Innovative, Healthy Associations Have a Growth Mindset. Does Yours?

During the pandemic, your association, like many others, had to adopt innovative approaches to member services and operations. You had to rethink education, networking, non-dues revenue generation, volunteering, and governance.

More change is on the horizon. As members’ habits and needs continue to change, you’ll have to rise to the occasion again and again. Do your staff and board have the curious and creative mindset that’s necessary to spot new opportunities and experiment with new ideas?

What if you offered something truly unique to your members and customers, something you’ve never seen before that perfectly fits a market need? Identifying and acting on that opportunity requires a tolerance for risk, a culture of innovation, and a growth mindset.

The difference between fixed and growth mindsets

A senior executive told Harvard Business Review, “Our employees needed a growth mindset to think about the business in new ways… [This mindset] has allowed us to formalize and institutionalize our innovation process and innovate more quickly.” So what is this growth mindset?

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, popularized the “growth mindset” concept in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—add this book to your reading list, it’s potentially life-changing.

A person with a fixed mindset believes their intelligence and talents are fixed. They’re less likely to make the effort required to improve them. A person with a growth mindset believes they can develop their intelligence and talents through practice and effort.

A fixed mindset has perfectionist tendencies and avoids challenges. They don’t want to risk making a mistake or failing. A growth mindset welcomes feedback and challenges. They’re willing to take risks. They see mistakes and failure as setbacks, part of the learning process. Your mindset—fixed or growth—shapes your motivation, learning behavior, and response to success and failure.

Organizational culture reflects its collective mindset. In her research, Dweck found that employees in fixed-mindset organizations:

•    Are less motivated.
•    Worry about failing.
•    Are less likely to be open in their communication.
•    Believe the company doesn’t have their back.
•    Feel unappreciated unless they’re a star employee.

Employees in growth-mindset organizations:

•    Are more motivated, empowered, and happier.
•    Experience more camaraderie and collaboration.
•    Are driven to learn.
•    Feel comfortable asking questions.
•    Take risks and pursue innovation.

growth mindset

How your association can develop a growth mindset

People can change, and so can organizations. However, staff executives and board members must drive any change in the culture and collective mindset of an organization.

Select only employees and leaders with a growth mindset.

Assess a candidate’s desire for learning and growth—staff and volunteer leaders. Find out how motivated they’ve been to learn on their own and how they’ve handled challenges. Lofty degrees and titles aren’t indicators of a growth mindset. Instead, look for the potential and capacity for growth.

Dweck says growth-mindset organizations see employees’ potential and promote from within, while fixed-mindset organizations reflexively look for outsiders. Growth-mindset organizations also make it easy for people to make career changes within the organization. Some even offer subsidized coaching services.

Curiosity is always on the agenda.

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, made it his mission to shift the company from a fixed-mindset to a growth-mindset culture. “Nadella was clear that the culture must foster an inquisitiveness and desire to discover and address a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs.”

Isn’t that the constant driver of association work—to discover and address a member’s or customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs? This is the impetus behind design thinking: deeply understanding a market and their challenges before generating potential solutions.

Associations with a growth mindset never assume they know what members, attendees, customers, and prospects are thinking. Instead, they make it a practice to continually ask. They constantly listen by establishing feedback loops and tracking behavioral data.

Keep an eye on your industry and beyond. A nonprofit leader told Forbes they revised their meeting format by replacing staff reports with agenda time for “trends and troubles.” Each employee brings one industry trend and one troubling issue to the table for discussion.

Prioritize lifelong learning.

Include learning in everyone’s job description—board and staff. Don’t reserve volunteer leadership training for the select, anointed ones only. Offer leadership training to all volunteers so by the time a member reaches a committee chair or board position, they’re prepared for service.

Host regular training sessions for the board so they have the insight and perspective needed to create futures scenarios, develop strategy, and explore new opportunities.

Every employee must have the opportunity and resources to develop their skills and knowledge. Give them access to the same training as volunteer leaders so they too can develop the insight, perspective, and confidence to contribute.

Encourage staff to learn more about their members’ world by taking advantage of your association’s courses, webinars, and other educational programs. Develop a development plan for every new hire. Include annual learning goals in their performance review. Staff executives must model the learning behavior they wish to see in others by setting an example and sharing what they’re learning.

growth mindset

Remove barriers to knowledge-sharing.

Share your association’s goals and strategies with everyone on staff so they understand their role in helping the organization fulfill those objectives. They should know what’s going on in board meetings and how those decisions affect the work going on around the association.

Information silos develop naturally unless you proactively take steps to prevent them. Use internal platforms to keep everyone aware of other departments’ work. Host a virtual watercooler channel on your internal platform, a place where employees can chat with co-workers and share news and ideas. Encourage knowledge-sharing events, such as solution rooms where someone poses a challenge and others contribute potential solutions.

Build an innovation pipeline.

Create a process for submitting, reviewing, and testing new ideas. Make sure members and staff understand how this process works so you can solicit perspectives from outside the usual echo chamber.

Many organizations—Shopify is one example—schedule Hack Days or Hackathons when everyone takes a break from business as usual and focuses their energy on creating new products, programs, or services.

Share lessons from setbacks and failure.

In a growth-mindset organization, failure is not a result; failure is part of a process. It means success hasn’t arrived yet; you’re still working on it.  

Take setbacks and failures out of the shadows. Schedule project retrospectives to share lessons learned—what went well and what didn’t. Capture these lessons before too much time passes. Make these lessons accessible to anyone so staff can learn from the mistakes and successes of their colleagues.

Now’s a good time for everyone (staff and volunteer leaders) to reflect on the past year. Discuss new programs and products, technologies, processes, workplace practices, and skill sets.

•    What contributed to success?
•    What caused setbacks?
•    What barriers do you still need to overcome?
•    What skills do you need to develop?
•    What would you have done differently?
•    What can you do better?

Encourage everyone on staff to participate in this pandemic retrospective. Ask for their perspectives. This level of transparency requires vulnerability. Leaders at all levels must be willing to own up to mistakes or regrets, and share what they would have done given a second chance—lessons that will benefit everyone.

An association with a growth mindset is prepared for challenges in the years ahead because they know how to ask good questions, listen to diverse perspectives, and explore innovative ideas. 

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