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Fostering A Learning Mentality For Startup Success, Part One

The individual’s learning process is a core part of what contributes to the success of a startup. People often ask me what made me think I could be a good CEO. In the early days as a founder with a mostly technical background, I was always at a disadvantage in terms of business skills.

My answer has always been: “I don’t know if I’ll be good. What I do know is that I will do whatever it takes to learn and grow.” At a startup, you’re probably always in way over your head, but you can start filling those big shoes that you need by developing a learning mentality.

This piece is part one of a two-article series on the learning mentality. One is about individual learning, and the other is about organizational learning. So, what does it mean to learn, and how can you do this more effectively as an individual?

Proactively ask for feedback, and don’t flinch when you receive it.

Few people want to hear what’s wrong with their idea, solution or code. Perhaps because of that, few people are willing to risk “offending” their colleagues by offering honest criticism. It takes time and effort to build a transparent process that allows for feedback to flow freely and without negativity. Allowing yourself to receive feedback is key to growth. But it’s definitely easier said than done.

Some people are able to foster feedback more effectively than others. Providing feedback is also tough on the giver’s side, and the more open you are to it, the easier it is for people to give it to you.

I really love the way our European sales manager handles receiving feedback. He will ask for feedback after every call. I can be as blunt as I want, and whenever I say something, he will digest it, consider it and lock it in for further thought. It doesn’t mean he necessarily agrees with every point, but you can see he takes the information at face value. And he will always ask for assistance when he finds it necessary. You can imagine how fast this allows him to iterate.

Another great example is how you can maximize learning by providing high-caliber team updates on a weekly basis to ensure your team has in-depth understanding, synchronization and complete transparency. Without such updates, my team wouldn’t be able to compete in our highly demanding industry.

Challenge yourself.

It’s not just about retrospective feedback, but also about the overall culture of strategizing together and jointly thinking about a future game plan. If you have a strong team, you can learn so much by pooling combined brain power on a given task and even allowing people to poke their noses in and find holes in your thinking. It’s typically not fun to find things you forgot to plan for, but it can be very effective.

To successfully challenge yourself, you need to invite people in. This means you should invest in a steady stream of ongoing communication. For example, our customer success team has established a strong process during which we review our key accounts each week. The team starts by providing transparent status updates and then invites all teams — including the product, sales and R&D teams — to provide feedback. This allows us to be very proactive about meeting our customers’ needs.

Find a mentor.

One of the most powerful tactics I’ve used to foster my personal and professional growth is asking for help from a mentor. I can’t even begin to emphasize how valuable a good mentor can be for you and your business. They can be your secret weapon to success.

A mentor is fantastic both as a sounding board for the problem you’re already thinking about and for helping you identify unknown pitfalls that are likely to appear in the future.

Read something new every day. Never rest on your laurels.

I love reading (and listening, for that matter). I believe that by simply looking online, you can learn best practices, adopt new frameworks for thinking about problems and simply do your job better when you’re curious about your profession.

If you want to be a better salesperson, read about sales. If you want to be a better team manager, read about team development.

While you don’t have to agree with everything you read, the new frameworks and ideas just create a fruitful ground for more new ideas. Then you can decide what approach is likely to work for you.

Measure yourself, and don’t fear failure.

To strive for excellence, your business and people should be results-oriented. Many startups strive toward “best effort” as opposed to “results-oriented” environments, but I believe the latter is a recipe for success. Even before our first board meeting or selling a single product, we defined sales goals for our sales team. We didn’t know how we were going to achieve our goals, but we believed that the only way forward was by setting our targets and trying to reach them. One can rightly ask: “Why set goals if you are not even sure that they are feasible?” The reason is simple.

If you measure success by your best effort, you can’t fail — there is no benchmark for failure when you’re doing your best. But failure teaches you how to recalibrate and learn from your mistakes.

As I see it, startups require a lot from their employees. And there is a value equation here. On the one hand,  employees put their hearts and souls into their jobs. On the other, I believe they should gain two things: an equity stake in the future of the company, and, more importantly, personal growth. As a startup, it’s important to invest in helping people grow. As always, that starts with culture.

Foster a culture of learning — a learning mentality — and I’m sure you will reap the rewards of a high-speed organization that runs circles around its competition.

 

This blog was originally posted on the Forbes Technology Council Blog. Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only, fee-based organization comprised of leading CIOs, CTOs and technology executives.

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