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Disrupt Yourself, with Whitney Johnson

Disrupt Yourself, with Whitney Johnson

Episode 39: Disrupt Yourself with Whitney Johnson

In this first episode of 2017, Kristy chats with Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, podcast host and co-founder of 40 Women to Watch Over 40. Whitney has come to understand the core truth of innovation: companies don't disrupt, people do. Whitney shares the accelerators that can help us grow, her take on delegating, and why a personal brand is important.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Greisinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. Conversations with women changing the face of business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.


00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to 2017.

00:16 Maricella Herrera: Yay!

00:17 KW: Should we do a countdown? 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Happy new Year from the Ellevate Podcast.


00:28 KW: So clearly we're energized and excited from our little holiday break, and Maricella's back from El Salvador so we're very excited to have her back with us, and we're excited to have you back with us in 2017 which is the year to own it.

00:45 MH: Own it, yes!

00:47 KW: Year to own it, this is gonna be our year folks and we are gonna do a bang up job in our lives, in our work, starting businesses, investing in other companies, running for office, having a voice, driving change. This is the year.

01:04 MH: This is the year to own it.

01:05 KW: And I'm excited. I'm excited for 2017.

01:07 MH: I am too. It'll be good.

01:11 KW: So if you're thinking about how you're gonna own your career or maybe if someone near and dear to your heart that you want to ensure she's owning her career, think about Ellevate membership.

01:22 MH: This is the moment, we have a great promo going on because we want everyone to make 2017 their best year yet. We want everyone to own it so we're offering 20% off Ellevate membership using the code "own it".

01:36 KW: Awesome, so all you have to do; go to Ellevate network. E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Fill out the application, put in the promo code, "own it" for 20% off and become an Ellevate member today and you'll have access to our webinars, to events, tons of content, great opportunities. If you wanna be a thought leader in 2017, start writing, start publishing content, sharing your knowledge and insights which is not only a very, very, very good thing to do to help others but also great for your career. We're a great platform to do it, so check out Ellevate network. Please become a member. We are as strong as our community and our community grows everyday, and we would love to have you join it and be a member of Ellevate.

02:24 KW: So we are today talking to Whitney Johnson, and Whitney truly inspired me as you know 'cause I talk about that everyday, I'm in the middle of a mid-life crisis and struggling to accomplish everything that I wanted to accomplish by the time I turned a certain age, and Whitney inspired me by telling me all the women who have peaked after 40, and I love it and she's so right, and it was exciting and we just had a really great conversation. So I am pumped because I'm just starting.

03:04 MH: You are just starting.

03:05 KW: Yes.

03:05 MH: We are all just starting and I think that's always the case. You still have more that you can change and give and do and become. And we see it with so many of our members too, it's just incredible.

03:21 KW: Yeah, unbelievable. And we've heard it a lot on the podcast as well, women who have gone through three, four, or five different careers, different transitions, tons of success, tons of failures and learnings. But I always think about when I was growing up and you envisioned this career path that was so linear, and I think even when we talk about the career ladder and it's just linear. You're going rung by rung up to one end goal and that's not the case anymore.

03:52 MH: It's a jungle gym.

03:52 KW: It is a jungle gym, and that's fun. That's exciting. It kind of inspires you to know that you don't know what the next corner's gonna reveal and so there's so much fun.

04:03 MH: You never know. And we talk about this a lot too, just for me personally, we were talking about it this morning about being a generalist and knowing a lot or a little of many, many things and that just prepares you I think to do even more, be able to change even more and even quicker.

04:23 KW: So for all of you listening to us today, in five years, 10 years when...

04:29 MH: We run the world?

04:29 KW: When we run the world, you know being a generalist is the way to go.

04:34 MH: Yeah.


04:38 KW: Well, so again thanks for joining us today. We've got a great poll to share with you.

04:43 MH: We asked our members, we poll them every week and we asked them: Until what age do you plan to work? What's your answer?

04:51 KW: I can't even... I mean, tomorrow? I can't even... I can't get through this week right now so ask me another time.

