possible for them to one day easily shrug off the things that used to bother them? What about someone who prefers traditional concepts and familiar things, could they develop into someone who pursues creative ideas and novelty? What about that person who gets things done when you ask them, but rarely takes initiative? Will you ever be able to give them more rope?

Wiggle Room

Science of Us recently reported on the latest research into these questions, and the upshot appears to be that, although we change a lot before we reach adulthood, our core attributes are relatively stable once we hit 30 or so. The article argues that there’s some wiggle room, some possibility for slight changes, but we are mostly stuck with our basic traits. As behavioral scientist Paul T. Costa Jr. puts it, “What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.”

According to the neuroscientists doing this research, the reason for the stability in adulthood is that we come into this world with half of who are determined by our genes. The other half is influenced by core life experiences, and by the time we hit the fourth decade, we’re essentially set in our ways. And there’s evidence that if we do act out of character, it can provoke a stress reaction—which makes people return to who they really are.

And the Winner Is…

When we consider this research into who we are along with the research into the impact of mindset on performance levels, we can begin to answer what leadership approach is likely to deliver the best results. My take: the leader who adopts and encourages a growth mindset in their team, but who also puts people into roles that fit who they are and that play to their natural strengths, is the leader most likely to build the best team. I can’t remember her name, but I do recall one woman at that lunch table ten years ago who essentially argued this view… and to her, I give the win.

If you haven’t already read What to Why, the free 20-minute eBook changing how leaders build top teams, which I coauthored with ClearFit founder and CEO, Jamie Schneiderman, you can download it here.





The Radical Change

The Radical Change That Unleashed This Team’s Potential

The Radical Change

“I started a quiet revolution.”

This is what Kyla, a friend of mine, said to me when I asked her how she’d managed to nearly double the annual sales of her team.

Let me give you a little backstory. We were having a drink over the holidays a couple weeks ago. The last time I saw Kyla was the year before, for our usual holiday get together. Back then my friend was miserable. She’d recently been promoted to Director of Sales at a division of a mid-sized company. The promotion was something she’d dreamed of for years, but her first couple of months in the position hadn’t gone the way she expected. She was hoping to make a dent in some of the pre-existing problems on the team—flat sales, low morale, and the challenge to attract great salespeople. But those problems were still there.

Cogs in the Machine

As Kyla explained to me, she had thought she could make some headway with these issues by changing some of the ways the previous Director, Joel, had operated. Joel had been in the position for over fifteen years. He was a decent, well-meaning guy, but he was controlling. Everyone had to keep strict office hours and follow a pre-set process for selling—using precise scripts and hitting very specific metrics for things like calls per day. Joel would often refer to his team as running like a well-oiled machine. He meant it as a compliment, but it revealed that he saw his reps as cogs in the machine he had built—not very empowering to say the least.

For most of Joel’s directorship, sales grew—not at a spectacular rate, but modestly enough to keep the business leaders happy. When sales flattened out, Joel decided to retire, opening up the position for my friend.

Kyla was excited to get promoted, because she knew the team had potential that Joel had never let flourish. Kyla first thought she could tap into that potential by treating the reps differently, making them feel like they were all peers and teammates—instead of minions working for “The Man.” She started working closely with the reps, helping them on sales, coaching and encouraging them, and celebrating their wins. The mood of the team seemed lighter than under Joel, but nobody was really much more engaged, or more productive. In fact, the team’s overall performance remained flat. That was the picture Kyla painted for me last year.

The Revolution Begins

When we got together a couple of weeks ago, I saw a different Kyla. She was beaming, full of positive energy. Her team had almost doubled its sales over the previous year—a result the company didn’t usually see in any of its divisions. When I asked her how she’d managed to turn things around, that’s when Kyla said she’d done it by starting a quiet revolution.

When I asked her what she meant, Kyla told me that soon after we met last year, she’d had a revelation—she was never going to bring out the team’s potential just by behaving differently from Joel. And that’s because the main issue that was holding the team back—the element of control—was baked into the systems, processes, and structure of the team, as well as the larger company.

Systems of Control

The systems and processes for selling were all very prescriptive—they told the reps exactly how to sell. They didn’t allow for creative leeway and new approaches. All the metrics that Kyla had to report on demanded the reps spend their time in specific ways, which did more than just stifle creativity; it forced people to act in ways that weren’t necessarily driving the best results. Reps would do what it took to hit their activity metrics, rather than what they felt would create new and bigger opportunities.

The compensation structure was also controlling because it only rewarded narrow ways of working; it didn’t, for example, encourage reps to work together, which is something some of the reps knew would drive new sales growth. General business practices like office hours and performance reviews with their elaborate rating systems—those were controlling by nature.

Just changing how Kyla behaved as a leader had little impact on the team, because it didn’t change the fact that the reps had little freedom or choice in how they worked. To eliminate the element of control, Kyla would have to tear down the controlling infrastructure.

Let Them Fly

Kyla made the decision that she was only going to care about results—sales results and some broad metrics that she felt were essential stepping-stones to hitting the quota. She was going to let the reps handle the “how” part of their job. Nobody had to comply with old processes or work with the old systems. If some of them wanted to stick to how things were done in the past, that was fine. But if they wanted to try new ways, they had the freedom to do that. What mattered was results, and Kyla was there to help the reps, or get out of their way and let them fly. Kyla also revamped the comp structure so that it rewarded a variety of ways of working.

Kyla knew that getting the endorsement from above for this radical strategy wasn’t going to be easy. The company leaders weren’t prone to giving a long leash to their employees and trusting that they would actually help the business rather than abuse their privileges. So, instead of seeking approval first, Kyla decided to just go ahead and do it, knowing that when results improved, she would be in a position to defend the merits of her strategy. Thus her quiet revolution began.


