Mastering Mindset Dualities

The mindsets women leaders have in common are not static, simple, or singular. Women leaders unleash their strengths through mastering a set of three mindset dualities.


Mastering Mindset Dualities

What our research revealed is that the mindsets women leaders have in common are not static, simple, or singular. Through our in-depth interviews, these individuals revealed one core commonality: they view these mindsets as a series of dualities. What would appear to be contradictory or conflicting mindsets are essential elements to the success of each leader. Mindsets have made the difference in accelerating their careers. These leaders, as Doug Ready and Alan Mulally write, "see complexity not in a zero-sum manner but rather through the yin and yang lenses of dualities." Building upon the work of Carol Dweck on mindsets and Susan David on emotions, our research revealed that women leaders unleash their strengths through mastering a set of three mindset dualities.

They display 'mindset agility': the ability to pull or release different mindset levers depending on their context, career stage, and aspirations.

Their mindsets are fluid and flexible. They recognize that they are in charge of their own lives, while also understanding the collective impact of others on their career trajectories. They purposefully and proactively plan, yet are also opportunistic and willing to take on uncertainty and risks. They focus on building a deep understanding of their values and their strengths, while also seeking input and new ideas from those around them. It is this ability to understand and act on the delicate balance between these dualities that has propelled their careers. Their stories serve as a blueprint for how the next generation of women leaders can use 'mindset agility' to unleash their strengths and build careers they thrive in.

Mindset levers


Duality #1: Individualistic & Collective

"It is up to me" was a common statement ringing through the research. Each woman expressed a sense of personal responsibility when it came to her own career, indicating that she has the ability to purposefully take charge of her own path. Women leaders viewed themselves as the active producers of their own trajectories rather than passive pawns or victims of circumstance, timing, and luck. They did not have the expectation that anything would be given to them. They were not entitled and did not believe that they were deserving of some break. They viewed themselves as the CEOs of their own careers with the autonomy to take proactive action towards their goals every day.

By contrast, they also expressed a deep appreciation for critical roles others have played in their careers. There were no references to being a 'self-made' woman and instead, each interviewee spoke glowingly of the contributions and impact key mentors, connections, relationships, and role models had on their lives. They also expressed a desire to pay it forward to others by taking collective ownership for the success of those around them.

Constanze Ulmer-EilfortWhen asked what has made the difference in her career, Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort, Partner and Global Executive Committee Member, Baker McKenzie, points to a combination of personal responsibility and surrounding herself with allies who support her: "I make it happen by saying 'yes' to opportunities," she explains. "It is also important to have people around you who will support you and stand beside you."

The women we met have mastered the balance between the 'I' and the 'We', or as we phrase it the individualistic mindset and collective mindset. These women displayed individual responsibility and collective appreciation, understanding their role as well as the roles of others in their leadership path.


Duality #2: Adventurer & Planner

While one may think that having an appetite for adventure, spontaneity, and risk taking may appear to be in conflict with diligent efforts to plan one's career, the women leaders we interviewed displayed a dynamic combination of both.

Katie TaylorKatie Taylor sums up the inherent tensions in being planned and purposeful about your next steps in life, yet being opportunistic and open to new adventures:

"A certain amount of planning and thinking about your destination, journey, and where you want to be is helpful. I was never a rigid personal career planner. But, every couple of years, I would pause and take stock of how my ambition, capabilities, and capacity had evolved and then think about my next step. I think that is a good thing for people to do early in their career because that is when you should be taking more risk around finding what you love to do, finding a value system and a company that resonates with you. You want to be guiding yourself through that exploratory period with some level of determination so that you are getting out of it what you need to learn. Then, as your career progresses, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Step up and grab hold of new challenges."

The women we met articulated bold goals, were unapologetically ambitious, and future focused. Meanwhile, the same leaders jumped from secure jobs to risky startups because of a conversation on a plane or moved to a new country with their children while leaving their partner at home due to an unexpected international role. They were goal-orientated and yet open to adventure, new opportunities, and spontaneous connections or interactions that may reshape or reframe their career plans. Their appetite for adventure and ability to embrace uncertainty (even when appearing contrary to their best laid out plans) was rooted in their deep positivity and faith in their own resilience and ability to bounce back from challenges. Instead of 'Why?', they ask 'Why Not?'.

The world's best entrepreneurs have a vision and a plan but are open to change, evolution, growth, and new opportunities. These women leaders have adopted an entrepreneurial approach to their own careers and lives - where adventure and planning are two parts of the same dynamic whole.


Duality #3: Inward & Outward

When interviewing leaders such as Leena Nair, CHRO of Unilever, and Betsy Myers, former senior advisor to President Clinton and President Obama, one is struck by their inquiry-based approach to all human interactions. These leaders are prime examples of individuals who ask as many questions about you as they answer about themselves.

Their curiosity about the world and those around them is undeniable. They embody a spirit of inquiry that touches everyone they meet.

Leena NairFor Leena, Betsy and the other women leaders featured in this report, their outward mindset co-exists with their inward mindset. Their desire to learn more about the world around them is coupled with a deep understanding and ongoing exploration of self.

"In leadership, I believe in the inner game and the outer game. My purpose, agility, resilience and personal mastery is my inner game. I can control that. How good I am at my inner game determines my outer game, which is the impact I have, the difference I make, the systemic thinking I do, and the strategy I set. Both have to go together. The more self-aware and centered I am as a leader, the bigger difference I can make," says Leena Nair, Chief Human Resource Officer, Unilever.