The #1 Most Important Word in Business

A video podcaster asked me “What’s the most important mindset for success in business?” For a second, I doubted I would be able to identify just one key mindset for success. I find questions about “what one thing?” sort of over-simplifying.

As trusted advisors to CEOs and investors of large companies, our consultants at ghSMART typically emphasize the importance of context. There is no “perfect candidate” to hire for a job, for example. Success depends mostly on a leader fitting a given context, which has many variables—the customer landscape, strategic challenges, operating challenges, financial or legal factors, culture, etc. A salesy person might succeed in a job that requires persuasive communication, but fail in a job that requires detailed process management.

But then it dawned on me.

There is one mindset that I have observed in successful vs. unsuccessful Fortune 500 CEOs. Board members. Private equity investors. Government leaders. Education reformers. ghSMART consultants.

And by “observed” I don’t mean casually observed. My firm has formally conducted over 17,000 in-depth interviews of leaders of all size companies, in every industry SIC code, in every major region of the world. So we get to see what various mindsets and behaviors work, or don’t work, in lots and lots of different situations.

So what is the most important word in business, which you rarely hear?


Not “honesty.” Honesty is the lowest possible table stakes mindset value you can have as a person or a business. I think it’s weird when companies must remind their people to not be dishonest. “Let’s not commit any crimes today, people!”

Not “kindness.” Mere kindness doesn’t always lead to delivering real value to people. “Have a nice day!” doesn’t make someone’s day much better. An act of generosity makes someone’s day much better.

Not “respect.” Respect is such a low bar. Generosity is 3 dial clicks up from mere respect. To show someone generosity, you are giving them respect + giving them something valuable.

Not “learning.” Having a learning mindset is an input. Like data entry. It’s not an expression of any value to others. Which would you rather have–a company or colleague that learns a lot, or one that generously gives you value?

Not “empathy.” Empathy without action is the same thing as commiseration. Generosity has an action component that makes it the most important mindset in business.

Even an “abundance” mindset isn’t quite there. You can be indifferent to others having stuff, and still not be a proactive agent for giving people stuff. An abundance mindset is passive. A generosity mindset is active.

Leaders who succeed are generous

And they treat people—customers, employees, shareholders, and the community—with a fundamental mindset of generosity. In contrast, people who lack a spirit of generosity don’t succeed over the long term.

Here are some things you should and shouldn’t do if you want to succeed:

  • DON’T trick the customer.
  • DO give customers something that reduces their stress.
  • DON’T milk your employees.
  • DO elevate your employee’s fulfillment.
  • DO create unexpected experiences.

Bottom line? Gordon Gekko said “Greed is good.” But a mindset of generosity is better, if you want to be successful in your career, and fulfilled in your life.


Geoff Smart

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: A Method for Hiring”, and the author of the No. 1 Wall Street Journal best seller “Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) into Government”. Geoff cocreated the Topgrading brand of talent management. He is the founder of two 501(c)(3) 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, and an MA and PhD in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University.