Companies can profit by encouraging collaboration, participation, and innovation outside seniority spectrum
A growth mindset is about seeing the opportunity to grow, stretch and learn new skills or ways of doing things.
Mar 16, 2023
Portland Business Journal President and Publisher Candace Beeke sat down with Shiau Yen Chin-Dennis, K&L Gates managing partner, and Krishna Walker, CareVet general counsel to talk about the concept of formal and informal leadership mindset. Learn more from their conversation.
CANDACE BEEKE: What is growth mindset? How does it relate to leadership?
SHIAU YEN CHIN-DENNIS: Growth mindset is a concept promoted by Carol Dweck. It is the ability to stretch one’s thinking, capacities and talents, as well as a belief that everyone can improve, instead of repeating the same patterns. As a leader with a growth mindset, you are willing to unlearn what you know, look at things from a different angle and stretch your abilities. For example, Candace has always been a moderator for our Thought Leader Forum. Today, we asked her to be both a panelist and a moderator. A growth mindset is about seeing the opportunity to grow, stretch and learn new skills or ways of doing things.
Today’s solutions are not tomorrow’s solutions. Successful leaders have growth mindset traits and are constantly willing to learn. This includes improving your emotional intelligence in terms of how you look at a problem by having the courage to unlearn what you have learned for today’s environment or challenges.
KRISHNA WALKER: I am the general counsel for CareVet, a veterinary practice management platform with practices across the United States. There has been tremendous growth. In July 2020, we had 26 hospitals, and now we have close to 180 veterinary hospitals. I am fortunate that every place I’ve worked has been growth oriented, whether it’s a 100-year-old company or a 2-year-old company. What makes these companies growth oriented is that they consistently decide that where they are isn’t good enough and that they can do and be better.
CHIN-DENNIS: You try to determine how to accomplish an initiative differently than it has been done in the past. Sometimes we get too comfortable. Being uncomfortable is not necessarily a negative. Sending all of our employees home during the COVID-19 pandemic was uncomfortable, but some positive things grew out of that. New generations of employees are also agents of change. They ask for different things and communicate differently.
WALKER: I am so fortunate. For my very first job, the dean of admissions for Barnard College in New York City interviewed me. It was a hot summer and she wore a dashiki and her hair was in braids. That was one of the most empowering things, to know that you can be the dean of a really prestigious college and still be yourself. I’ve carried that with me through my whole career, and I try to be that for other women.
You have to be technically competent, that’s a baseline. In my opinion, people can learn and perform better if they’re not trying to bury parts of who they are as a person. There may be aspects of yourself that you are afraid people won’t accept. For example, I used to get my hair relaxed and then after I stopped getting it relaxed for health reasons, I had been getting it straightened with heat for about a year. One weekend, I wasn’t able to get to the salon before work, so I learned how to do my natural hair. I was nervous that my hair would get a negative response, but I was pleasantly surprised. There could very well have been a situation where it wouldn’t have been accepted, and that would have been a clue that it wasn’t the right place for me.
BEEKE: How do you encourage a growth mindset?
WALKER: I encourage my team to seek out opportunities to expand knowledge and skills inside the company and outside. This includes working on cross-functional projects and being involved in trade/business organizations that are not necessarily focused on legal matters.
CHIN-DENNIS: I encourage my team to be their authentic selves. They can assess who they are and the things they can’t change. I’m always going to have a slight accent because I learned English as a second language. In my early career, I was discriminated against and asked to go to ESL class to fix my accent. That was a pivotal moment and became the seed that led me to law school.
My strength is as a transactional lawyer, because of my business background, instead of being a litigator. When you can go to work and be yourself, then you can free yourself to think out of the box. It’s important to have the resiliency to pick up, learn, and overcome challenges. You bring your background to a group and add to the solution by looking at things in a different way, which pushes growth and learning, whether it’s for a company or organization or the way you lead people.