05:00 MH: So if you had asked me this while I was at the beach a few weeks ago, I might have said "See you later, this is it." But I don't know, it's hard, and I think you're the same. I don't think you could be without doing anything.

05:16 KW: No.

05:17 MH: So we did ask our members and it seems that they're kind of the same too. 30% of them said they plan to work until the ages between 65 and 70, 29%, 60 to 65, 22% said beyond 70, 12% said 55 to 60, 4% said 50 to 55, and a lucky 3% say 45 to 50.

05:45 KW: That sounds fun. But yeah I think I would have... I'd get bored.

05:48 MH: Yeah me too.

05:49 KW: Yeah, I'd keep working. Well let's hear what Whitney has to say about all this 'cause she has some great insights about re-inventing yourself, and doing great things later in your career. So here we go and enjoy the show.


06:14 KW: And I particularly want to talk about your advice for CEOs. As a business leader myself, I'm all about disruption and I want to know what you think.

06:22 Whitney Johnson: Shall I start with what "Disrupt Yourself" is about?

06:24 KW: Yes.

06:24 WJ: Let me give you a little bit of background as to why I wrote the book. For about six or seven years, I worked very closely with Clayton Christensen. I co-founded an investment firm with him to invest in stocks, as well as early stage companies that we thought were disruptive. In the course of my work with him, and actually prior to that, I had read "The Innovator's Dilemma" and started to have the kernel of an "a-ha" that companies don't disrupt, people do. And then after working with him for six or seven years and really getting steeped in the framework of disruption, I really started to flesh out this idea that, in fact, the fundamental unit of disruption was the individual. So my book, "Disrupt Yourself" is really the codification of that process. And very briefly, what I've done is I've said, "Okay. Companies don't disrupt, people do." I've re-imagined the S-curve that we typically use to gauge how quickly an innovation will be adopted, and looked at that in the context of how do you understand the psychology of disruption, or more broadly, how do you understand the psychology of learning something new?

07:42 WJ: So picture in your head this S, and whenever you start something new you start at the low end, or the base, of that S. And you're going to work very, very hard and it will seem like very little is happening. But after you put in the days and weeks and months of practice, you're going to start to hit the knee of that curve, and that's when you accelerate into hyper growth, and that's the exciting, thrilling part of the curve, because you're not working hard, but for every day of work you put in, you're seeing three days of progress. And so that's the part of the curve where you're no longer feeling discouraged like you were at the low end, but now you're in this sweet spot of the curve where you feel competent and you feel confident and all your neurons are firing. And then at the top of the curve, things'll be really easy, but because you know exactly what you're doing, you're no longer learning anything and you're no longer getting the feel good effects of learning, and so you can get bored.

08:39 WJ: And if at the top of the curve, you don't jump to a new curve, your plateau that you think is so comfortable can actually become a precipice. And I would argue that that's sometimes why people get fired from jobs, because they are at the top of a learning curve and they didn't quite have the courage to jump when they knew that they needed to, and so the universe gives them a little cosmic nudge. So what I've done is this S-curve is said, "Alright. Well, every single person inside of an organization is on an S-curve." When you first start your job, you're at the low end and you might get discouraged. When you first hire people, they may not be doing a very good job and so it helps you be more patient. And then, you've got now this S-curve, you're on one, I'm on one, every single person in your office, every single person listening to this is on one. How do I manage accordingly? Now, to move along that S-curve, I've identified seven accelerants that will allow you to move up more quickly and then when you're ready, jump to a new curve. And I'll go through them very quickly.

09:44 WJ: The first is to take the right kinds of risks, meaning, you take on market risk, rather than competitive risk. Market risk means you play where no one else is playing. That can look like either playing where no one wants to play, so for example, if it pertains to your career, it's taking that assignment that no one wants. It's working for the person that no one wants to. It's working for a company that isn't that interesting. Or you can play where no one has thought of playing, which would look like you find you a job that needs to be done inside of an organization. It hasn't been posted, so there aren't 50 other people applying for it. You approach the person who's hiring and say, "You need to do this job. I can do it for you." If you can persuade them to create that job, guess who's gonna get it? And this is where the whole idea of disruption comes in, because when you pursue a disruptive course, your odds of success are six times higher and your revenue opportunity 20 times greater when you're willing to do things like take on market risk.

