The importance of a ‘rookie mindset’ at work

Last week, I flew from Toronto to Vancouver for work; that’s a deceptively-long flight and, in the process, I got to read the magazine of Rotman (University of Toronto) business school. It’s actually really good — bordering on excellent, honestly — and reading the current issue took me most of about a five-hour flight. There’s 8–10 articles in there of really strong, amazing value — if maybe a little buzzword-heavy — and one of the best is an interview with Liz Wiseman, who apparently spent a good deal of time at Oracle. She’s done a bunch of thought leader work, and a good deal of it is around this concept of “the power of not knowing.”

She has a couple of books, and (I think) the most recent one is Rookie Smarts, which is about how “learning” beats “knowing” in the modern work environment. I don’t even know if I could possibly agree with this idea more.

I’ve written a little about this before — such as the power of CQ or how potential matters more than achievement — but this is really a big deal. Here’s what Wiseman says about this whole idea of “being a rookie” at work:

  • You start by approaching tasks realizing they’re both new and important/difficult.
  • If you go in with a “rookie mindset,” you’re well aware that you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have all the answers.
  • You’re unencumbered by previous ways of doing things/politics/institutional knowledge.
  • You’re alert and in “seeking” mode at the same time.
  • You don’t bring baggage to a table.
  • You’re more responsive.
  • You can move quicker on decisions because you lack the politics and stakeholder politics connections.

Let’s pause for a second and realize this is nearly a utopia. In a lot of meetings, you have people that have been at a company 5 years, 10 years, 2 years, 15 years, 6 months, 8 years, etc. It’s hard for all of them to strip all their previous knowledge and suddenly embrace this “rookie mindset” idea. It’s doable, but it doesn’t happen easily by any stretch.

Wiseman also talks about how “having the right question” is more important than “having the right answer.” I agree completely with this; also agree that if you ask the right questions, you can start your team on the way to stellar work. Most people think everything at work — especially at work — is about answers, but it’s not. Leaders always talk about “wanting those who can function with uncertainty,” for example — but most studies show they want people who have answers.

Here’s the whole crux of this issue: the world moves pretty fast right now (thanks, Ferris Bueller). Because of that, and because business needs/conditions can change very quickly, it’s actually more important HOW FAST you can learn something as opposed to WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW.

More managers/leaders need to understand this.

Think about this: you could learn every aspect of the Christmas holidays from YouTube, right? So you’re telling me that a cubicle job, or even a middle-management job, at some white-collar company is going to be hard to learn? It isn’t. Most jobs are actually fairly easy; what gets complicated is the relationships, politics, personal alliances, and all that. The job itself is a series of deliverables. In the majority of cases, it’s deliverables tied to digital paper-pushing. Most things aren’t rocket science.

Back to the core problem here, though: we often confuse “formal power” and “knowing what’s best.” But “formal power” usually involves people who have been at the place a while, so their decision-making processes are embedded with a ton of past relationships, politics, interpersonal struggles, etc. That means their decision-making is inherently skewed in many respects.

What if that person could simply drop back a step and have a “rookie mindset” about the problems and concerns of their industry/space?

Just spend time asking questions, being curious, and realizing that organizational breakthroughs can come from anywhere?

Wouldn’t that concept — “I’m shedding my previous baggage and going at this with an open mind!” — be more effective than “I’m the boss, so I know all?”

I would think so.

Now, the human brain may well make this impossible for a lot of people — and remember, senior leaders typically fear being viewed as incompetent, so that creates a whole contextual process around how they try to approach decisions — but this is a good way to think about leadership:

  • Value curiosity
  • Value the power of good questions
  • Remove your baggage
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Embrace the “rookie mindset”

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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