Hi Leader,

It is spring 2006. There are 30 Hewlett-Packard managers in the room. They have gathered from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, and Mexico. We are meeting for four days in a resort near Lake Chapala, outside Guadalajara, Mexico. I have been helping this organization improve its business results and agility by building its leadership talent and energizing a culture of purposeful engagement.

To be a valuable catalyst for the future the managers intend to create, I must learn about their business and organizational vision, and internalize their professional and personal aspirations and hopes. They educate me about the Latin American cultures. The importance of family reminds me of the Israeli and Jewish family ethos. The Latin American more relaxed way of looking at life is different, though. Then again, I am discovering that people all around the world are more alike than not. We all hope and work for a better tomorrow.

How do I define work?

I use the word work to mean more than activity and effort. I propose we separate the idea of work from the notion of common dictionary synonyms: toil, slog, and drudgery. Instead, we embrace the mindset that work implies purpose, and that it connotes creating value and producing benefit.

Many of us work to help others realize a better future, though our roles and process functions vary. Teaching, coaching, consulting, and leading each is a process function that represents a distinctive set of modalities and behaviors. The unifying premise is that all of us seek to enable improved opportunities tomorrow. Ultimately, coaching, consulting, teaching, and leading are functions designed to facilitate new and better futures.

These thoughts fill me as I get up at 5 a.m. to prepare for the third morning of our leadership summit. I am searching for a way to introduce a new perspective that addresses a mindset that is holding the organization back from realizing its fullest transformative potential.

Your Biggest Choice Ever

Listen here: Episode 70 - The Three Mindsets & Your Biggest Choice Ever

During our morning reflection ritual, people articulate their top takeaways from the previous day. Then I ask the group, "What are the three main religions in the world?"

This is the surprise inquiry method. By asking a question people do not expect, we carve a new space for discovery and discussion. It works because I know exactly what I am after, and I use the question as a device to get me where I need to go with the group. A ripple goes through the room because of the unwritten rule that you do not bring up religion in a corporate meeting. There are diverse cultural and religious backgrounds in the group, and the unwritten code of conduct is to leave religion outside of work. After a moment of silence, someone volunteers an answer, "Christianity, Islam and Buddhism."

"Yes," I say, "and I am asking about the other three major religions. This is a reframing challenge, not a trick question."

Sensing their confusion, I offer, "While Christianity, Islam and Buddhism may be the three largest organized religions, what are the three major religions to which people pledge themselves? Reframe for a moment the meaning you attach to the word 'religion.' Think of it not as an institution, but as a mindset people embrace. What are the three mindsets that govern people's way of going on and how they live their lives, the mindsets that direct their responses and engagement?"

Riddles work to sharpen people's thinking. I never use them casually, only as conversation portals with a specific intent. As the managers try to resolve the riddle by using what they know and assume to be the case, they push their own thinking to explore new ideas. We go back and forth and work with answers offered by the group to surface the mental models that instruct their thinking.

To help their search, I use the hot/cold scale. "That's a good answer," I say to the first attempt. "It is a six and a half out of ten. How would you state an even broader case?" is a typical prompt I offer to keep the discovery going. And then, "You are really getting close; this probably gets us into the 9.3 zone. If you now can codify the essence of what you are saying, it will get us the answer."

At this point the entire group is engaged in the exercise, allowing me to bring forward the formulation I was seeking. The last 15 minutes produce enough energy to make the codified language potently memorable.

"There are three mindsets that I name as religions because people pledge allegiance to them in how they think, and because their tenets guide people's beliefs and behaviors. They are the mindsets of 'what's wrong,' 'what works,' and 'what matters.'

"The first religion, the mindset of 'what's wrong,' is the most prevalent; it is the easiest of all and it gets the most airtime. Ninety-five percent of what is presented every day as news is framed as fault, blame and wrong doing. Unless you consciously make a different choice, finding 'what's wrong' is your default mindset, and you find yourself daily in the 'what's wrong' church.

"The second religion is the mindset of 'what works.' Although perhaps only 4.99 percent of the world's population consistently practice this mindset, thank God it often prevails. The world progresses by 'what works.' Choosing to follow the path of 'what works' and making it your response template brings multiple blessings and energy. In the 'what works' temple, you empower yourself to participate in shaping and creating what can happen.

"The third mindset builds upon the second and is the rarest of the three. This is the mindset of 'what matters.' All of us have the instinct of this mindset, but few act upon it to make it our central, self-directed choice. For many people the impulse of 'what matters' often is covered by the 'myth of tomorrow.' This is the myth that says, 'Tomorrow, next year, in five years, when I finish doing the things I have to do, I will be able to focus on what matters.

"These are the three major mindsets-the 'religions' people choose to practice: 'what's wrong,' 'what works' and 'what matters.' Every day you find yourself at the leadership crossroads where you are faced by these three. Your choice defines you as a leader."

I propose to the management team that this decision point is available for all of us in each of the personal and professional roles we play. You come to work, and you can choose to focus on "what's wrong," or you can choose to focus on "what works," or on "what matters." The "what's wrong" preoccupation weakens you. The "what works" focus creates movement. And the "what matters" empowers and builds your impact and presence.

My description is followed by suspended silence. For a moment no one speaks. Many appear to be lost in deep reflection. We are touching something beyond the differences of our upbringing, a vein we all share. We all want to be involved in something that works, that matters and that makes a real difference.

The silence in the room is broken. "I have been in the 'what's wrong' religion far too long," says one manager. "I need to convert to the religion of 'what works.'"

Moving from "what's wrong" to "what works" is simple. It involves a pivotal and challenging decision. The conversion to "what works" is a shift from victimhood to personal responsibility. Choosing to take personal responsibility is the most pivotal decision you and I can make. Indeed, the biggest choice we each can make is to let go of the preoccupation with "what's wrong" in favor of focusing on "what works."

The second conversion, from "what works" to "what matters," is the journey from success to significance.

Now it's your turn. Turn the Key. Here are seven ways you can apply the second and third mindsets and leave the first for those who cannot or will not make a different choice.

  1. When you find yourself obsessing about what is wrong, pick yourself up and focus on something that works and that makes a difference. Develop an internal warning system that alerts you to shift your focus from problems to solutions.
  2. Before pointing out what's wrong, point to what works. Even when you look at something that has failed, identify two or more of its elements that have worked.
  3. Develop a weekly ritual of focusing on two or three opportunities and goals that matter to you.
  4. Engage a coach to help you stay focused on what works and on what matters most to you.
  5. Look at your team and organization and ask:
    1. What's working well here?
    2. What matters most to us?
    3. What works for our employees, clients, and partners?
    4. What do we believe matters most to them?
  6. Develop an annual pilgrimage to the "what matters" oasis, where you swim in the lake of significance and enjoy the sunshine of meaning and purpose.
  7. Coach your team to focus on "what works" and "what matters." Make it an implicit shared experience. Discuss concrete examples. Become a leader of "what works" and "what matters."

© Aviv Shahar