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Building an A-Team, with Whitney Johnson

Building an A-Team, with Whitney Johnson

Episode 110: Building an A-Team, with Whitney Johnson

As one of the top thought leaders in business innovation, Whitney Johnson has reshaped the way we think about professional development. Whitney’s latest book, Build an A-Team, looks at how bosses can create an ever-improving and engaged team. In this episode, Whitney talks about the thought process and research behind her book as well as what it means to disrupt yourself.

Episode Transcript

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. How's it going, Maricella?

00:21 Maricella Herrera: Good.

00:22 KW: Today is a big day on the Ellevate Podcast, because we have our first repeat guest that does not work at Ellevate Network.

00:30 MH: Yep.

00:31 KW: Yes.

00:32 MH: It really is the first time we have someone twice.

00:35 KW: I was gonna say our first repeat guest, but Sallie has been on a few times, so... But Whitney Johnson, who is our guest today, you may remember her from an earlier podcast, where she talks a lot about this S-curve, and how that really helps us to gain a better understanding of where we are in our careers, and our lives, and the things that we can do to continue moving forward and taking that jump going to the next phase. But she's coming out with a new book that moves further along this conversation of how we can build teams that are at different stages along that curve, and how you can really be a strong leader and manager for those teams.

01:14 MH: Yeah, I'm excited to read the book, to be honest. I've been eyeing it and following her newsletter. And I think it's fascinating, where we are as a company, it's very applicable of our team growing and how things are moving along. So I can't wait to see what Whitney says.

01:32 KW: I know you stole the book from my desk.


01:34 MH: I might have done that.


01:37 KW: But it is, and as you grow a company, you spend so much time thinking about where people are in their careers, if you're more junior, mid-level, more senior, but this aspect of where people are within the S-curve in their current job within the organization, can help identify so many opportunities. Is someone new to the role? And so, they're really on that up-ramp and learning. Are they feeling strong in the role and being a little bit more creative and innovative, or are they getting bored? Have they reached the pinnacle, and it's less of a challenge? And so, knowing that really can also help to understand what are the ways we engage employees depending on where they are in that curve to retain them within the workforce, to continue to challenge them with new opportunities, and to really mobilize our workforce towards better all-around impact.

02:33 MH: Yep, engagement, engagement. We've been talking about that a lot. We've been hearing about it.

02:38 KW: The buzzword. [chuckle]

02:39 MH: Yeah, a lot...

02:40 KW: 2018.

02:41 MH: But it's true, though. If you see someone who's not engaged, they're not happy at what they're doing, they're bored, they're not gonna be successful, and you want to make people be the most successful they can be.

02:54 KW: Yes, you do. Agreed, agreed.

02:56 MH: Yep.

02:57 KW: We're so aligned.


03:00 MH: We... Actually, I do have a poll that is related to this. We asked our community what matters the most when it comes to keeping employees engaged, and it is kind of related to what you were saying; feedback and open communication that goes both ways is number one at 21%, which I think is part of that understanding when people are in what part of that S-curve, and having that open dialogue. Showing that they have a clear career path is the second one with 19% of responses; opportunities to learn and build new skills, 18%; recognition, 16%; salary and rewards goes all the way down here with 14%.

03:44 KW: Interesting.

03:45 MH: Yep.

03:46 KW: And it makes sense, no matter how much money you make, if you feel lack of recognition, lack of communication, lack of challenge, then you kind of... You're bored, or you're unhappy. So the other things, it's really... It's very nuanced in that way.

04:05 MH: Yep. And for everyone that thinks that it's about the perks and the snacks, not that I'm saying anything wrong about the snacks...

04:11 KW: It doesn't hurt.

04:13 MH: It doesn't hurt.

04:14 KW: It doesn't hurt to have perks and snacks.


04:16 MH: But it's not the main thing. Actually, our community voted that just under 3% of the responses. So it was interesting.

04:24 KW: Very interesting. Alright. Well, let's get to my conversation with Whitney. So excited for all of you to hear this, Whitney part two.


04:43 KW: I am excited to welcome our guest today, Whitney Johnson, who is, I believe, the first Ellevate Podcast guest to make a repeat performance or repeat visit to our podcast. Whitney, thanks for coming back to chat with us.

05:01 Whitney Johnson: Thank you for having me. That's a pretty kind of fun honor, actually.

