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When it comes to business innovation, harnessing this one Zen concept can enhance problem-solving and decision-making at every organizational level.

As a CEO you may be a steadying influence on your teams and have a handle on understanding how your business makes money, but it’s your approach to each of these areas that delivers real value.

A centuries-old simple concept in Zen Buddhism defines the principles C-suite leaders are using to get those creative juices flowing again – and it’s advocated for by business mogul Marc Benioff and countless others who are waking up to the power of cultivating an open mind.

The Salesforce CEO attributes the company’s success to its annual shoshin practice of beginning every year with a blank slate and five critical questions to set the agenda for the year ahead.

He believes that the ‘beginner’s mind’ is very much synonymous with the post-pandemic world. This works by orchestrating the right conditions and mindset for disruptive thinking.

“There’s something truly magical that happens when leaders are courageous enough to embrace a beginner’s mindset.”

– Dan McGowan

The word shoshin, meaning ‘beginner’s mind’, wove its way into the West through Shunryū Suzuki’s 1970s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Since then, practicing the concept in a business environment is an antidote to close-mindedness and a lack of growth.

“The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt and open to all the possibilities,” Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shoshin enabled former Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp to undertake one of the greatest turnarounds in corporate history, which catapulted the brand from near bankruptcy to a billion-dollar toy company.

Embracing a Culture of Openness

The expert, unlike the beginner, is a master at learning from experience and predicting outcomes before they have happened. The beginner’s mindset, on the other hand, is comfortable enough to explore radical new ways of doing things, which can lead to failure.

“Embracing an open-minded approach enables leaders to tap into knowledge and insights.”

– Elise Awwad

“There’s something truly magical that happens when leaders are courageous enough to embrace a beginner’s mindset,” explains Dan McGowan, CEO of Mainline Environmental.

“They open the doors to an entirely new way of thinking, one that values exploration, experimentation, and pushing boundaries. And when this mindset trickles down to the rest of the workplace, everything changes.”

McGowan’s advice for leaders is to question assumptions, see failure as learning and stay curious by being open to feedback and continuous improvement.

“Approach situations with curiosity and a fresh perspective, even in areas you’re intimately familiar with,” he says.

The beginner’s mind is even well-suited to results-driven, fast-paced corporate workplaces as it encourages leaders to take the time for self-reflection and to recognize when it’s time to pivot,  DeVry University’s President and CEO Elise Awwad tells The CEO Magazine.

“Some of my most inspirational leaders have this trait. They’re curious, they don’t assume, they reflect, they ask questions and they aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know something,” she says.

“Embracing an open-minded approach enables leaders to tap into knowledge and insights. This can lead to better results for your organization and your colleagues. It also expands our own knowledge, making us better leaders for our teams.”

Since putting this mindset to the test, Awwad has noticed that her colleagues feel a stronger connection to the organization’s mission and that a more empowered workplace culture has emerged as a result.

A Balancing Act

Suzuki’s book has become akin to a corporate bible for CEOs looking to keep evolving in a fast-changing world.

When Niklas Wass, President Business Line Stainless Europe at Outokumpu, learned about this concept, he realized it was the missing link for advancing the steel industry and the glue that holds multidisciplinary teams together.

“A beginner’s mind allows you to broaden your perspective and look beyond what you think is possible today,” he says. “This is about having experts and talents with a beginner’s mindset.

“This is how we are forming successful teams reinventing steel-making and accelerating the industrial evolution towards sustainability, customers and efficiency.”

Wass also argues that leaders need to consider the context in order to determine when it’s appropriate to reenact existing business approaches or explore new ways of growing a company.

“In a way it’s about balancing the futuristic, learning and non-constrained world of the beginner’s mind with the realism of the expert mind.”

– Niklas Wass

“If there was one right way it would be too easy,” he cautions. “In a way it’s about balancing the futuristic, learning and non-constrained world of the beginner’s mind with the realism of the expert mind.”

While some companies have higher requirements for innovation than others, Wass says that incorporating the beginner’s mind to some extent is the key to evolving with the world.

His sentiments are echoed by Blended Collective CEO and author of Brand Love: Building Strong Consumer-Brand Connections, Lydia Michael, who points out that the beginner’s mindset is critical to a growth-oriented company that encourages continuous improvement and leaves the door open to diverse perspectives.

“By staying open to learning, leaders can stay ahead of industry trends, make more informed decisions and maintain a competitive edge,” she says. “Moreover, a beginner’s mindset enables leaders to build stronger relationships with their teams, fostering trust and collaboration.”

However, this mindset prompts leaders to maintain a degree of humbleness, openness and, as Wass points out, relinquish some control. “If you stay within the set frame you are safe and will have few surprises,” he says.

“With a beginner’s mind you must be prepared to fail.”

Unlocking Hidden Potential

Particularly as organizations find new ways to build trust and improve employee satisfaction, empowering new and existing employees to contribute their ideas works in favor of both overburdened self-starters and time-poor CEOs of large corporations.

“Listen to the different perspectives in the organization, especially the new hires,” Wass suggests. “They are seeing the business with totally fresh eyes. Ask more questions than giving answers.”

Chaumette Solutions’ David Chaumette explains that leaders who have built a culture founded on Suzuki’s principles are better positioned to have more freedom while increasing value for the business.

“For the leaders of those organizations, there is better problem-solving and less reliance on the owner.”

– David Chaumette

“For the leaders of those organizations, there is better problem-solving and less reliance on the owner. The entire staff will feel more empowered as a result. This increases the value of the business as the business becomes less owner-dependent,” Chaumette reflects.

So next time you adhere to the tried-and-tested ways of doing things, consider welcoming in a fresh perspective, theory or opinion. As Albert Einstein once famously stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

McGowan agrees, and argues that there are potentially enormous benefits.

“Let’s take a leap of faith and embrace the beginner’s mindset. The results might just exceed our wildest dreams,” he suggests.

Lydia Michael’s Five Tips for Developing a Beginner’s Mind

  1. Encourage continuous learning and curiosity among employees, inspiring them to explore new ideas and approaches without fear of failure.
  2. Lead by example, demonstrating humility and a willingness to learn from others.
  3. Embrace change and be open to adapting strategies based on new insights.
  4. Foster open communication and active listening, inviting diverse perspectives to challenge established norms.
  5. Create a culture that values experimentation, where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth.

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