10:47 WJ: Second, play to your distinctive strengths, what you do well that other people don't. And what's so interesting about that, fascinating in fact, is that we don't actually know what our strengths are. We think we do, but because whatever our strengths are, we do them reflexively well, we tend to dismiss them and sometimes even ignore them. And one of the ways you can figure out what your strengths are is think about the compliments you get from people and you say, "Oh, it was nothing." Well people tend to overvalue what they are not, and undervalue what they are. But if you want to move up that learning curve quickly, it's important that you identify your strengths and you value them, even though they're easy for you.

11:35 KW: Is there an aspirational part of that that you should try to be something else too?

11:41 WJ: I think there is absolutely an aspirational part. And I think in any endeavor, there's always some pay to play skills. So for example, I worked on Wall Street. A lot of our listeners worked on Wall Street. Well, when I first arrived on Wall Street, I was a music major. I had never set foot in a finance course, in an accounting course, in an economics course, so for me to go into investment banking and then become an Equity Research Analyst, which is what Sallie did, so a lot of people are familiar with this, I had to take all those courses so those were my pay to play skills. They got me in the door, they legitimized me, and so those were aspirational things. But it wasn't what I did best and so what I would say to you is there's an aspirational part and there are certain skills that you have to get, and again I'm calling them pay to play skills to get your foot in the door, but what's going to allow you to soar to the top is when you start to recognize what you do really, really well and you value it.

12:41 WJ: So I'm working on Wall Street and one of my colleagues say to me, "Well, you're good and you got IR ranked because the clients like you." And I was so offended. I thought, "But I build really good models, how come they're not valuing that?" And I realize later, of course I built good models because the clients aren't gonna like me if I can't build good models. But what made me really, really good was a thing that I did instinctively, reflexively, well which was connect the clients to the CEOs of these companies and made these connections. Like I had this event where I took clients down to meet with Carlos Slim, who's one of the richest people in the world. We went to his private library, he told us his favorite books. It was magical, but because it was easy for me I didn't value it. So back to your question, yes we can aspire but there's this companion or there's this complement that has to take place of the things that you learn how to do but to really move up that curve, you value what you do instinctively well.

13:45 KW: I like it.

13:46 WJ: Do you want me to keep going?

13:46 KW: Yes, I do.

13:47 WJ: Okay.

13:48 KW: I'm sold. I'm totally hooked.

13:49 WJ: Number three. Okay, so now you've gone, you're playing where no one else is playing, you're playing to your strengths and you're ready to start to move up the steep part of the curve. Well, now is where you get a curve ball which is you have to embrace your constraints. And if you don't have enough constraints, for example, if you've got enough time, if you've got enough money, if you got enough expertise, which is never the case, then you actually need to create constraints because it's the constraints that allow you to move up the curve. And one example of this I think that really captures this beautifully is the film "Jaws." The most famous scenes in that film came about because a mechanical shark that Steven Spielberg wanted to use, it didn't work. So now he's over budget, he's behind schedule, he has to shoot the scenes from the shark's point of view and let the music, and of course I'm not gonna sing it but you probably can, right?


14:47 WJ: Exactly, and our imagination do the rest and that came out like what? 30 years ago? So the question you ask yourself is, did that film become successful in spite of the constraints or because of them? And so as you're moving up any learning curve I think it's really important, again, taking this back to a CEO is, do we have how we optimize our constraints? Do we have enough money? And do we have too much money?

15:19 KW: Yes. No, that's always the case. It's when you have too much you kind of aren't... You're not scrappy enough, you're not hungry enough, and stressed enough. When you don't have enough then it could limit you in terms of the innovation.

15:36 WJ: Exactly.