05:06 KW: Well, and I'm really excited because we started... We were catching up, and we were talking, you and I, about your new book that's coming out, which we're gonna hear more about in the interview, and you always have such amazing insights that I think are relevant to everybody; business leaders, employees, business owners. And hearing about some of this new work that you're doing, I was like, we have to share this, we have to give you that platform to get that message out there because it's important. And for me, personally, I've certainly learned a lot, and every time I talk to you, it's an important part of self-reflection that helps me to continue to evolve and to develop as a person and a professional. So I am honored that you're back with us and we can share this with everyone in the community.

05:55 WJ: Oh, thank you. I'm super excited for... I loved it last time we spoke, so I'm super excited to have another conversation.

06:01 KW: Excellent. I wanna get right into it because there's a lot of good stuff here. You're coming out with a new book, and it's called "Build an A-Team". Can you just start off telling us a little bit about what this is, and then we can delve into really how this ties to your previous work, and what this looks like moving forward?

06:24 WJ: Let me maybe set this up by telling a story that I think really captures why this book... Just two weeks ago, or a couple of weeks ago, it was Monday morning, one of my CEO clients calls me urgently to tell me that one of his key people had just left. And he was saying, "I know she wants a job closer to home, she's been commuting for an hour, this new job's five minutes away, she has five children, so I get it. There's a piece of me that it's completely logical. But as she was sitting across the table from me, I had this feeling that she doesn't like working here, and she doesn't like working for me." And I don't think that his experience is that atypical. I think we all want to be a great boss, and there's this feeling inside of us that worries that maybe we aren't.

07:20 WJ: I know I've definitely felt that way. You wanna be this great boss, you want this place where people can bring their dreams to work. It's part of the reason you are in business, if you've started a business, or just, you like to work, you wanna make it possible for people to grow and develop. But now that you're in it and you're really trying to get things done, and you're trying to ship a product, and you have deadlines and budgets to meet, there's this sense or this feeling like, "I need people right where they are, doing what they've always done," and then you've suddenly become that boss, that boss that no one wants and no one likes. And it should not need to be this way.

07:56 WJ: And so what I've learned, having been a stock analyst on Wall Street, and then co-founding the investment firm with Clayton Christensen, is that this theory of disruption, so I'm tying it back to the first book, that we apply to products and services, is at a high level, a theory that can be applied to people. And so the last five years, I've spent researching and codifying this framework of personal disruption, so that whether you're scaling a business or building a team, which is what we're talking about today, or just trying to manage your life, you've got this structure to do this. And when you allow, encourage, or require the people who work for you to disrupt themselves, when you let them learn, and then leap, and then repeat, they are happy, and they're all-in. And so, as a consequence, you're not only shipping more product, you're going to become a talent magnet; a place where people want to work, and a boss people wanna work for.

08:50 KW: I'm excited to dig into this deeper, and in part, because actually that is... It's a personal experience that I had when I was at a previous company, and every time I started to feel like I didn't have anything else to learn, I was starting to get a little complacent or bored, they... I had a great manager at the time, and he would move me into a new role or add a new challenge or give me different experiences that really kept me engaged. And I felt like, "Okay," then you're back on that S-curve, you're back learning. And when you're talking about from both sides, how do you, as the employee, start to see that in yourself and find the channels to continue to disrupt and get excited? And how do you, as the manager, as the boss, start to recognize that in your employees and be more proactive about supporting them in that journey? I know you have all the answers. Where do we begin with this?


09:54 WJ: Where do we start? The first thing that I would say is, I hope that you'll get a copy of this book and send it to that boss and say, "Thank you." 'Cause when a boss... Because of the way our organizations are set up and structured, bosses tend to... Their willingness to allow their people to learn, leap and repeat, to disrupt themselves, does sometimes come at a cost to them. And so I do hope that... It's a short-term cost, but there is a cost, and long-term, there are huge dividends. But I hope that you'll say "Thank you" to this boss. Where do we start? Well, let's go back, a quick recap of the S-curve or the learning curve. When I was working with Clayton Christensen developing this Disruptive Innovation Fund, we were using the S-curve that was popularized by EM Rogers in 1962 to help you figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopted.

10:45 WJ: And then I had this big "a-ha" that this learning curve that we were applying to products also apply to people. And so, if everybody who's listening right now can picture this S in their mind, picture the base of an S, and that's when you first introduce a product, and the X-axis is time, and so time is passing and nothing is happening. And then once you reach 10%-15% penetration of the market, if it's the right learning curve, or excuse me, the right curve, you accelerate into hyper-growth, and then you're there until you reach 90% or saturation, and then the growth tapers off. Well, the big "a-ha" that came was that this is also... This S-curve helps us understand disruption, it helps us understand change, it helps us understand the psychology around change and learning.

