A profile of economist and company director, Dr Dambisa Moyo, and how she achieves "growth through deliberate practice".

Dambisa Moyo didn’t plan to turn her bachelor’s degree in chemistry into a DPhil in economics from Oxford. Nor did she plan to write books with topics ranging from China’s pursuit of resources, to the flawed premise behind aid to Africa, to why democracy is failing to deliver economic growth.

Yet, as she sits in her California home reflecting on the importance of continuous
learning, it’s clear why her career path has looked more like a curvy road than a straight line. And why an array of topics interest her.

“I like optionality,” Moyo says, because it affords her the opportunity to see the world’s many challenges through different lenses. Moyo believes through continuous learning, she (and others) can replicate what people who came before her have done well, applying their ideas to modern-day efforts at making the world a better place. She also can understand what caused others to make mistakes, and therefore she can avoid mimicking actions that could lead to the same negative result.

“There’s no real end point to learning,” she says.

For Moyo, that commitment to nonstop learning requires she maintain what she describes as a “regimented schedule,” ensuring that her personal life and professional life get the attention they require. And what she’s taken on in her personal life shouldn’t be forgotten: her website notes that in her spare time, “she runs marathons, practices Pilates and is an amateur boxer.” Her travels for work and pleasure have taken her to 65 countries around the world.

Moyo, who currently sits on the boards of 3M and Chevron, compliments Anders Ericcson, the Swedish-born psychologist who passed away in 2020, for his work in human performance. His research informs how Moyo tries to live her life.

Ericcson believed it was not enough to simply learn; repetition alone was insufficient to master a skill. Rather, it took deliberate practice to really become learned about everything from playing a musical instrument to fluently speaking a language.

According to the Deliberate Practice Institute, “a rigorous sequence of ongoing performance assessment, tailored goalsetting, and systematic skill-building informed by expert feedback” provides the foundation for deliberate practice. Ericcson contended deliberate practice wouldn’t necessarily be enjoyable or motivating, but it was essential for mastery. Through deliberate practice, skills are continuously worked on with the goal of advancement and include that aforementioned feedback.

“I believe in coaches,” Moyo notes, saying that she has a coach for almost every aspect of her professional life. And she eagerly reaches out to other experts who can provide additional perspectives, guaranteeing she has multiple viewpoints as she writes about the topics of relevance to her. She also has a group of friends who don’t carry the title of coach but are instrumental in honing her ideas.

“They don’t think like me,” she says, and they come from diverse fields and industries. These “informal” meetings, as Moyo describes them, almost always involve her and just one other person and are especially valuable when she is approaching a “big decision.”

This multi-pronged approach to seeking advice and feedback is mandatory so that blind spots are avoided, Moyo contends. And she believes blind spots can be more evident in people who specialise in one academic field or professional industry.

Moyo says that through her deliberate practice and engagement with her coaching network she’s able to take an idea and “build out” its principles and virtues. She adds “deep reading” on some topic for at least one hour each day to allow her to craft what she’ll write or what ideas she’ll present.

Currently, Moyo is “super excited” as she learns more about Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset. In her TED Talk, which has been viewed by more than 12 million people, Dweck tells her audience of research into children and persistence. She reports some students “run from error” because they believe they’ve failed. But some people “engage deeply” and “process the error; they learn from it and they correct it.” These students demonstrate a “growth mindset.”

Dweck asserts it’s incumbent on school principals and educators to instill a growth mindset in their classroom: Effort and difficulty should make students think about how to make connections between things because this is how students become smarter.

Dweck’s research also has relevance to adults; we, too, can be guilty of responding to challenges much like the students referenced in Dweck’s TED Talk did. Adults stuck in a fixed mindset aren’t likely to accept new challenges if they believe they might fail, and people in authority positions operating with a fixed mindset might attempt to undermine their subordinates so that their successes don’t seem threatening to the manager. However, people with a growth mindset embrace opportunities to make themselves and those around them better. They use effort and steadfastness to constantly improve. Failure isn’t in their lexicon.

Like many principals, Moyo thinks of herself as a generalist, which she defines as someone who can “duck and weave” around and within different ideas to see how specific aspects can be incorporated into a new concept. That framework also means Moyo will identify challenges and opportunities across decades and countries.

Moyo drew considerable praise and criticism for her contention that institutional aid to Africa bred corruption and dependence, trapping the continent into a cycle from which it could not easily escape. That thesis was developed in her book “Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa”.

Oprah Winfrey named Moyo to her first “power list” of “20 remarkable visionaries.” In recognising Moyo, Winfrey complemented Moyo “for going against the grain” by criticising international aid for Africa. In 2009, TIME magazine also identified Moyo as one of its 100 most influential people around the world. It stated: “Unsurprisingly, the development industry doesn’t like her critique. But advocates of aid do have to come to grips with Moyo’s fundamental question: Why is Africa so much poorer after receiving billions of dollars in assistance? Just as important, how can young African professionals like Moyo be attracted back home, not out of charity but to pursue opportunities?”

Although Moyo doesn’t have her own chief of staff, there are many people who work for her and her husband, Jared Smith, who founded Qualtrics. For Moyo, whether someone holds the title chief of staff or something different, the purpose is the same: “I really urge people who work for us to not come to us with problems. Just fix it,” she says. They should be empowered to see themselves as problem solvers, who later can discuss with the principal what the problem was and how it was taken care of.

“It’s a challenging job,” she acknowledges, and the more experience the person has, the more self-directed he or she is likely to be. “I see a chief of staff as a doppelganger to myself,” she says.

She urges people to read the famous Harvard Business Review article titled “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” In it, readers are reminded that “most managers spend much more time dealing with subordinates’ problems than they even faintly realise.” The effect is that managers assume the subordinate’s role, and it’s now incumbent upon them to address the subordinate’s concerns instead of focusing on the challenges that ought to be the purview of the principal. Managers ought never place themselves in positions where a subordinate’s problem, which he or she is capable of addressing, becomes theirs.

It’s clear Moyo thinks and cares deeply about the issues that matter to her. That’s true when she thinks of her parents, as well. She thinks of them as “pioneers.” She recalled how they came to America from “rural Africa” in the 1970s – a time without the modern travel conveniences we enjoy today – and “they showed up and figured it out.” During that time, Moyo’s father was doing postgraduate studies in the U.S. before the family eventually returned to Zambia. Her parents mostly conversed in English, providing Moyo an important leg up as she matured from childhood into adulthood. Moyo once said, “I am fortunate: my parents told me the world was my oyster, when they could have said I wouldn’t make it for a lot of reasons – rural, girl, small African country. So, no regrets.”

Moyo admits she’s nowhere near ready to slow down. But whenever that time comes, she hopes she’ll be remembered as a “great model citizen” and someone who was “engaged, curious (and) demanding” in combating issues that must be addressed.

Transcribed and Edited by Dr Anthony Moretti – Associate Professor of Communication, Robert Morris University