15:37 KW: An how are you gonna go and so it's that balance. So day-to-day, how do you keep this in mind? Right? I think many of us we go about our lives and work, we get busy. And you're not always stopping to think, "Okay, maybe I need to take a step back so I can propel myself forward." Or, "Am I really utilizing my my strength and my skills to the best of their ability?" Any ideas, suggestions, for how to to keep self-aware?

16:08 WJ: Yeah, I would say for me it's easy 'cause I live and breathe and I talk about it every day, but I think that the first thing I would say is to be patient with yourself. I think that in any given day or week I'll have four or five things that I'm working on and so what I would say, for example for someone even listening to our conversation, is to pick out one of these accelerants that you've realized, "I'm actually really good at this one. I wanna work on this some more and this what I could use some work on." And then be willing to just do one for today, and then you may listen to this again. Oh by the way, I just started a podcast and so you can listen. It's called The Disrupt Yourself podcast.

17:00 KW: Okay, everyone check it out.

17:00 WJ: Where I interview disruptors and so you can listen to things like that that reinforce it. I guess what I wanna say here is, it would be really easy for me and it completely and totally self-serving to say, "Re-disrupt yourself all the time and listen to all these podcasts." And I think what I wanna say to you is something much more blanket which is be committed every day to do something or think about something or read something that uplifts and inspires you and then once you do that, pick just one little thing that you're gonna work on each day so that there's this trajectory of constant improvement. But be willing to be flexible in that, "I don't know what I'm gonna work on today but I do know that I'm going to read or listen to this idea that I know will inspire me, and then I'll just sort of allow my intuition to take it from there."

17:53 KW: A little personal story. I just turned 39.

17:57 WJ: Oh, yes. This is a big birthday.

18:00 KW: Yeah, it was an incredibly stressful birthday because... And this is I wanna talk to you about your 40 Women to Watch Over 40. Because you suddenly feel like there's this, "Okay, I have a year to accomplish all the things I wanna accomplish by the time I'm 40." And I love birthdays. I'm all about, they happen. It's cool. But it was on that day, and I'm like, "Okay, I need to start working out, and I need to... I wanna do this and I wanna do that," and I had about 100 different things that I wanted to do and it was completely overwhelming, and thus completely depressing. Because I was like, "I will never accomplish these things" and I felt like a failure, and I'm not a failure but that's how I felt because I was trying to do all of these things. And I'm basing a lot of my own self-perceptions, self-worth, on the accomplishment of those things, so I love your idea of really taking a moment everyday, and I think that that's important with everything that we do. Taking a moment to, "How do I better myself? How to bring happiness into my life? How do I... " I've even said to the team here, "Every week write down something you accomplish this week." Because then at the end of the year, you look back and it's like, "Wow, I accomplished a lot this year."

19:20 WJ: That's a great idea.

19:21 KW: But we move so fast in life that when we do take the time to stop, I feel like everything just rushes up on us, and it's too overwhelming to process.

19:32 WJ: When you actually have a break you think of 20 other things you wanna now accomplish. 'Cause you had time to think about more things you could do.

19:38 KW: Exactly, and when you work it into... And they say that about working out. It's like if just you do it everyday it becomes a part of your habit. It's something that's just part of it. But getting started is really hard, 'cause you're like, "I don't have the time. I don't have the energy. I don't feel like it."

19:54 WJ: And it's part of just rewiring your brain. I've started doing push ups. But when I say started doing push ups, I mean standing at my kitchen counter and doing five push ups or even three. Just so that my brain starts going, "Oh, my body does push ups." And now I'm getting so I can do 20 at my kitchen counter, but it's just that that wiring of that brain of creating those synapses that says, "Kristy does push ups." Or, "Kristy... " I don't know. "Runs." Or, "Kristy... " Whatever it is.

20:26 KW: And then you're standing there at your counter, talking to somebody or waiting for something on the stove and you're like, "Well, let me do some push ups." And you think about it, it becomes part of it.

20:33 WJ: Exactly.

