Managing Your Mindset

McKinsey’s new book on CEO Excellence highlights the power of managing your mindset for success. How can milkshakes and science help you with this?

Why Mindset Matters

People read business books to learn what specific steps they must follow to achieve career success. But as the authors of CEO Excellence point out, this is a limited approach that is NOT taken by the outstanding CEOs they interviewed for this book. Instead, those CEOs focus on cultivating the right mindset. In the words of co-author Scott Keller, “A mindset shapes a thousand behaviors.” Consequently, if you can adopt the right mindset, you are more likely to make the right decisions and take the right actions.

How Mindset Works

Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford University) studies the science of mindsets and their impact on performance and health. She describes a mindset as a core belief about a topic or domain that encompasses specific expectations, explanations, and goals.

Your mindset has an enormous impact on what you think and what you do. Critically, it also has an impact beyond your conscious action to shape your subconscious processes. For this reason, Dr. Crum refers to mindset as “a portal between the subconscious and conscious mind and processes.” The subconscious part of this equation is crucial because it operates as a “default setting” for your mind, directing your body toward certain outcomes without your being aware of what is happening.

The Milkshake Mystery

Dr. Crum’s milkshake study sheds light on the connection between the conscious mind and these subconscious processes. Researchers asked test subjects to drink a milkshake and then measured its metabolic impact on them. They repeated the exercise the following week. The only difference was that in week 1 the milkshake was labeled high-calorie and indulgent and in week 2 it was labeled low-calorie and healthy. The metabolic tests revealed that the test subjects experienced a drop in ghrelin in week 1 and a rise in ghrelin in week 2 . (Ghrelin is the “hunger hormone.” When its levels drop, it tells the brain that you have lots of fuel and revs up your metabolism to burn it. When its levels rise, it tells the brain to find food and it also slows down your metabolism just in case you cannot find food.)

But here’s the catch: the two milkshakes actually were identical. In other words, the metabolic impacts experienced were the result of the belief (or mindset) the test subjects had regarding the calorie content of the drink. Their mindset changed the subconscious processes of the body, resulting in a measurably different physical outcome.

CEO Mindsets

McKinsey identified six key mindsets that excellent CEOs adopt:

  • Be bold — especially in the first year to set a tone and momentum
  • Treat the soft stuff as the hard stuff (e.g., culture and organizational design)
  • Solve for the team’s psychology — don’t just assume that recruiting a collection of superstars is enough
  • Do what only you can do — this maximizes your personal effectiveness and time management
  • Start with “Why”
  • Help your board help the business — build a foundation of trust and leverage their expertise

How to Improve Your Mindset

Dr. Crum offers the following advice on changing mindset:

  • Be aware that your understanding of reality is just your current interpretation of reality, your expectations, frameworks, and attempts to simplify reality.
  • Ask if your mindset is helpful or harmful to you.
  • Identify and then work on adopting a more helpful mindset.
  • Keep checking to ensure your mindset still serves you. If it doesn’t, look for a more useful one to adopt.


Your mindset potentially has greater impact than any single act. So adopt the right mindset to enable the right behaviors.



Watch/Listen: Optimize Your Mindset

[Photo Credit: Milad Fakurian]

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