A lesson from a former know-it-all: How a learning mindset fuels global collaboration
October 5, 2022
Early in my career, I relentlessly focused on goals over people. I was like a heat-seeking missile. Not only that, but because I was sure that I already had the right answers, I only went through the motions to collaborate with others. When other people talked, I smiled and nodded along, but I wasn’t really listening. I was just waiting for my turn to speak, so I could tell them to do it my way.
As a young manager at Boston Scientific, though, I had a terrific boss who gave me a valuable piece of feedback that forever changed my thinking. I had just finished up a meeting with some sales directors about a new product launch plan. We had discussed some potential issues around inventory – and naturally, I told them exactly how I wanted it handled. Afterwards, my boss pulled me aside. He seemed amused. He told me that I reminded him of a bulldozer: all gassed-up, ignition on, ready to blow the hinges off the garage door to go get what I wanted.
“People don’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel,” he told me. He added that while he appreciated my obsession with results, he also needed me to consider other important factors: What beliefs did I want people to have after talking with me? What kind of experience did I want others to have in their interactions with me?
Young and brash though I was, I immediately knew my boss was right. In time, he taught me to focus less on imposing my will and more on genuine understanding to better achieve common goals. Further, he showed me how collaboration leads to better results.
More trust, better collaboration
During my Boston Scientific career of over 20 years, spent mostly in the U.S. and Asia, I have seen the proof firsthand. When collaboration is strong, it is a competitive advantage, helping us get life-changing products to patients faster, create more agile systems and processes, provide better quality and efficient service, and be more creative in developing new markets.
However, achieving such high levels of collaboration isn’t always easy. And if you think it can be difficult collaborating with your colleagues down the hall, imagine how challenging it can be when working on a global scale. Having now lived in Asia for the past 6 years, in a culture very different from my own, I have certainly seen the challenges of building trust among colleagues divided by time zones, geography, language, perspective, and business cultures.
For example, take a common culture clash I witnessed among colleagues while based in Japan. To one side of the ocean would be what I call the “American commercial warrior” – like my former bulldozing self – operating under the mistaken impression that he knows exactly the right answer, even in a country he can barely locate on a map. To the other side of the ocean would be his counterpart, the “Japanese commercial samurai,” operating with an unyielding faith in his Rolodex of relationships and knowledge of the local market, unable to see the value of good work from elsewhere. Their worldviews are opposed: One sees the world through the lens of sameness, the other notices only difference. And yet, when each is willing to risk being open to new ideas and perspectives, amazing success can follow.
I’ve come to discover that not only is such global collaboration possible, but that no matter where you are in the world, there are reliably certain colleagues who seem to naturally bring it about. These people possess certain qualities that make teamwork come easily. Chief among those personality traits, I’ve noticed, is a learning mindset.
The power of open-minded curiosity
Natural collaborators, even those with deep wells of experience, believe they have something to learn from someone else. They are curious and open to new ideas. In conversation, they aren’t simply waiting to hear themselves speak, but rather ask questions, pay attention to the answers and, crucially, incorporate any new knowledge into the framework of what they already know.
In doing so, these colleagues gain almost magical abilities. They notice hidden opportunities, see around dark corners, and have an uncanny ability to avert disaster. When confronted by setbacks – as inevitably happen – they prove resilient by distilling lessons for the future. Such collaborators are invaluable to their team, trusted by peers, respected by customers, and supremely credible with leadership.
One thing I’ve noticed about great collaborators is that you can’t always spot them from a distance, because there’s no fixed personality type. One colleague who immediately comes to mind, for example, is an outgoing networker who makes people feel good in her presence. Another colleague is a thoughtful, cerebral soul who draws people out with his excellent listening skills. Though they’re two very different people, what they have in common is their welcoming approach to new information and experiences – making each of them wonderful collaborative partners.
Unfortunately, such people can find themselves drowned out by people whose expertise leads them to presume too much and listen too little. I admit that’s a category that has included me at times; I have come to realize that my own vast experience, usually an asset for problem solving, can occasionally blind me to learning opportunities. Unfortunately, dismissive attitudes lead to unsolved problems and unrealized gains. But by choosing to resist our natural instincts to push back on the new, each of us might begin to cultivate learning mindsets of our own.
Beyond ceremony and into substance
Amazing things happen when high-performing individuals collaborate across geography, and in my current role leading Boston Scientific across Asia Pacific, I aim to champion such global collaboration. For our commercial model to thrive, collaborators on both sides of the ocean cannot isolate themselves from each other, but rather, must be willing to learn and listen. True collaboration gets beyond ceremony and into substance.
Yes, collaboration takes effort. But take it from this former know-it-all: The payoff is worth it, especially in a complex, highly regulated, and infinitely technical industry like medical devices. Our physician customers have high standards for their vulnerable patients who need life-changing innovations, and rightly so. We serve them best when we collaborate well.