How a “growth mindset” powers Zillow’s success

The mental approach builds stronger teams, and more engaged employees at Zillow

Posted in

woman looking at computer screen which has a series of video conference screens on it

It’s a term you hear all the time in the halls (OK, now Zooms!) of Zillow: “growth mindset.” Though it’s not a new concept, growth mindset is continually front of mind for leaders, recruiters and employees at Zillow, and for good reason: This mental framework has long been shown to produce the most highly effective leaders, and the most engaged and retained employees.

“Growth mindset is in our DNA at Zillow”

Whitney Thoren

What is a growth mindset? Coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck more than a decade ago, the term “growth mindset” applies to people who believe their skills can be developed through perseverance and hard work. Dweck contrasts that to individuals with a “fixed mindset” — those who believe their talents are finite and unchangeable. When confronted with a new challenge, people with a fixed mindset believe there is only so much they can do. With a growth mindset, they’d approach the problem believing they can learn, adapt and solve creatively. When an entire company embraces a growth mindset, Dweck says, employees feel more empowered, and better connected to their jobs, teams and companies.

“Growth mindset is in our DNA at Zillow,” says Whitney Thoren, a senior program manager on the learning and development team. “Someone with this mindset is always trying to learn more, ask questions, take risks and learn from failure. It’s the stance that we’re capable of learning, that we can grow and adapt.”

“An actual failure would be an unwillingness to continue trying”

Eric Amen

As employees of a disruptive technology company that innovates and continually iterates the real estate industry, Zillow Group’s leaders know that a growth mindset is essential to navigating the present while anticipating the problems and needs of the future. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (“VUCA,” for short) are here to stay, Thoren says. “We’ll continue to live in a VUCA world. Take the pandemic: We’ve pivoted very fast in this environment, rolling out new company-wide work-from-home practices and asking individual contributors and managers to adjust, all while continuing to keep business moving.

“To do that as well as we have shows the power of the growth mindset.” 

Thoren notes that a growth mindset reduces the fear of potential humiliation and repercussions associated with failure — or of not knowing all the answers. She and her team ask managers and team members to reframe those notions. In a growth mindset, a failure isn’t a terminus but a piece of information; while one method may not have worked, other methods might — so it’s worth trying again.

“An actual failure would be an unwillingness to continue trying,” says Eric Amen, also a senior program manager on the learning and development team. “Resignation, or dawdling on a new solution, are human tendencies, but in a growth mindset you learn to reduce or process these responses and keep moving.”

Teaching Leaders

Teaching managers management skills — and a management mindset — is crucial, Amen says. Over the past five years, Zillow Group went from employing a few hundred managers to more than 1,000, so the need to support and offer continuing education to managers is vital. To that end, Zillow offers dozens of learning options for online and in-person (when safety conditions permit) training through its internal hub, “Zillow University.” 

“Having a growth mindset is the key to leveling up.”

Eric Amen

“We have a robust learning culture here,” says Amen, noting that themes tied to growth mindset are infused throughout courses in Zillow University. Those new to managing at Zillow Group can enroll in a 4-day course called “Accelerate,” which introduces them to the company’s leadership philosophy and manager mindset. Experienced managers can enroll in courses such as “leader of Others” and “Leader of Leaders” to aid their transition to new levels of leadership. And those who aspire to management can enroll in “Management Foundations” or search Zillow University for “Guided Leader” courses and webinars to take on their own time. And more leadership courses are forthcoming: Zillow University just created a new role specifically tasked with developing leadership training for individual contributors aspiring to leadership, Amen says.

“There’s an industry statistic that 65% of all first-time managers fail,” says Amen. “And I can see how that is possible in a fixed-mindset workplace. When I first became a manager at a prior company, I was selected for the position not because I had the necessary management skills, but because I understood how to do the jobs of the people I’d be managing. That creates a really narrow path to success and without the proper training and support it can lead to early mistakes and failures that trigger fixed mindset beliefs like ‘I’m just not cut out to be a manager.”

Feedback for Growth

To bake context-specific support into their roles, Zillow recently piloted a tool called the Leadership Blueprint Assessment, a feedback process that lets team members inform their managers how they’re doing as leaders. “This isn’t a performance review, it’s for manager development,” Amen says. “It creates an upward feedback loop for managers and it offers them the opportunity for course correction.” The idea is that with genuine feedback comes the opportunity to grow as a manager.

The assessment also offers individual contributors an indirect lesson on what management ought to look like, so as they continue working at Zillow they begin to cultivate their own understanding of leadership. “We want to make resources available before you enter a management role and to continue offering them as you work in that role,” Amen says. “We acknowledge that leadership is hard, but we also have resources to unlock your potential. We do a lot of ‘reframing’ of how people think about what it means to lead.

“Change is always part of it,” he says. “When you manage a role, you no longer occupy the role anymore. There is both opportunity and a small feeling of loss in segueing,” he says. “You have to be willing to let go of what made you successful as an individual contributor, stretch outside your comfort zone, and embrace changes to your focus, relationships, and skill sets. 

“Having a growth mindset is the key to leveling up.”

Fixed MindsetGrowth Mindset
I can’t_______I can’t______ yet
One goal, one work approachOne goal, many approaches
Set, repetitive proceduresCourse correcting, route adjustments
Top-down managementUpward feedback loop
Educated guesses, predictabilityWillingness to say, “I don’t know”
Managers cultivate respect for “the boss”Managers offer coach-like leadership, coaxing team members to think like leaders
Learning is fixed, finiteLearning is lifelong, continuous