Judgment about (my accent) took away my voice from speaking publicly for many, many years because it was very emotionally damaging until I overcame that. Now I am embracing it. I am multilingual and multicultural; my differences and talents have served my clients, my business and me well over the years.
BEEKE: I can see moments throughout my career when I was worrying about how I looked, how I fit in, how I was perceived, rather than fully engaging and being part of moving the conversation forward or solving a problem. When we relieve this barrier of worry, we free up brain waves to really focus. What’s the benefit to a company of encouraging a growth mindset? Does that help the bottom line?
CHIN-DENNIS: As a leader focusing on a growth mindset, I look for the talents that other team members can bring to the table and give them opportunity. If you can recognize it in yourself, then you are more likely to recognize it in your team, your employees and allow those voices to be heard.
WALKER: At companies that had that growth mindset, I never felt stifled talking to people across levels of seniority. And now that I’m at the senior level, I’m very intentional about making sure I have relationships not only with my peers but with people who are up and coming in their careers, because otherwise you totally miss things. Part of having a growth mindset is ensuring that people feel they can talk freely (and respectfully) without worrying about repercussions.
BEEKE: For us, having a growth mindset drives revenue. There are products that people think of, events, recognition, ways to engage new audiences than what has been traditional. Being open, hearing and not dismissing is the first step. It goes hand in hand with a culture where people feel comfortable speaking up and feel part of ownership of the company. I want to see us succeed. I want to see us try something different. I want to be proud of what we do.
CHIN-DENNIS: A growth mindset goes hand in hand with having a diverse team because everyone can bring a different way of thinking to a solution. All kinds of ideas from different voices, groups and generations came out of the pandemic on how to resolve problems, address challenges and take our organization to the next level.
WALKER: Whether it’s in person or not, it’s being intentional and allowing people space to hear their voices. There are all kinds of upsides and very few downsides to making your environment one where everyone can feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas. This provides an opportunity for informal leadership in addition to the formal leadership structures.
BEEKE: What do you mean by informal leadership?
WALKER: Informal leadership is when you are providing guidance without having a formal leadership title. It can happen at any stage in your career. Sometimes I learn from people who are junior with less experience because they’ve experienced life in a different way. In that sense, I’m getting informal leadership from people who might not necessarily manage me. Sometimes it’s your peers. You may have experiences that you can share that will help them be better in their roles. It’s making sure that each of us owns helping others grow, regardless of where they fall in the formal seniority spectrum.
CHIN-DENNIS: We often lead by job title. Leaders lead with or without titles. There are many other scenarios where you also are leading — like in a community task force — that are less formal. Because of who you are, you attract a group and become a mentor or de facto leader. Allow and support that happening organically. Leadership comes from who you are authentically and can also flow in an informal way where you might not recognize it.
BEEKE: Does a company need to recognize or encourage a growth mindset formally or can it just happen organically?
WALKER: I really appreciate it when companies proactively define who they want to be and actively pursue it. In that sense, while a growth mindset can happen organically, what keeps it strong is when a company builds structure around ensuring that the growth mindset is explicitly known by everyone. This can come in the form of what and how things are discussed in town halls, trainings that are provided to employees and other ways that let the team know what the company’s ambitions are.
BEEKE: What are the unique skills and qualities that informal leaders bring to an organization?
CHIN-DENNIS: They assess and listen. If you have the opportunity to be an informal leader, embrace it, and know that you’re doing something right. Your organization doesn’t appoint you to this role; people simply view you as a leader in informal settings or groups based on your actions. Leading informally is also great training to be a formal leader.
BEEKE: How do informal leaders facilitate collaboration and teamwork?
CHIN-DENNIS: It takes work to be an informal leader. We need to inspire and encourage people to do more. Like mentorship, it is not a one-way street. If a group of people views you as an informal leader, it is a way for you to grow and be prepared for a formal leadership role. Sometimes, leaders have both formal and informal leadership roles. For example, I am invited to informal CEO women leadership lunches. I view the executive who organized the group as an informal leader.