20:34 KW: But that's... I love that you did the 40 Women to Watch Over 40, because... And I'd love for you to tell our listeners about that, but I felt part of the big stressor was, "Oh my gosh, I'm aging out of all of these lists, and accomplishments, and this is... I've reached my peak. Now I'm 40 and where am I gonna go from here?" And that's not the right mindset. It's a shame to even think that way. We're in such a rush to do so much.

21:06 WJ: It's not... But we all do it. We all do it.

21:08 KW: Yeah, there's no timeline.

21:10 WJ: Yeah, and our society has this obsession, and I don't think that's too... I think that may even be too gentle, with the bright, shiny objects. And so we like to project on this younger, sleeker version of ourselves, and so the whole point behind 40 Women Over 40 to Watch was I co-founded it with Christina Vuleta, and she in part did it because she was mentoring a lot of women in their 20s who were saying, "I don't have a role model. Like I really admire Sheryl Sandberg, but I won't be Sheryl Sandberg. I won't be, I can't be, and I'm not sure I want to be. I need a vaster array of role models." So that was really the impetus for Christina. The impetus for me, was again, going back to this idea of disruption. Women tend to take longer than men to really move up the S-curve within their career. It's in part because we're attending to a lot of different things in our 20s and 30s. We're still figuring out what we wanna do. We're figuring out if we're going to get married or not. If we have children, we're attending to that. And there's also research that shows that women in order to move up the hierarchical ladder or the corporate ladder, not only have to attend to people above her and to the side, but also the people below her.

22:32 WJ: So it takes women longer, and so basically what I felt is that right when you get into your 40s, and even in your 50s you're starting to hit this sweet spot of productivity and contribution. And yet this is exactly at the same time when our looks begin to fade. And so we become just a little bit invisible.

22:58 KW: I hear you sister. [chuckle]

23:01 WJ: So right at the time when we can really contribute, we're not seen in the same way. And so what we wanted to do with this list is say to women, "We see you. We see you. We acknowledge you. We applaud you. We admire you." And so yes, this is for the women in their 20s to have something to look forward to, but then also women in their 40s to say, "Wow! Yeah I have so much more that I can still accomplish, and knowing that there are other women around me that acknowledge that." And so that's where we started the list and what we do is that we have new honorees every year, but it becomes a club. So once an honoree, always an honoree. 'Cause we didn't want to insert that element of competition into it. So that's why we do it.

23:56 KW: I was looking through your honorees and there are many names I recognize. Many members...

24:00 WJ: Sallie's an honoree.

24:00 KW: Yes Sallie. Many members of the Ellevate Network are in there and just amazing women. Amazing women. And I had a smile on my face when I was looking through because, again yeah, you have the sense that you peak at a certain age and these women have certainly... They've got so much great stuff in them, but they're doing amazing things.

24:23 WJ: And what's great about the list too is you didn't know all of them did you?

24:26 KW: No, but I want to know all of them.

24:28 WJ: Right, but that's the beauty. Not all of them are household names. A lot of them I'd never heard of.

24:35 KW: So you wrote a book.

24:37 WJ: I did.

24:38 KW: You have, "40 Women to Watch Over 40." You do tons of public speaking.

24:45 WJ: I do.

24:46 KW: You have a podcast.

24:47 WJ: I do.

24:48 KW: You sit on boards.

24:50 WJ: Not really. Advisory boards, but not like board boards, public boards. Although I would like to at some point.

24:57 KW: So how do you do all of it? I tend to use these as therapy sessions and so I'm asking...

25:02 WJ: Oh okay. Your children are still young, right?

25:05 KW: Mm-hmm.

25:06 WJ: Your oldest is seven?

25:07 KW: Yeah.

25:07 WJ: Okay, so you're in a complete different stage of life. What I would say to you is, that when our children were young, and I think this is important for people who are listening. My husband is actually an academic. He got his PhD from Columbia, but when our kids were eight and four, my husband came home. He was a full-time lead parent as Anne-Marie Slaughter would say for 10 years. So the way I did it all is that I had a husband who was completely managing things at home, and so I think that that probably makes it seem like I'm less superhuman than it might've appeared. 'Cause I'm not. Now, what's interesting is that last year, or a year and a half ago with our son. So we have a son who's now 20 years who's on a mission in Brazil for our church and then a daughter who's 16 who's a sophomore in high school. And a year and a half ago my husband said "it's time. It's time for me to go back to work." Well, what's interesting is that it's difficult for women to on-ramp although there are things like iRelaunch out there.