For Kyla, things were chaotic in the beginning. Some reps had trouble adjusting to the new freedom and felt paralyzed. One eventually left. But most of the reps embraced the opportunity to generate ideas and actually have the chance to implement them. Within a few months many of the reps were rolling with completely new methods of selling. Some had jumped into social media, leveraging it in innovative ways to prospect—something that had never been able to flourish under Joel. One rep focused on automation technology to qualify leads and move a sale along. A few reps paired up to collaborate on larger accounts. A couple chose to work remotely, or during different hours. Most of the reps didn’t comply with Joel’s traditional processes, nor hit many of the metrics Joel had tracked, but they were getting results. A few saw staggering improvements, and were largely responsible for the lift in the team’s results.

Playing Defense

While the team worked away in this new world, Kyla played defense with the VP she reported to, often making excuses for not sending along the usual reports or submitting things like formal performance reviews. As Kyla had hoped, the demands for her to comply dwindled as the team’s results ramped up.

An added benefit to Kyla’s approach was that her reps began to spread the word among their friends and peers about how they were thriving, which led to an influx of strong candidates and a few great hires.

As of our conversation, Kyla wasn’t sure how long she’d have to operate under the radar, but she and the VP had plans to get together in the new year to review how she’d pulled off such a spectacular year. Kyla’s belief was that the VP would have little choice but to embrace her approach and help bring it to other divisions in the company.

The Heavy Weight of Tradition

I loved my friend’s story because it’s a wonderful example of a story that is happening in small and large degrees all across the world. Leaders everywhere are realizing that in order to unleash the potential of their people they have to make not incremental changes, but radical changes to the ways their businesses operate. These are leaders who understand that many business practices have lost their relevance and value and are only held in place by the heavy weight of tradition, and that it is up to them to find the courage to remove the dead weight.

As Daniel Pink writes in his bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “On the edges of the economy—slowly, but inexorably—old-fashioned ideas of management are giving way to a newfangled emphasis on self-direction.”

Some of those stories are found at companies like Adobe, which has ditched the traditional performance review for informal check-ins. Or at Valve Software where there are no managers, and where—as Forbes has reported—“each member of staff is able to choose the project he or she is working on.” Many of these stories are about companies moving to something called a ROWE—a results-only work environment, akin to what Kyla achieved with her sales team.

As Pink describes in Drive, “In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time—or any time for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.”

One such story is found at the corporate offices of GAP Inc, which—after becoming a ROWE a few years ago—saw a “significant increase in employee engagement, a decrease in voluntarily turnover, and an improved work life balance.”

Seeing as it is the beginning of a new year, which offers us all the opportunity to make this year dramatically better than the last, I hope you find some inspiration in the story of Kyla and what she was able to accomplish in a single year with her quiet revolution.

All the best for 2016!

If you haven’t already read What to Why, the free 20-minute eBook changing how leaders build top teams, which I coauthored with ClearFit founder and CEO, Jamie Schneiderman, you can download it here.



The Book That Has Leaders Everywhere Losing Sleep


Man Reading 2

“It’s not an accident that successful people read more books.”

Seth Godin said that. Sure, he may have said that because he’s the author of several bestselling business books, but there’s little doubt he’s right.

But on which books should you spend your upcoming precious reading time? Perhaps my attempt to answer that for myself could help you. Here are five books I’m looking at:

Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford

This book just won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year. FT describes it as “a disturbing and often bleak analysis of the automated future of work.” In fact, the book’s subtitle is “Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment.” Apparently leaders everywhere are losing sleep over it.

Of course, this is the kind of book you read not to feel good or get inspired, but to learn about the forces shaping the future so you can prepare appropriate strategies—both for your business and your personal life. With a daughter about to have her first birthday, I’m eager to dive in, but also dreading it. Fortunately, the next book on my shortlist is intended as an antidote to Rise of the Robots.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

In his roundup of 16 Books That Will Make You a Better Entrepreneur for 2016, John Rampton describes this book as “a feel-good and visionary book that explores why the future is going to be great thanks to technology.”

Just like I often have to watch a comedy right after an intense thriller or horror flick, I’ll have Abundance on hand after I finish the Robots book.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

Bill Gates reads a book a week—a pretty compelling proof point for Seth Godin’s remark about successful people reading more. Of the dozens of books he’s read so far this year, Gates handpicked the best five to review in his annual book blog post.

He included The Road to Character because it offered “deep insights into human beings.” As Gates puts it, Brooks “argues that American society does a good job of cultivating the ‘résumé virtues’ (the traits that lead to external success) but not our ‘eulogy virtues’ (the traits that lead to internal peace of mind).”

Gates says the book gave him lots to think about, which is enough for me to put it on my shortlist.

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), by Seth Godin

I’ll give Seth another nod today by including his most recent book on my list. A couple reasons for this. For one, I’m fond of the counterintuitive, and this book’s premise is “The old saying is wrong—winners do quit, and quitters do win.” For another, it’s 96 pages. Any book under a hundred pages gets extra points from me.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull

Last on my list is a book by Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, which Forbes says is “one of the best reads on creative leadership.” As David Slocum in Forbes writes: “Reading Creativity, Inc., one can easily appreciate Catmull’s gifts as a leader whose style—deft, open, humble, caring, trusting, purposeful—has built, shaped, and sustained an exceptional creative culture. At the same time, his account of Pixar’s ongoing success demonstrates the importance of having brought creative analysis and implementation to the dynamic complexity, of shifting markets and changing technologies, facing all organizations today. That combination of effectively bringing creativity to his leadership challenges and leadership to his firm’s creative work is rare.”

Happy reading.