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Grit, Growth Mindset, and Bears (Oh My)- A Leadership Conversation with Marc Effron

The Leadership Projects brings together stories, advice, and evidence, helping all individuals see that they have the capacity for leadership. Recently, I had the privilege to interview Marc Effron, founder of The Talent Strategy Group, editor of The Talent Quarterly magazine, and author of the Harvard Business Review best-seller, One Page Talent Management and the just released 8 Steps to High Performance. As a Subject Matter Expert in the field of talent management, Marc helps provide insights regarding changing a world driven by fads and pseudo-science into one empirically driven by science and facts. There may be no bears (or lions and tigers) here, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't get out of our own kind of fairy tale/Oz and instead focus on the evidence to make a difference in the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity’s sake.

GR: So Marc, I make sure to ask this question to everyone I interview. What’s your definition of leadership?

Marc: Leadership is inspiring others to deliver more than they thought they could against a single vision. Through good leadership, you are helping people thrive and perform at levels they didn’t think they could.

GR: That’s awesome! So at The Leadership Projects, stories are an integral part of what we do. Marc, what’s your leadership story, and what made you interested in talent management that led you to form The Talent Strategy Group?

Marc: The theme of my story is somewhat opportunistic and serendipitous. Many years ago, I headed off to business school with no large company experience at all, and really had no experience other than a few books that I had read. I talked to my career counselor, and after expressing interest in works such as Peters’ and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, my counselor said “you know, I think you’d be interested in HR stuff.” At Yale (at least when I was there), rankings were posted for each of the classes. In accounting, economics, and statistics, I was within the bottom five of my class. But, in organizational behaviors, I was at the top. While the numbers were important, I was more interested in the question, how do you help companies become more successful by understanding people? Over the past 25 years, I moved back and forth between corporate HR roles and consulting roles, all trying to build out my capability and understanding for answering this question.

In my role before starting The Talent Strategy Group, I was in the middle of writing One Page Talent Management. During this time, I told myself, Marc, if you have a better way of helping companies in this space, go and do it- put out, or shut up, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since, driving forward the mission of helping companies be more successful by helping people do their jobs successfully. This is important not just to the company, but to society. Successful companies are built on successful talent, and these lead to a successful society. Unfortunately the opposite also holds true, where unsuccessful companies lead to unsuccessful communities and societies. Because of this, driving forward the mission of The Talent Strategy Group leads not only to better employees, but a better society.

GR: What are your thoughts on the pracademic approach to business, where practical decisions in the workplace are based upon academic/empirical evidence and research?

Marc: When I got to school in an organizational behavior type of class, they started handing out these academic articles. I started reading and thought “wow, all the answers to many of our problems at work are actually right in front of me in these articles.” I ended up going to the professor and asked if there were any more like these, to which she told me to “check the library, as there’s about a million more of them.” Sure enough there were more articles and papers than I ever could have imagined. What gets me is that so many problems have already been answered, yet people keep trying to run around and invent answers to problems that already have been solved.

Something that I practice is science-based simplicity. It’s this idea that there have been a lot of smart people who have already done a lot; why reinvent the wheel when we can use their work and take their advice? In doing so, we’re a lot less likely to “invent” something that’s already been invented.

Balancing theory and practice can be difficult but not impossible.

Balancing theory and practice can be difficult, but not impossible.

Unfortunately, the most fundamental understandings of the science behind concepts such as goals setting, intelligence, and personality aren’t generally well known in most corporate HR groups. What catches people’s eyes are the shiny new books or the easy wins, like focusing solely on strengths or the importance of a growth mindset. If you want to make people succeed, there are a ton of scientifically-based building blocks that can serve as the metaphorical foundation for your structure. When most people are trying to solve a people problem, the first thing they do is benchmark their employees or read the latest best seller. In doing so, they don’t just end up putting in solutions that don’t work, they put things in place that damage their own reputation and credibility within the company as soon as questions and problems start arising. There is a ton of great science in this field, and it should guide what we do. It won’t answer every question, but it will be a start. We can take this as a base and then see what else we want to try in order to cater it to our organization’s needs and goals.

GR: Agreed.

Marc: However, before getting people to see the science, we need have them rethink their current views and beliefs. Half the challenge is that it’s easier to talk people into a concept than out of a concept. For example, once someone gets the concept of grit into their brain, talking them out of that is really challenging. In doing so, it’s a careful line to tread, where we need to proceed with caution. No one likes to hear that their opinion is the wrong opinion, and that they have been using the “facts” incorrectly. You need to do so in a way that preserves their ego and makes them feel empowered in their decision making. We need to call people out who are promoting things that are clearly wrong by asking the right questions and getting them to realize the error of their ways.

GR: What general advice do you have for young leaders?

Marc: I have a few pieces of advice. First, be self-aware. Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and derailers is important, and most of us don’t get this information until it’s way too late. I’d love for all undergraduates to take a derailing assessment so they can understand how they may correct their missteps before they happen. In being self-aware, it’s also necessary to understand and process the opinions of others. Be open to the fact that none of us are perfect, and most of us don’t understand where our personal imperfections lie. You’re going to get better the more you listen to others.

Second, be great at something. Distinguish yourself in some way, because that’s likely what’s going to propel you into whatever place you want to be. Be great at finance, marketing, or leading, and whatever it is, actively practice being the best at that one thing.

Finally, be transparent. There is such a lack of transparency in the corporate world, and while it’s not easy being transparent with people, I’ve rarely found that not being transparent leads to a great place. If someone’s doing a great job, tell them; if they’re not doing a great job, tell them too. Empower others to make their best choices by being transparent about the situation.

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