26:10 WJ: It's an order of magnitude more difficult for men 'cause people think, "What's wrong." Even though he had his PhD from Columbia. Even though he'd been an assistant professor at UMass Medical School. He had a paper in "Nature." But here's where the network for him kicked in. And through people saying, "Great credentials," he had a network, he was able to get a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college in Virginia which is why we moved. Why we disrupted our lives last year and moved from Boston to Virginia. So I think the answer is you don't do it all. You make choices and you do the best you can and I think what I would say when it comes to our children, and this is something that I've learned and through therapy has helped as well, is that our children just need to know that they're safe and that we really love them. And if they know that, then... And we put the relationship with them first, it will all work out.

27:13 KW: Yeah. I bring my son to work with me quite a bit actually when he's off school, and I brought my three year old to work for the first time on election day. I thought it was gonna have a different meaning when I brought her into the office that day, but for me I want them to see where I am. "When I'm not with you, this is where I am." And I want them to be proud of that and to recognize that and understand that. I've also learned to outsource as much as I can. I'm a little bit of a control freak.

27:41 WJ: Because you're a good planner.

27:42 KW: Yes, yeah I think they go hand in hand. And just I don't need to do the laundry. I don't need to do the grocery shopping. And to ask. So I outsource as much as I can and I ask. I for a long time would just... Even in the workplace as well and I think this is a big part about being a good leader, is you tend to just do things because you can and you know how to and you need to step back from that and say, "Alright, you do this. If you don't know, I'll teach you." So I say to my husband, "You have to get all the birthday gifts for the parties from now on." This person has to do that. Just ask because we take it all on ourself.

28:19 WJ: Yeah, and delegation is actually a great example of stepping back to grow 'cause you grow when you delegate and the people who work for you grow.

28:27 KW: Yeah, absolutely. So you have a great social media presence. You were top Twitter...

28:34 WJ: Oh yes. I was... Let's see. 55 women to follow on Twitter according to Fortune in 2014. Not that I remember the data at all.

28:43 KW: So I would love to talk briefly about personal brand. I had recently given a presentation on personal brand and the first question that came back after it was, "Well doesn't that seem boastful? Doesn't that seem conceited?"

29:01 WJ: What did you say?

29:02 KW: I said, "No. I think a big part of it is your brand has to be reflective of who you are and so where it could seem boastful is if you're not being authentic. It's incredibly powerful. It's one of your most powerful tools." What would you say?

29:17 WJ: I think it all goes to motive. We're all now in our world that is continually being disrupted. We're all free agents and you maximize your value in the marketplace when you have a personal brand. Whether you work at a company or not. If that's being boastful, then that's being boastful, but I agree with you. If you're being authentic to yourself. But really when you think about a personal brand, what does it really mean? It means what do you believe? What do you stand for? What do you know how to do? And being able to attach a label to it. And if you know all those things then again you maximize your value, and I think that, that is... We're working because we're trying to put food on the table. Yes, we work because we love to work and we want to experience a satisfaction of a job well done. But we're also working 'cause we wanna put food on the table, and you do that by being very clear on what your value proposition is.

30:27 KW: Before we go, I would love it if you could just share how we can find your book.

30:31 WJ: It's available in some bookstores but most of us don't buy books in bookstores anymore. You just go on Amazon or Barnes and Noble and you can order it off of those sites. And you can also get it in audible if you prefer to listen to books, And then my podcast, you can go to SoundCloud or to my website,

30:50 KW: Perfect. Well, thanks so much.

30:51 WJ: Thank you.


31:00 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on twitter @ellevateNTWK. That's Ellevate Network and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network dot com. And special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller. She rocks. And to our voice over artist, Rachel Greisinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.