The Power of a Growth Mindset

A Firm Beliefs conversation with Dan Hawkins

Dan Hawkins, Founder and CEO of Summit Leadership Partners, recently joined Bob Pearson for a lively discussion about his career in leadership advisory. Dan shared valuable insights from more than three decades in the industry on what qualities make an effective leader, the value of continuously reinventing yourself and why you should always be open to learning.

Below are highlights from their discussion. 

Bob Pearson, Chair of The Bliss Group: You’ve had a very accomplished career – you’ve founded Summit Leadership Partners and you’re the chair of the advisory board for the business school at Clemson University. Let’s go to 2014 when you founded Summit. What did what did you see in the market where you said you know what I’m going to start this organization?

Dan Hawkins, Founder & CEO of Summit Leadership Partners: Before I started Summit, I was in some form of a HR leadership role for almost 23 years. My previous role was as the CHRO for a private equity-backed company. Ten years ago, the focus of human capital consulting in private equity was around writing talent assessment reports and assessing people, their capabilities, their skill sets and then moving on. The entire market was focused on avoiding risk, avoiding bad hires and avoiding bad investments. As a head of HR and a practitioner at heart, I felt like there was nothing that was creating value in the human capital consulting world. When I got to know our Board of Directors, which were all private equity investors, the other gap I noticed was the lack of firms or people that helped to drive value creation in our investments and improve leadership and organizational performance. Many companies assess talent, provide a letter grade and then move on – but that assessment just doesn’t cut it. When it comes to growth-oriented businesses where they’re venturing into new areas and they’re building new capabilities and new leadership approaches, I felt there was something more that could be given further along in the investment cycle beyond just assessing people.

Bob: What are the traits that go into being a leader? You see many emerging leaders – some excelling, some needing work – what are some of the attributes that emerging leaders display that really stand out to you?

Dan: We work predominantly with executives in growth equity; in almost every phase of the business they must reinvent themselves and become a different type of leader. The leaders that are the most successful have what we call a growth mindset. And when I say growth mindset, it’s really leaders that have a great deal of humility. They listen, they’re open, they’re willing to hire people that are smarter and know certain functions better than them. They’re also people that are just intellectually curious about a variety of different things and in the growth-oriented world, one playbook doesn’t fit all.

Bob: As a leader, you have to reinvent yourself and constantly look forward to becoming that next version of me. And then the other part you touched on was that you have to be curious. Those are things that really stood out to me as you were talking about that growth mindset.

Dan: I’ve reinvented myself at least a dozen times over. Each time I was promoted in my career or did something new as a leader, I took stock of what got me there, while also looking at what is going to get me to the next level. If you’re overly confident because you just got the big job, you’re not being reflective enough. It’s okay and necessary to recognize that you don’t have this all figured out. For any leaders out there, always take stock. You don’t have to leave your value set and the kind of leader you are, but you have to be honest with yourself and what you don’t know and then strive to learn that or surround yourself with people that do.

Bob: If you’re in a company or organization where you’re promoted, you can use that as an inflection point. But if you’re a founder, you’re not going to be able to do that. So, how do you push yourself to continue evolving without having that moment in time? How do you figure out what your next version is?

Dan: That’s a constant thing you must be doing and it’s tough. When I was a Fortune 500 executive, I always worked for somebody, so I was always getting 360-degree feedback from executive coaches, the HR department, the talent group, etc. Now that I’m a founder, I have to really seek out that feedback. It’s important, especially for founders and CEOs, to recognize that people around you, even if they trust you, they love you, they care about you, they’re not always going to call you out. And it’s not necessarily because you’re not approachable, but sometimes they just think you have it all figured out. And so you have to surround yourself with people who are willing to challenge you.

Bob: When there’s a well-functioning board, what does that look like? Because I think people always struggle with how do you pull the right information out of a board? How do you get that relationship just right?

Dan: When I see a well-functioning board, the first thing is that they’re clear on the role that they play – is it governance, is it strategy, are they representing a fiduciary interest, are they guiding the CEO around some strategic decisions – so, they’re very clear on purpose.

The second thing is that they are also very clear on alignment around the strategic intent of the company. Asking themselves: What’s the game plan? What’s the end game? Is it an exit? Is it an IPO? Is it an M&A?

