The Growth Mindset Applied to Sales

About a year ago, a good friend of mine was trying to lure me into joining his tech company. He did a pretty good job of calling out all the interesting perks and benefits and so on, and when he got the the end of the list, he proudly stated that his company live by the mantra of the Growth Mindset (drop mic, exit stage).

If I’m honest, this did not exactly grab me at the time as a “selling feature” of his company, but my friend urged me to read “The Growth Mindset” by Carol Dweck. So I did. And my perspective on things, including my own sales behaviours, changed for the better.

I have been on many training courses over my 20 years in sales, but this new way of looking at things had perhaps the greatest impact on me. Over the next couple pages, I’m going to tell you about how you can positively change your view and prepare for some of the pitfalls and obstacles that a sales career will almost certainly throw at you.

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Allow me to give you a quick snapshot explanation of what The Growth Mindset is. Over the 40 years of her research as a psychologist and countless hours of observing how children behave when they are set challenges, Carol Dweck, figured out that there 2 attitudes or “mindsets” that a person can have about themselves. To use her words “the growth mindset states that a person’s talents and abilities are not fixed at birth but can be enhanced by effort, learning, and persistence. (In contrast, the fixed mindset says that you’ve only got what you’re “naturally talented” with, and that no amount of effort will lead to more.)”

What’s great about her books is that they carefully map out ways to move from one mindset to another. She writes “Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” In 2006 she wrote her first version of the Growth Mindset, and then an updated version in 2012. Both books have become bestsellers over time, impacted teachers, coaches leaders around the world, and have been so inspirational that they have become the mantra of some of the world’s leading tech companies (like that of my friend’s).

My goal here is to set out some of the ways that a sales rep can adopt the growth mindset to not only improve their close rate, but to grow as a sales person. I will work through each of the key points shown in the infographic below that is most commonly used to map out Fixed Vs The Growth Mindset.

Challenges. Throughout any sales career, you will inevitably hit challenges, some small and easily overcome, some much more significant. Those with a fixed mindset tend to find ways to avoid these challenges, or pass the blame to someone else when the challenge leads to failure. In contrast, the growth minded rep sees these challenges as an opportunity to learn and improve their strength in this area, but also recognising that they may still fail the challenge, and they are ok with that.

Take for example a common sales challenge; a lack of product knowledge required in order to sell well. The fixed mindset rep may well feel threatened by their lacking in this area and take measures to avoid exposing their lack of knowledge. Not wanting to seem weak, fixed mindset reps tend to gloss over product details, or they may answer customer questions (often with total confidence) about these product features, even though their answers could be filled with inaccuracies. In contrast, the growth minded rep tends to recognise their own ignorance in an area and to put in the effort (prior to the meeting) to learn more about it. They are also more likely to seek help from others to fill in the gaps. They will admit to the customer when they don’t know something, and agree to follow up with the correct details. Whilst this might seem (to the rep) like a cop-out, it usually earns the respect of the customer, especially if they follow up on that missing point quickly.

The same applies to challenges like poor CRM data for prospecting, or inefficient tools for carrying out the job of high volume prospecting. The fixed minded the easy option is to blame the tools, or the bad data. They are protecting their own talent, the last thing they want is someone questioning their ability to make lots of connections and record the outcome. Growth minded reps will find work-arounds, they will do their research to see what other people did in order to succeed in the face of these challenges.

Probably the single biggest challenge in sales is time. Time to make enough calls, time to do enough research, time to prepare for a big presentation. The fixed mindset rep will say “I could have prepared a better presentation if I’d had more time”, again, defending their talent. The growth minded rep will say “I built the best presentation I could. It’s not ideal, it could be better, and I’ve learned that I need to improve my powerpoint skills”.