11:33 WJ: And so as an individual in a role inside of a company, and this is something that you intuited, and your boss did too, is you're going to start a new role, you're gonna be at the bottom of a learning curve, you're going to be very inexperienced, and if you're working 40 hours a week, that's going to last somewhere between six months and a year. And then as you put in all of that practice, think about the 10,000-hour rule, you're going to eventually accelerate into competence on the steep, sleek back of that S, where everyday, three or four Ys happening, you're just growing really quickly. This is the exciting part of the curve, and this is where you're feeling like you can do anything, and you got lots of opportunities. And then you've reached the top of the curve, again, flattens out, this plateau, where things are now super easy for you, but because you're no longer learning, you get bored.

12:25 WJ: And so when you get bored, you either leave an organization, what you said in your experience, you were thinking about doing, but your boss sends this and he's like, "Well, she could leave. She's super talented. She could get bored and complacent, which is really bad for me, and bad for her, frankly, so I'm just going to encourage her to disrupt herself and do something new." And so that plays out six months to a year at the low end, where you feel you're inexperienced, you feel discouraged, then you get to the sweet spot, two to three years, where you feel competent and it's fun, and in six months to a year at the high end, where you're saturated in terms of your learning, you start to get bored. And if you're smart as an organization, and if you want to really build a great team, and I'll talk more about that in just a second, you allow the people to jump to the new learning curve.

13:13 KW: There's a part of your book, and I had the great honor of receiving an advanced copy, so thank you, that personally resonated with me, which is around predictability and the comfort of that, and how comfortable it is to know what the future looks like, because then you know if the risks you take will pay off, and then that's safer. And there's this one line that says, "But control is an illusion," and that just was like, "Yes, it is," but that's one of the biggest challenges because we all want to... "Okay, I'm at the top of that, of the S-curve, and I'm feeling complacent, I'm feeling bored, and I wanna try something new, but I am scared to death to do that." And so we feel like we want to be in control, but then there's other forces that may push us off the curve, or may impact us in different ways. Can you talk a little bit more about predictability and control and the forces in our lives?

14:16 WJ: Yeah. Like you said, you captured it perfectly; control is an illusion, and if you think about this idea of getting to the top of a learning curve, you're at the top and you think, "Wow, this is fantastic, this is a plateau, I just wanna stay here," and then you realize that if you try to stay there, your plateau will become a precipice. And so the predictability that we can count on is that, in fact, if you don't jump, you're going to get pushed off. And so I think one of the ways that we can understand this or think about this is say to ourselves, "Okay, because of the way that life, because of the cycles of growth and decay, because of how they work, you're either, at any given moment, disrupting or being disrupted." And so you can bank on that. There's certain predictability about that. And so when you're aware of that, you can say to yourself, "Alright, I'm at the top of a curve and now I have a choice. I can jump or I can be pushed. So which do I choose?"

15:19 WJ: And the way that you can help yourself get through that, because we sometimes think about jumping and think, "Wee, this is gonna be so fun," but most of us aren't motivated that way. Most of us don't want to bungee jump. Most of us don't want to pack a parachute and parachute. Most of us are motivated by the fact of, "If I stay here, what bad thing will happen to me?" And so I think that's one of the ways that we can motivate ourselves when we're sort of saying, "Alright, I want it to be predictable. I know it's predictable in the sense that if I don't jump, I'll get pushed. And so I'm gonna motivate myself to jump, not by saying how exciting it's gonna be if I do," 'cause that actually doesn't motivate us, "but instead, I'm gonna motivate myself by saying something bad to me will happen, like I could get fired if I don't go out and figure out how to reinvent myself inside of this organization and make myself relevant today, as relevant today as I was two or three years ago."

16:16 KW: Flipping this back on business leader or manager point of view, there's a part of the book where you talk about the... And you mentioned it earlier in our conversation, which is this 15-70-15 ratio of employees that are the bottom of the curve, that 15% through to really in the hyper-growth, and then up 15 at the top. And that I found so interesting because oftentimes as... We think in different shapes, as business leaders. You may be thinking in terms of the pyramid, and what is the breakdown versus entry level hires to mid-level to senior, but when you start to think more in terms of building this A-team and where people are on that S-curve, it takes on a different life of its own in a different perspective.

17:11 WJ: I love how you framed that, Kristy. You're saying there's this diversity, or I'm saying that there is a diversity of how people are thinking, so it's not necessarily of tenure inside the company, but where are your people on the learning curve, and that's how you're going to get the most out of a team.

17:30 KW: You mentioned also in the book about millennials, and how the millennial workforce tends to jump around a lot, from job to job. Is that... Especially as we're looking at the life cycle of your career within a company and how you learn and how you grow, is that almost self-destructive? Are you jumping too quickly before you can fully realize your potential and learn from that, and grow from that experience?

