Mentoring for a growth mindset

Sharon Collins believes we should stay curious, keep out of our comfort zone but not out of our depth.

When someone recently shared this thought with me, it really struck a chord. I’m a firm believer that it’s important for our self-development that we keep learning, trying new things and pushing our boundaries. This can make us feel more positive, inspired and motivated. Sometimes though, we need encouragement, a nudge or a confidence boost. This can often come in the shape of a mentor. Mentors can support with big career decisions or can impart technical advice or share specialised sector knowledge.

Why do we need to keep learning? To some people, natural curiosity means that you instinctively want to keep learning, but it’s also important for success in life and career progression. Career paths are no longer a straight line. The ‘ladder’ to success, where you ascend logically one rung at a time, is becoming less relevant. As Arianna Huffington puts it: “Success is not a straight line, it’s much more of a dance and being open to possibilities”. This means learning new skills, exploring new challenges and saying ‘yes’ a lot more when opportunities arise.

What is a growth mindset?

Being open to possibilities and pushing new boundaries is encapsulated in the concept of a ‘growth mindset’, a term coined by Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck. Dweck defined a growth mindset as the “belief that you can develop your abilities through hard work, strategies, inputs and help from others”. This means that if you’re not as good as you’d like to be at something, you work at it and improve. Setbacks are re-framed as challenges and failure is seen as a springboard to bigger and better things.

An athlete puts in the effort and hard graft to be successful. They must also have the belief that they have what it takes to win, otherwise they would not be motivated. A person with a growth mindset believes that abilities are not set in stone and can be improved, even if this means making marginal gains; a technique famously applied to the British cycling team by their coach Dave Brailsford and one that is described in depth by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. This concept of continuous improvement through tiny steps can be useful when a challenge seems insurmountable or overwhelming.

As Carol Dweck’s definition of a growth mindset sets out, it’s also about seeing failure as a temporary setback, rather than dwelling on the mistake and being afraid to try again. Some of the most successful people in the world have used setbacks and failure to springboard to greater things. When Jeff Bezos first set up Amazon in the early days of the internet, many people said it wouldn’t last. Bezos did face a massive challenge, as Amazon, then solely a book retailer operating out of Bezos’ garage, didn’t hold any inventory of its own. Yet book distributors required retailers to order 10 books at once. Bezos came up with a solution. He found an obscure book on lichens that was always out of stock and began ordering the one book they needed, and nine copies of the lichen book each time an order was placed. Bezos still jokes that he’s dreading the day that all those lichen books turn up on his front lawn!

Flip your thinking

So, how do you go about developing a growth mindset? And how can mentoring support this?

Before you even think about getting a mentor, plan and take stock of where you are now and where you want to get to. Perhaps look at a dream job spec to assess your current skills and identify any skills gaps. Then write a vision for yourself, in the first person and in the present, as if you are in that dream role, and map out the steps you need to take to get there. This will give you a clear overarching sense of direction, which will not only help you in identifying where you might need to focus and develop your abilities, but also opportunities you could seek out and where you might need to invest in some outside help.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right”. This famous quote from Henry Ford sums up the need to rewire our brains for success. How many times have you thought “I can’t do that?” or “I failed” rather than “I’ll give it a go” or “I’m learning, so what will I do differently next time?”. It’s that mental switch that makes the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on others. How many times have we given advice to friends and colleagues but not taken our own advice?

Understanding how others see us can give us confidence as their perceptions are likely to be different to our own. Good feedback gives us a boost. I know people who keep a ‘smile file’ of positive messages that gives them encouragement on challenging days. However, what is really valuable is unbiased feedback, such as from a mentor. Mentoring gives you an independent view outside of your usual network. It enables you to have discussions and to ask questions that you might feel uncomfortable asking in a work environment. A good mentor will be non-judgemental, yet will challenge to make you pause and reflect. They will be supportive and encouraging, building your confidence and providing you with the ‘nudge’ you might need to take that next step.

How to find a mentor

There are various ways to find a mentor. One way, which is a more informal approach, is to consider the people who inspire you. What is it that makes them successful? What behaviours do they exhibit? How do they go about their role and what could you learn from them? You could ask them to mentor you. Most people will be flattered, so don’t be afraid to ask. But do remember your vision and plan and be clear what is it that you are asking them to support with and what you feel you can learn from them.

There are also more formal routes such as the PM Forum’s Mentor Match platform which identifies and brings together Mentors and Mentees.

Being a mentee (or a mentor) at any stage of your career will help you to maintain a growth mindset. The fact that you’re reading this article demonstrates that you are curious and keen to realise your potential. So, what are you waiting for? Tap into your growth mindset, plan your journey (whilst being open to possibilities and challenges) and find a mentor to help you fill those knowledge and skills gaps and to really push you out of your comfort zone.

Sharon Collins is Head of Go to Market at BDO and the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s mentoring lead in the South East region.