Obstacles. Something that I have learned over my years in sales is that just when you feel you’ve got the hang of things and you’re on a smooth path, a genuine obstacle will present itself. You will lose territory, you will have to relinquish a deal to someone else, you will not get a promotion you go for. How we deal with these setbacks in sales will vary hugely according to what mindset we are operating under. Carol Dweck, refers to a study of exceptional people

and how they have growth mindset. She says “exceptional people seem to have is a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future successes”. They have a resilience and a strategy for coping with these setbacks. Those with the growth mindset will push forward in spite of these obstacles and will persist at the task in hand, knowing that new skills may well be required in order of to overcome it. They push forward with the expectation that that they will eventually master these new skills.

Fixed mindset reps on the other hand do not cope well with these setbacks. You will hear them complain of unfairness and they will tend to dwell on the negative aspects of the setback. They will take their not getting promoted as a criticism of them as a person. As Dweck says “In the fixed mindset, setbacks label them.”

If you are looking to change your mindset, then an unsuccessful promotion is in fact a good moment in time to begin the switch over to a growth mindset. I have seen reps greatly increase their self awareness by simply seeking feedback after the interview to learn more about where they across badly. In the true spirit of the growth mindset, they have set aside their ego and used the interviewer’s feedback to learn about themselves. This is not an easy thing to do; not only to hear the hard truths about yourself, but to also take action to improve on it. It requires real effort, but you will learn so much about yourself and how you are perceived by others.

Effort. Sales is not easy. No matter what part of the sales process you are in, or what tier of sales rep you may be, effort is required. From relentless prospecting for new business, to daunting presentations to tough audiences, to the arduous task of responding to long RFPs, lots of effort will be required along the way.

In her book, Carol Dweck tells how her research consistently found that people with a fixed mindset see effort as often fruitless, or worse. When talking about how fixed mindset people view effort (and the associated risk of failure) she says “risk and effort are two things that might reveal your inadequacies and show that you were not up to the task. In fact, it’s startling to see the degree to which people with the fixed mindset do not believe in effort.”

I think all sales people know that effort is required, but what sets reps apart is their approach to the level of effort, especially as progress may not been seen immediately. A perfect example of this, and one of the hardest parts of sales is prospecting for new business. If you want to approach this often daunting task with a growth mindset, then the first step of that is to recognise that you will fail many times over.

In prospecting, many of your emails will get no response, but some versions of your templates will seem to get a better response than others. When cold-calling, there will be many moments when you feel like you are hitting brick walls, but now and again there will be some little breakthroughs when what you say in those all-important first 10 seconds leads to a more cooperative attitude from a gatekeeper. My advice is to to recognise those moments when you have done a little bit better. Remember what you did differently and use it again. Reps with a growth mindset will keep at the task, and see both failures and successes as chances to learn and improve their strategy.

Criticism, both giving it and taking it, is on of the core communication processes that Dweck explores from the perspective of both mindsets. At several points in her book, she reminds us that constructive criticism is feedback that helps the person to understand how to fix something; it is not feedback that labels or simply excuses the person. Learning to take constructive criticism and to actually use it constructively can take a long time to master. The idea of learning from criticism, rather than ignoring it, is one of the key concepts of what it is to be growth minded.

Throughout your sales career, criticism will come in many forms, and not always from the people you directly report to. If you work for a sales organization that is large enough to invest in regular sales training, then you will find that you are being introduced to a new ways of doing things that you may have been doing (differently) for years. During the training, you may have to participate in some roleplay situations, and afterwards being told that there is a better way to handle the situation. Now, here’s the challenge. If you are one of the more seasoned sales reps in this training, or you already have a a history of success, and success that may have come from doing things the old way, you will find it very hard to not only believe that this new way might be more effective, but also to put it in to practice on a regular basis.

In my last company, I worked with a seasoned sales rep called Brian, who, along with all the other reps, had been tasked with making the switch to becoming a Challenger sales person. The company had made a firm decision to roll out the Challenger selling process as a core part of it’s go-to-market strategy. This included everything from changing the language in it’s marketing content, to requiring sales to lead with Challenger language in every conversation they had with customers. Brian, like the rest of us, was indeed convinced that this new approach would help drive business, but after sometime, it became apparent that Brian had failed to make the leap. Brian’s issue seemed to stem from the fact that, to use Challenger terminology, he was a classic Relationship Builder. His manager saw this in him and gave him the constructive criticism that he was not making the transition, all too often he was slipping back to his old habits of Relationship selling.