17:55 WJ: Well, a couple of things there. One of the things that has been found is that millennials don't necessarily want to job-hop. They would actually like to stay in a company for a long time, which is really interesting. It tells you that, at least to me, it indicates that they're job-hopping because, for a couple of reasons, but one possible reason is that they're not learning. And so they're saying, "You know what, I don't need to feel a sense of loyalty. I want to be somewhere where I can learn, and so I am going to shop around for a boss who will allow me to learn." That would be the first thing I would say. On the other side of that... And this is something that's very interesting.

18:38 WJ: Not too long ago, we administered our S-curve locator at an event, a Silicon Slopes event in Salt Lake City, Utah, where it's a tech event, and one of the things that we found is that people were actually disrupting themselves too quickly, in part because it's a hot job market, and this happens sometimes, and I think this goes to your point; when you're in a hot job market, sometimes because you're considered so valuable, you start at the bottom of the curve, you just start to climb into the sweet spot, and then you jump to a new curve. And so you're not having this opportunity to develop and to gain traction. So the short answer to your question is, when you get to the top of a curve, you need to jump, but there are times where you can be precipitous and jump too quickly.

19:22 KW: You've just... Such great advice here today. I'm learning a great deal. I do subscribe to your newsletter and follow you on social media. You're always at the forefront of this thought leadership around business and innovation and disruption. What are some of the other things you're thinking about that's keeping you up?

19:40 WJ: That's a great question. Well, I don't know that this qualifies as being on the forefront of innovation, but I suppose it qualifies on being on the forefront of personal disruption in terms of, this is something that I've been thinking a lot about. I, over in January, actually the end of last year, thanks to Dan Pink who I had interviewed on my podcast and had been getting more familiar with what he had coming out in terms of his new book, found that he uses this app called 1 Second Everyday, and I thought, "You know what, I'm gonna experiment with this, because I've never been a picture taker, and I've never... " They talk about your children, how the second and third and fourth children, we all feel like our parents don't love us 'cause the first child, there's 10 pictures for every one picture. Well, we don't even have pictures of our first child. So I am not a picture taker. But I thought, "You know what, I'm gonna do this, I wanna do this."

20:35 WJ: Well, so I start taking pictures, and then I realize, "You know what, I'm not in any of the pictures." And you can't really have this visual journal for 360 days if you're not in any of the pictures. And so I thought, "Alright, I've gotta start putting myself into the pictures, but I don't like how I look in pictures, so I've gotta figure out a way [chuckle] to like how I look in those pictures." And so I started experimenting, and lo and behold, as I experimented, I found that I liked how I looked better. And that was a really interesting insight for me, because I think that we tend to think... You think about... I watch the show Fixer Upper, and we all like Instagram, and those rooms or those photographs that are taken, they don't take them from any old angle; they experiment until they find the right angle. And that was important in terms of what angle or what perspective am I taking in terms of how I see myself, but also what perspective am I taking when I look at how I see the people I work with, how I see my family?

21:32 WJ: But the other thing that I think has been even more important for me is that by forcing myself to be in those pictures, to put myself in those images, there's been this slight mental shift of moving from being an observer to a participant, and then even beyond that to, as I put myself in these images that I want to record, I'm putting myself in situations, in places with people that I want to see myself as. And so I am, in effect, putting myself into the picture, both literally and figuratively. And so that, I think, is a really important element of personal disruption. Personal disruption, at its essence, is this willingness to disrupt ourselves every single day and to iterate and to improve the current version or to have a new version of you. And so that's something that I've been thinking about, and for me, it's been a really important insight.

22:30 KW: I definitely want to try that as well. It's easy to just go... Keep going full force day-to-day without stopping. And so everything you just said there, I'm gonna... As soon as we get off the podcast, I'm gonna [chuckle] go download that app and start really thinking putting myself into that picture.

22:48 WJ: When you said that, Kristy, the thought that I had is that there's been a lot of talk about women having a seat at the table and in the boardroom, and I think that, I just... I believe, this is my hunch as we're talking about this, that if we will put ourselves in the picture, we will do a better job of putting ourselves at the table. Sometimes we're left out, absolutely, but I think there are a lot of times when we leave ourselves out. And so I think the small mental shift, this micro action, will make a difference for many of us.


23:22 KW: Thank you, Whitney. That is excellent. Again, thanks for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast.

23:28 WJ: Thank you for having me.


23:33 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 follow us on Twitter at 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 And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.