WALKER: They are able to connect the dots and bring people together. While they might not be able to call the meeting, they will ask their supervisor, “Hey, I’m seeing a disconnect with these three groups, do you think we can have a weekly meeting to make sure we are all working together?” I appreciate that kind of conversation because it allows me to work with the person and mentor and support them as they take the lead in setting up the weekly meeting and help take some of the friction out of processes.
BEEKE: I think Gen Z and millennials feel comfortable speaking up and taking on an informal leadership role vs. Gen X, who much more followed the hierarchy, otherwise it would be disrespectful. Generationally, it’s getting more accepted and appreciated by companies.
It starts from the top. Anytime I feel like why are you getting involved in this conversation, I stop and think what are the pros and cons? Are they seen as a leader, someone whose opinion is respected and who could help bring out the voices of quieter people and help us think in a different way? Or are they just someone with a loud voice who wants to be heard?
Once I have assessed whether this person has value to our organization and could be a positive force, I try to enable or empower them.
How can an organization support and leverage the strengths of informal leaders to improve performance and outcome? How do we encourage that?
CHIN-DENNIS: Understand multiple generations and allow for or create diversity in leadership roles. Give your team the opportunity to grow and shine. Maybe it’s one informal leadership initiative, and then over time, multiple initiatives to give them the opportunity to prepare for formal leadership roles. This helps build the pipeline for leaders within your organization. It also helps increase employee and team engagement.
WALKER: I agree, and I think that there is a way to speak up in a way that is respectful of the viewpoints of others. Speaking up as though there is only one right way to approach something is the opposite of having a growth mindset. Speaking up in the spirit of collaboration and seeking to understand is much more productive.
BEEKE: How can informal leaders continue to develop and grow their leadership skills?
CHIN-DENNIS: Learning is driven by self — reading, relearning and unlearning. Sometimes it’s reading books or attending leadership training. Sometimes it’s TED talks or talking to other leaders. Some of it is learning the good traits or behaviors of an effective leader and reflecting on how you can exhibit or implement those. You must learn to manage and recognize the dynamics of your team.
WALKER: Agreed. Waiting for someone to tell you which development opportunities are good for you is not a great strategy. I’ve found that involvement in volunteer service organizations and trade groups throughout my adult life has strengthened my ability to lead at work. It is much harder to lead people who have no financial incentive. In those organizations, you are relying much more on a shared mission and desire to achieve shared goals. That type of leadership translates well into business.
BEEKE: For informal leaders, often it’s mentorship and sponsorship. There are some people who expect to come into a company and have a clear process laid out for how they will grow as a leader. And not every company offers that or can do it effectively. There’s a weight on individuals to seek out how they want to grow. It’s especially not easy for certain people, but I think it’s critical. It’s hard to put that responsibility in the hands of corporate leadership.
WALKER: I agree. For example, I had a well-meaning manager tell me that they didn’t consider me for a travel opportunity because I am a mother. They thought they were being kind by allowing me to be at home with my family, and they did not see that they prevented me from having a work experience that I would have found valuable. Had I been waiting for that person to design my career growth plan, I’m guessing I would not be in the role I am in now.
CHIN-DENNIS: Corporate and formal leadership can have all kinds of training programs, and that has its place. But informal leadership is an opportunity to lead that has to be driven by you, whether it’s leadership, mentorship or sponsorship. I have had multiple mentors who had different styles; they gave me different ways of thinking and leading.
BEEKE: Sometimes they give you conflicting advice. It can be good to hear about differences that add to the growth mindset and that there isn’t only one way to succeed.
WALKER: Yes, I’ve found that getting those conflicting points of view have helped me hone in on what would work for me in my career. It’s how I’ve been able to navigate a pretty winding career that includes being in college admissions, human resources, law and business operations. I wouldn’t have even known that my job exists had it not been for the many people who spent time talking to me in my career.
Thought Leadership Forum participants
Moderator: Candace Beeke, market president and publisher, Portland Business Journal