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Do ‘C-Grade’ students make the best CEOs?


We’re conditioned to think that people who excel at school are the ones that go on to excel in business. However, research indicates that a better guide is not the distinction between A and C students but between ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindset individuals. Robert Wood explains.

Effective CEOs must cope with, and recover from, setbacks and remain adaptive in the face of often overwhelming pressures and competing demands.

Those who don’t are increasingly being shown the door.

C students have to learn how to cope with setbacks and failure to meet expectations and, if they are to get through, recovery strategies for their next assignment or exam.

Sound familiar? All this is good training for the stressful demands of the CEO role, which is anything but a set of structured assignments with defined grading criteria.

It is not the A or C performance level of a student that determines or even defines their capability for management roles, it is what they learn from the experience.

Failure and setbacks can be great sources of learning, depending on the mindset that individuals adopt when confronting challenging tasks.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has identified two mindsets that influence how people react to challenges, cope with failure, continue solving problems and learn from experience.

She calls them the ‘fixed mindset’ and the ‘growth mindset’.

Fixed mindsets are held by people who believe that abilities are fixed or innate. They often refer to ‘natural ability’ or as being ‘gifted’ when referring to exceptional performers. When they don’t perform well on a task, they often attribute it to a lack aptitude.

Developmental mindsets believe that performance is the product of effort, understanding, strategies and other factors that can be learnt or developed through experience.

My research has established that individuals differ systematically and consistently in their mindsets. Here are a few of the important effects that differences in mindsets can have for senior management roles:

Fixed mindset individuals attribute performance setbacks and failures to ability or lack of capability. They become self-doubting, which undermines their cognitive functioning, leading to further poor performance. Often, their primary response on tasks that must be done is to work harder and they spend too little time on diagnosis and strategy creation.

Growth mindset individuals may have initial self-doubts, but move more quickly beyond negative evaluations to diagnostic analyses and consideration of alternative strategies.

Fixed mindset individuals are more risk averse. They prefer to work on familiar tasks and to employ strategies that they know work. They also tend to be highly vigilant to errors, which they seek to avoid. This makes them ideal for roles that require error avoidance and highly structured risk-avoidance approaches.

Growth mindset individuals see errors as opportunities to learn and refine strategies. This does not mean they try to perform poorly, just that they respond more constructively when things go wrong. They are also more likely to experiment and seek improvement, even when they are performing well. Think of Tiger Woods, who even though he was ranked number 1 in the world, took a year to improve his grip and fell in the rankings while doing so.

Fixed mindset individuals are quicker to judge themselves and others and they rely more on categorical judgments than their growth mindset counterparts. When assessing people, they refer more often to ability, personality traits and character.

By way of contrast, growth mindset individuals are more likely to suspend judgment and to use less categorical explanations or descriptors. If a staff member performs poorly, they are more likely to talk about strategy or task understanding or contextual factors like other work commitments as reasons for the poor performance. They are slower to reach an opinion on people.

Finally, people with a growth mindset are more coachable and more willing to learn new tasks than those with fixed mindsets. They respond more positively to the inevitable setbacks and displays of ineptitude that occur when learning a new task. They try new strategies, discard those that don’t work and do not get locked into cycles of frustration when progress is slow. Fixed mindset individuals do, and, given a choice, are more likely to avoid or give up on learning new and challenging tasks if they do not make rapid progress.

So, what about the C student? Well, developing a growth mindset is a product of life’s experiences and the guidance we receive from people and institutions about how to interpret that experience.

This guidance and our experience shape the mindsets we develop. If we experience some of life’s ups and downs, like our C student, and our friends, family and partners help us to focus on strategies and what we could do in the future, then we are more likely to develop a growth mindset.

If, instead, we receive messages that we lack competence whenever we are outside our comfort zone and not performing effectively, have no aptitude for a subject or are not as talented other people, then we are more likely to develop a fixed mindset.

Robert Wood is Professor of Management (Organisational Behaviour) at Melbourne Business School, which was named the number one provider of executive education in the Asia Pacific region by the Financial Times 2008.

Photo: Lentini