The No. 1 Most Important Word In Business, Which You Rarely Hear

Recently, a video podcaster named Nina asked me a simple question with complicated implications: “What’s the most important mindset for success in business?”

At first, I doubted that I’d be able to identify a single mindset that was key to success. Ordinarily, my team and I emphasize the importance of context. Usually, it depends on a leader fitting a given situation, which has many variables that are difficult to reduce to a single answer.

That said, I realized there was one common mindset that I had observed in the many successful clients I’ve advised over the years — one severely lacking in those that continuously struggled. And not just casually, either. My firm has formally conducted over 17,000 in-depth interviews of leaders from all over the world, so we get to see which behaviors work in a variety of situations and which don’t.

I realized the single most important word in business, a word that you rarely ever hear, is generosity.

No, not honesty, kindness, respect, learning, empathy or even abundance. None of those things actually force you to be a proactive agent of change. Leaders who succeed are generous, and they treat people — whether they’re customers, employees, shareholders or members of the community — with a fundamental mindset centered around that generosity. Those that lack the spirit of generosity never succeed in the long term.

Once when I was speaking with the CEO of a mortgage company, I almost immediately got a bad feeling about his character. He implied that his business succeeded by “tricking”
low-income homeowners into signing up for mortgages that had hidden terms unfavorable to them. Well, of course, that mindset backfired. When the housing crisis hit in ‘08, his company and career were snuffed out under a pile of lawsuits.

In contrast, I remember being impressed early in my career by the mindset of a self-made billionaire named Ted Waitt — the owner of Gateway, that old computer company. When asked about his success, Ted talked about making computers, which were scary for most people at the time, more friendly and fun. Ted loved making technology less stressful for customers, giving good people good value for their dollar, an enjoyable buying experience and just generally being eager to make lives better through his products.

There are dozens of such examples, both of selfish business owners getting their comeuppance, and generous ones being rewarded with abundant success and positivity. If you can spread a spirit of generosity throughout your team, you’ll see the benefits immediately.

Geoff Smart is Chairman and Founder of ghSMART. Geoff is co-author, with his colleague Randy Street, of the New York Times best-selling book Who: The A Method for Hiring and the author of the #1 Wall Street Journal best-seller Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) into Government. Geoff co-created the Topgrading brand of talent management. Geoff is the Founder of two 501c3 not-for-profit organizations. SMARTKids Leadership Program™ provides 10 years of leadership tutoring and the Leaders Initiative™ seeks to deploy society’s greatest leaders into government. Geoff earned a BA in Economics with Honors from Northwestern University, an MA, and a PhD. in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University.