The third thing that I think is very important is having different perspectives. And where I see a lot of boards go wrong is when the board chair or the founder surrounds himself with a bunch of yes people that think like them, look like them and act like them. Having diversity of thought, experience, background and cultures is critical to going back to that growth mindset that we talked about before.

When I see boards asking tough questions, aligning on strategy and not just blindly agreeing with each other, that’s the kind of board that makes CEOs great and the kind of board that helps companies.

Bob: With your background, you’re very good at organizational design, which is critical to success. How have you gotten organizations to say, we really need to take this seriously and do it all the time, not just once?

Dan: That’s a great question and it really gets back to why I founded Summit. Assessing, recruiting and coaching top talent is not new. So, at Summit, what we do is we really look at talent and organization performance. It doesn’t matter how smart or experienced or accomplished an executive is, if you put them in the wrong organization system, that system will win. Our clients, especially in private equity and high growth, are sometimes under the impression that they just need to get the right person,drop them in, and that will solve the problem. You then have to ask: How are they going to interact with each other? How are sales and marketing going to coexist? Who’s going to decide on pricing? Who has decision rights? How often does the management team meet?That’s the real machinery of a company. And that’s really what organizational design is.

Bob: For companies in growth mode, it’s harder to change an organization. What’s that timeframe that people should have in their head to say, “I’m going to come in, I’m going to make a difference”?

Dan: I think all organization designs have a shelf life of about two years, three years max. The world changes and no strategy is perfect. Yes, strategy must precede structure in organizations, so you always start with, what’s our strategy? What’s our true north in this company? And then you start talking about organization design and people. But you really have to take stock and assess how it’s going every six months or so. Then, about every two years, you should be tweaking and renovating the house. Maybe we didn’t realize our approach to the market would have this reaction or maybe we didn’t anticipate a higher cost of capital and that deal making would be down. There’s always going to be things you didn’t plan on and then you ask yourself how you would tweak the org design accordingly. Organization design and operating models are about helping people work with clarity and accountability but the world around us changes and you have to be flexible.

Bob: You got a bachelor’s degree in psychology and pursued the understanding of psychology at a level that most people don’t. Do you have certain psychological models that you think are critical to leadership?

Dan: I’d love to say I gained this knowledge from undergrad and grad school, but honestly, I probably gained it from just being a leader. When it comes to leadership, I’m a big fan of contingency leadership, which means that you adapt your leadership style to the people you are leading. As we talked about earlier, you have to reset yourself at each phase of your own growth. You have to adapt to people – what motivates you is different from what motivates me. So, when I hear leaders say, “I treat everybody the same, I motivate and lead everyone the same,” that would be a red flag. You should have the same value system, but also recognize that people are driven by different things. You also have to adapt to where people are in their own development, maturity and growth.

Bob: What drives you to be a thought leader? What drives you to share your thoughts beyond your own universe?

Dan: There are two selfish reasons and one altruistic reason. The first selfish reason is brand promotion for our company. If you’re in a growth company, you need to be out there and demonstrate your knowledge and point of view. You have to show that you’re not just a duplicate of other companies and it needs to be unique. The other selfish reason for me personally is that it keeps me sharp. When I have to write an article, or when I’m out there presenting or leading panels, I work my tail off to be an expert on that topic. It makes me research and find out what best practices are, what the competition’s doing, what our clients need, etc. It also helps me refine my stance on issues.

From an altruistic standpoint, I do believe companies like us that are in the knowledge industry have an obligation to advance the body of leadership. We need to help raise the level of what great leadership looks like in the industry and that comes through promoting great thought leadership.

Bob: I love the point that you learn a lot by being a thought leader because it forces you to really go deep. How else do you learn?

Dan: I ask a lot of questions. I’ve found that people are glad to hear that you care enough to ask about the business. You have to be intellectually curious – it’s made me a better all-around business leader.

Bob: So, you’re asking questions to open people up. How do you prepare for that?

Dan: I write questions down in advance of meetings and try to ask open-ended questions. I do a fair amount of preparation before coaching meetings, client meetings, etc. I try to be intellectually curious and think about it in three levels: 1) What’s the true north of the business? 2) What challenges do you have at the organization level? 3) Why do they care?

At the end of the day, our business is just about people and everyone’s human. We’re all motivated for different reasons and we all want to be successful. You need to find out why something is important to someone. Those questions really get at the heart of, “what’s really going on here?” They get past all the corporate speak.

Listen to the full episode here:

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