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Do you ever get frustrated that your association isn’t changing rapidly enough to take advantage of new ideas? Are you excited about what’s happening in the world with rapid improvements in technology, business models, and so many other innovations? But at the same time, do you feel like your organization isn’t well-suited to do any of those new things quickly and effectively? 

If so, you’re aligned with the majority of the association executives that I know personally. This is not a new phenomenon, either. 

In working with association leaders around the world over the last 25 years, I’ve learned there is no lack of desire for progress. Nor is there a shortage of excitement around new ideas and a yearning for long-term sustainability.

These feelings are common, and so is a specific problem that undermines their ability to solve the challenge. Yet, this common problem is under the radar for most people, and resolving it is a critical element in unlocking growth for every association. 

So what exactly is that mysterious key element? 

Cultivating a growth mindset.

In this post, we’re going to dig into why this is the case for so many organizations and how you can go about building a growth mindset into the foundational layer of your culture. But first, let’s get our terminology defined. 

What is a growth mindset?

Simply put, a growth mindset is the belief that your abilities can improve over time. The inverse is a fixed mindset, which is the belief that abilities are essentially static and are a mix of early development and innate intelligence and talent.

 There’s a tremendous amount of data out there on how a growth mindset creates higher performance at the individual and team level, and also how it inspires people to do more in their lives while enjoying a great level of satisfaction.

In comparison, fixed mindsets are often linked to job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and of course, far less agility to adapt. 

Growth mindset takes more than a willingness to change

Change can happen rapidly or slowly (or barely happen at all).

In my experience, the most enduring and impactful forms of change are the ones that take time. There are occasions where positive changes come from dramatic events in our lives when we have no choice but to adapt. 

A recent example was when COVID-19 struck and the world rapidly adapted to a new way of doing things — both professionally and personally. When external factors force your hand, it's amazing how quickly people can adapt, learn new skills (like how to use Zoom effectively), and the novel quickly becomes the norm. 

Barring an extreme outside event, most of the changes that stick come from incremental progress over time. This is true with exercise and diet adjustments, and it’s true with learning how to grow any type of skill. 

The power of belief in manifesting change

If you were to ask a room of people if a willingness to change was necessary for success, you’d see a nearly unanimous showing of hands (I know, I’ve asked that very question many times to a diverse array of audiences over the years).

It’s indeed a simple logical truth — a willingness to change IS a prerequisite for doing so at both the individual and team level. 

The problem with willingness, though, is that if people don’t believe they’re capable of learning and doing new things, they’ll fiercely resist change.

I’ve seen this in associations and all kinds of other organizations, including early stage startup technology companies where people assume that change is consistently welcomed. But the reality is, people are creatures of habit, and that’s true for most of us and in most organizations.

The key difference between organizations that move slower than glaciers and the ones that move like gazelles is the belief held by the preponderance of the team that they CAN indeed adapt, learn, and grow.

The Law of Leadership in attracting change

Leadership plays a key role here. Leaders of these gazelle-like organizations aren’t afraid to learn, experiment, try new things, and share their successes and failures with their teams. They encourage staff to do the same and are able to attract new talent with a similar mentality.

On the other hand, leaders who resist change tend to pass this fixed mindset along to their teams and are responsible for fostering a culture of change-making that moves at a glacial pace.

How to cultivate a growth mindset in your organization

Understand the importance of learning

If a growth mindset — a belief in our ability to learn new skills — is the foundation to enabling change, the simplest way for leaders to instill this mindset is through learning. Encouraging learning, and in some cases requiring it, simply gets the process started. 

Learning engages parts of the brain that aren’t used as regularly as they should. Like flexing a muscle over time, the process of learning makes you better at learning. Learning itself is a skill and the more you do it, the better you get at it. 

It’s true that some people do have a level of natural talent that is an advantage. However, that doesn’t mean learning is something that’s limited to those with a natural aptitude — it’s all relative to where you start. Everyone on your team can learn, and the more they do, the better they’ll get at it. 

Ultimately, learning reinforces the belief that change is possible. And on top of that, success in learning just feels good. Picking up a new skill, a new set of ideas, or opening your mind to the possibility of something new can be both exciting and a new-again experience for many adults. 