Had he had a fixed mindset, he would have taken this feedback as personal, or seen it as a critique of his talent. To his credit, he listened to the feedback, he used it to come up with a plan for how to make the leap from one style to the other. One of the things that he was to build out a chart showing on one side the old way of talking, and on the other side the new — challenger — way of talking. He would often refer back to this chart before going on a discovery call.

Criticism can also come in the form of a simple deal or pipeline review, that necessary evil of the sales world! Your manager will ask you about just how well you know the deal, the compelling event, the stakeholders roles etc. If you are of the fixed mindset, you are likely to act in a defensive way and assure them that you know all the details. Growth minded reps on the other hand are those that are not afraid to admit that there are gaps in their knowledge, to say that they are still not sure what the compelling event is, or admit that they are still unsure about the decision makers, who has power, who is influencing the deal etc.

Growth minded reps will ask for help, will ask for guidance and will use constructive criticism about the weaknesses of the deal to help them spot their knowledge gaps and to better figure out that to do next. By contrast, fixed mindset reps would rather plough on with a shakey deal, than show the weaknesses in their knowledge. They may well be one of the more seasoned reps with a track record of closing good deals that they feel they need to protect, like the naturally talented sports players that Carol Dweck refers to that need defend their natural talent.

Learn from the best. In a couple of the sales organisations I have worked for, there has been a culture that encouraged newer reps to seek out the top reps in their division and to try to learn from them. How people react to the success of others is one of Dweck’s core focus areas to show the differentiation between fixed and growth mindset people. Those with the fixed mindset will see the success of others as a threat, something they might find themselves negatively benchmarked against. Growth minded people see the success of others as a source of inspiration and also as a valuable source of information on how to improve their own performance.

If you are lucky enough to work in an organisation that has lots of successful reps, then this strategy may well be a very effective way of improving your own sales skills. You will however need to earn their time. You might need to appeal to them as a mentor, or seek out reps aspiring to move into management.

Bare in mind that top reps are generally very busy people, so it is important to get the most out of your time with them. The obvious option would be to get them to tell you about the stuff that they think they do well, or the key strategies that they use on a significant deal. However, another approach might be to ask them to tell you about times when things have gone wrong for them and what they did differently to then succeed. These ways in which they have addressed failure may well be some of the most interesting learning points.

Successful reps are not only of people in your organisation, but also individuals around the world that have published their stories of success. You will find plenty of stories (real and anecdotal) of success on the many sales Blogs out there, like this site. But one of the best resources are the case studies found within 2 inspirational books that all sales people should read: The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer by Matthew Dixon & Brent Adamson of the CEB (now a part of Gartner).

The last thing I want to you consider is about how you would apply the the Growth Mindset to the sales cycle of a deal. There are probably hundreds of ways you could apply it to the actual process of trying to sell and close a deal, but perhaps what is most interesting is how growth mindset will impact how you behave with the buyer throughout the cycle. Think about it, if the other sales people (from the companies you are competing with) have a fixed mindset, are thrown off by setbacks, misinterpret criticism of their solution from a sceptical stakeholder, or are daunted by the sheer effort to get the deal over the line, then you, with your growth mindset will likely make a notable impact with the buyer. They will pick up on your motivation, your drive, your self-awareness and curiosity. This will earn you respect and credibility, and even if your solution is not the best, it will make you stand out during the process.

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If you do decide to start the process of embracing the growth mindset and applying it your sales role, time will be your greatest enemy. So the first challenge to present itself, and one that will continue to present itself throughout your sales career, will be mastering the art of setting aside the time your need to self-develop whilst still doing the many daily tasks that hitting your target requires. But know this; if you master this time-balance it will not only greatly stand to you in your various sales roles, but in future careers you move to. Carol Dweck’s 40 years of research ultimately makes the case that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life.

Now, go read Carol Dweck’s The Growth Mindset !