What if the road to your company’s growth isn’t paved by hard-driving perseverance and laser focus on results? What if growth depends on different behaviors all together?

Rapid7’s Corey Thomas is a CEO who has found the path to growth. He attributes this success to curiosity and risk-taking. Rapid 7’s products detect and manage cyber security. On Corey’s watch, the company has gone public and more than quadrupled its revenue.

When we sat down for a CEO to CEO conversation for our podcast series on growth, Thomas offered his perspective. “Growth is derived from learning and exploration,” he said.  “It requires living through stressful or painful moments, recovering quickly, and learning from them.”  Thomas says if you’re not getting those stretch moments, and if you’re not learning positively from them, you’re capping your ability to reach the next pinnacle.

Learning starts with curiosity. Leaders with humility know they don’t have all the answers and are therefore open to others’ ideas and points of view. This behavior teaches others around them to be inquisitive and explore possibilities.

A foundation of learning

As a young leader at Microsoft, Thomas learned the hard way that simply driving people harder doesn’t work. He was leading a high-stakes product launch. Ignoring the input of the group leader, he pushed the team hard to deliver big results at all cost.

I told the team: ‘It’s a tight deadline but we’re going to do it even if we burn everyone out along the way.’ The head of the group called me on this. He came to me and said: ‘That’s not acceptable. You have to find a way to get results and make it an uplifting experience.’ I convinced myself that he didn’t mean that, and really just wanted results, so I continued to push. 

A couple of months later, he pulled me out of the leadership role because, despite the great results, I was damaging the team. I wanted to quit at that point, but my replacement wouldn’t let me. She said, ‘I’m not allowing you to quit. You made a mistake. This will decide whether you learn from your mistakes or you quit every time that you make one.’ So, I stayed, and while it was embarrassing, it changed my view about learning from mistakes and what I needed to do as a leader.”

Creating a growth culture

Thomas not only learned the power of humility, he seeks it out in leaders and models it for the organization. This has shaped a leadership culture that enables the company to keep growing in a sustainable way. He says, “Our success is achieved by two core pillars: learning better than other people and experimenting, exploring, and testing boundaries better than other people.”  

To nurture learning you must share an exciting picture of the future, encourage aspirations, and then set the expectation that people will learn and constantly improve. “We sometimes get feedback that you can never rest here, but that has also allowed lots of personal growth.” 

A culture of exploration and risk taking requires hiring and developing people who are curious and encouraging them to take risks, learn and push the boundaries. “Curiosity has become a more important hiring criteria for us, to provide the foundation for humility, for learning, for collaboration.”  

An additional ingredient in the company’s growth has been its commitment to maintaining this culture as they hire and expand. It’s not easy, but essential to sustainable growth. “When I assumed the leadership role,” says Thomas, “I mistakenly thought that once you have a great culture, you get to keep it. Now I see it is something that must be constantly nurtured.”

Why this works

What’s behind the successful growth outcomes of a learning culture? Our research shows it isn’t serendipity. Specific behaviors differentiate leaders of high growth companies. The harder-driving qualities like assertiveness, decisiveness and determination are important, but it turns out they are also table stakes. Growth leaders are differentiated by qualities of character, including humility, integrity and authenticity. These qualities inspire trust, harness people’s best efforts, and encourage them to go above and beyond.

The Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) measure 90 behaviors of leadership that engage, align, inspire and move people to act. Data analysis of leaders in growth companies found 29 of those are statistically significant. Two are elements of the quality of Humility: “open to ideas and other points of view,” and “recognizes his/her strengths and abilities but does not exaggerate or flaunt them.”

Supporting risk-taking to explore new ideas also emerged among the 29 behaviors. One falls under Confidence and risk taking. It’s when leaders are “accountable for results and consequences even when they are not positive.” These behaviors set the tone from the top about expectations for learning and exploration that enable CEOs and their teams to deliver on the promise of growth.

Nurturing a growth culture in your organization

Talking a page from the Rapid7 story, these are steps you can take to foster a learning culture. 

  • Hire for curiosity. Ask hiring questions that uncover whether a person is generally interested in the world, curious about your business, and eager to learn. Make it clear from the start that this is valued and required.
  • Encourage risks. One of the best ways to let people know it’s okay to be bold is to provide them with the vision, metrics for success, and let them go. Reward risk taking, even when it fails.
  • Learn from mistakes. If you’re not failing, you’re not succeeding. Schedule after-action reviews on projects and initiatives. Make adjustments and talk about lessons learned.
Corey Thomas and leaders in growing companies know that growth is a mindset. It is fostered by your leadership culture. How would you evaluate the growth mindset of your company? Are these qualities present? How can you encourage them?

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