Unfortunately, many professionals haven’t had any meaningful learning experiences in their lives since completing their formal education. Even though many organizations tout the importance of professional development, few invest in it in a significant and continuous manner, and even fewer deploy it in a way that people actually come out of the experience with useful skills. 

Hire and grow a team of curious professionals

While cultivating a growth mindset in your team begins at the leadership level, it doesn’t stop there. For a team that’s wholly invested in learning and growth, you’ll want to bring on talent who embody curiosity and readily accept and promote change. 

It’s no secret that associations and nonprofits struggle with innovation. Only 20% of respondents said they believe their association is “extremely innovative” or “very innovative,” according to the 2020 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing General.

That means 80% of respondents work for associations that aren’t pushing the envelope, aren’t trying new things. It’s your responsibility to change this mentality, encourage curiosity, and to be a disruptor.

Associations need a mindset of adaptation and a culture of experimentation. The more we experiment, the more it leads to innovation and improvement. In a culture of experimentation, we try things quickly and are willing to fail. We embrace failure and learn from it.

If your current team is unwilling to experiment or learn new things, it may be time to hire. During the interview stage, you can start assessing if potential candidates are curious and enjoy learning new things. Ask:

  • Who’s your favorite business thought leader?
  • What business blogs do you read?
  • What’s your favorite podcast?
  • What one business book or author has inspired you the most?
  • What have you enjoyed learning recently?

The answers may surprise you! Many interviewees may stumble on these questions, which should quickly help you determine whether they’re curious and looking to grow, or if they’re just looking for a job. 

Encourage learning one small step at a time

Learning can be a natural process if you start off small and maintain momentum. 

Asking folks to take on challenging learning goals when they’re just starting out is like asking a sedentary person to run a marathon. The results won’t be pretty, and it’ll be some time before they attempt it again — if ever. Instead, start with a small learning objective that simply gets the process started. 

After each incremental step as an individual makes progress, gains confidence, and builds their “learning muscle,” they can take bigger and bolder next steps. The key, though, is discipline and small chunks. 

Let’s look at an example: Say our team decides we want everyone to thoroughly learn the contents of a 300-page book so that we can work together to apply its ideas to our business.

To people who are used to reading a lot of business books, that’s no big deal — something to tackle over a couple of weeks at most. But for someone who hasn’t read a business book in a long time, or perhaps ever, it seems like climbing K2. 

But if you instead approached the assignment as reading for 15 minutes each day, suddenly, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle anymore. Now, it’s just a bite-sized chunk of the day dedicated to reading. 

To borrow a term from Jim Collins, we start to spin the flywheel. If we keep up the habit of reading (or any other modality of learning) for just a small chunk of time, and do it on a frequent and consistent basis, progress grows, and the flywheel spins faster.

During this process, we’re helping our team members grow their learning muscle, while also picking up a specific topic.   

Start flexing the learning muscle with content of interest

While the idea of everyone learning the same thing at the same time might sound good to the leader of the team, it usually sounds pretty terrible to the rest of the team. A critical piece of the process is to ensure that the individual has interest in what they’re learning. 

If you dictate that everyone must take a particular course or read a specific book, it’s likely that many on your team will be disengaged. If instead, the goal itself is simply to get better at learning, regardless of the subject, and you give people agency to find their own learning path, they’ll likely find something interesting that they get absorbed into.

Starting out, it’s okay if that content is outside of their typical work life. It’s more important to focus on building the learning muscle during these early stages. 

When people are initially moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, it isn’t about what they’re learning, but rather it’s about them learning something. Visualize this as a “learning journey” the whole team is on together.

They’re growing together because they’re all continuously learning. At least initially, what they’re learning is less important than the fact that they are all learning together.

When team members are growing together, they end up talking about what they’re learning and sharing what they’re most enthusiastic about. That type of energy spreads like wildfire — I’ve seen it first hand in many organizations.

Team members who were once disengaged and uninterested in anything deeply within their work are now motivated to learn, share, and teach others what they’ve gained. When you get even a handful of people on a team doing this, it can spread from there.

Learning together is positively addictive!

Arm your team with resources to learn and grow

The truly great news is that the world we live in today is so rich with learning opportunities of all types that it’spossible to engage your team in so many ways.

Here are two potential paths to fuel the flame:

Option 1: Incentives & Positive Reinforcements

One of my entrepreneur friends, Arnie Malham, ran a company where he wanted to engage his team more deeply in learning, so he brought in his entire library of business books, labeled them in 3 colors based on length, and told his team he would pay them to read.

Some books were worth $5, others $10, and some $20. Over the course of a decade, he paid tens of thousands of dollars to his team who could pick any book they wanted and read. People who had never read a book in their business careers started reading, and those who already enjoyed reading did more of it. 

Arnie created a culture so powerful that he went on to dominate his particular niche. His company was successful because his team was engaged, insightful, and willing to take on measured risks. All of that was possible because of a growth mindset so deeply embedded in the roots of their culture. 

His approach was so successful that after he sold his business, he went on to start a software company, BetterBookClub, to help other organizations implement the same set of ideas in their cultures. While paying people to read isn’t necessarily the right path for everyone, it sure did work for Arnie and his team, and it could work for a lot of other organizations.

Option 2: Learning Platforms

Another path to consider is joining a learning platform like Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, or of course, our very own Sidecar Academy. These learning platforms have a wide array of course content that allow you to give your team access to materials that interest them. The key, once again, is creating autonomy for your team by letting them pick their own learning path. 

The journey for the team as learners, is shared, but the individual courses people choose are unique to them. In the case of the Sidecar Academy, there are a wide variety of courses at the intersection of associations, marketing, disruptive business models, leadership, culture, and technology.

These courses have been built and curated for forward-thinking association folks and are designed to grow people in exactly this way. By joining Sidecar as a team, you have a cost-effective and powerful resource that allows you to accelerate a growth mindset across your entire organization. 

But, this whole article isn’t a pitch for Sidecar. As much as we’re excited about what we’re doing, the point is to learn, learn, and then learn some more.

You’ll quickly notice a change in your culture if you’ve taken these steps. Within 90 days, you will start to “feel” that people are acting differently, within 6 months you’ll hear more ideas from team members who you may have never thought had much to contribute. Within a year, you’ll find that team members are demanding more aggressive paths to try out new ideas.

This all can happen with little to no investment of financial resources — it’s really all about making learning a priority and leading by example.

Accomplish more with a growth mindset

With a growth mindset across your entire organization, your team can tackle major projects and initiatives in a streamlined and aligned approach.

For example, if you decided to change your association’s entire business model to the Open Garden model, you could prescribe particular learning paths for groups of team members, and then push for new projects to be built on top of those learning outcomes.

This project-based learning is then layered on top of the drumbeat of the foundational layer of learning you’ve already built into the organization, generating results you likely never imagined possible. 

To summarize, to cultivate a growth mindset within your organization, you’ll need to: 

  • Understand the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. 
  • Demonstrate an openness to learn, experiment, innovate, and fail at the leadership level.
  • Build a team of curious individuals.
  • Recognize that learning is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and many professionals haven’t done this since their school days. 
  • Invest in learning in a significant and continuous manner.
  • Start the learning process with small, bite-sized chunks.
  • Encourage your team to learn through content that interests them.
  • Incentivize learning.
  • Hold people accountable for continuing to learn, even incrementally. 
  • Arm your team with the necessary resources they’ll need to learn effectively. 
  • Craft shared journeys with individual learning pathways.
  • Pay attention to the ways your team members and organizational culture shift as the learning muscles grow.

If you want to go, go. But if you want your organization to go far, go with Sidecar. Learn more about Sidecar Teams to see if we’re the right learning resource for your organization. 

Amith Nagarajan
Post by Amith Nagarajan
June 14, 2021
Amith Nagarajan is an entrepreneur who believes in combining purpose, passion and profit. Amith grew up in Silicon Valley and, in 1993, started Aptify, which is now part of Community Brands. He is the Chairman of Blue Cypress, a family of purpose driven companies which focus on helping associations, non-profits, and other purpose-driven organizations achieve long term sustainability. More at