Every month, we sit down with transformational leaders and thinkers to discuss hot topics in rewards and recognition, employee engagement, HR, and leadership.
MEET WHITNEY JOHNSON
Whitney Johnson is the CEO of human capital consultancy WLJ Advisors, an Inc. 5000 2020 fastest-growing private company in America. One of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (#14) as named by Thinkers50, Whitney is an expert at helping executive leaders accelerate organization growth by activating high performing individuals and teams. Having worked at Fortune 100 companies, been an award-winning equity analyst on Wall Street, invested with Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, and coached alongside the renowned Marshall Goldsmith, Whitney understands how companies work, how investors think, and how the best coaches coach — all of which she brings to her work in coaching CEOs and C-Suite executives. She is the author of the bestselling Build an A Team (Harvard Business Press), was a LinkedIn Top Voice in 2020 with over 1.8 million followers, and hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself podcast.
LET’S JUMP INTO THE INTERVIEW
We know there is a symbiotic relationship between high growth organizations and high growth individuals. How do you assess whether your current talent pool and culture is what you need to take your business into high growth?
To start, let’s go back to our operating premises. The fundamental unit of growth in any organization is the individual. The first question you must ask yourself is, are the people on my team growing? The way we think about it is that everyone is on an S curve of learning, including you.
You start at the bottom, grasping for knowledge to accelerate, and then move into a sweet spot on the proverbial S curve. You start to master whatever it is you were trying to do. And then, you’ve got to jump to the bottom of a new S curve. So you learn, you leap, and repeat.
One of the first things you want to do in your assessment is to recognize that everyone is on an S curve. Where are my people on that S curve? If they are at the launching off point, the sweet spot, or at the high end, what am I doing to help them build momentum along that curve? In other words, are they growing? Either gaining momentum, maintaining, or regaining momentum?
If, once you’ve identified where they are, that momentum has stalled, then you have a decision to make. Are you going to find a way to give them assignments, projects, or team configurations that move them back down into the sweet spot? Or are you going to have them jump to a brand new S curve?
If you can help your people grow in your organization by understanding where they are in the S curve, helping them build momentum, regardless of where they are, then you’re going to have a company that can take you where you want to go. That’s from the bottom-up perspective.
Next we have the top-down perspective, which is also a check on what you’re doing as a leader. If you take the pulse of your workforce, look for where your people are falling out. Are most of them at the launch point, in the sweet spot, or at the high end?
If you want your organization to grow even faster, meaning innovate, then you’re going to want to optimize those curves. Our research shows that you can do this by having 70% of your people in the sweet spot of that S, 15% of the launch point, and 15% at the high end.
This ensures you’ve got a mix of people at the launch point who question your processes and products or services: why do we do it like this? You have a portion of folks at the sweet spot who question too, but who know enough to also have some suggestions for what you could do differently. And at the high end, you have a portion of your people acting as the institutional memory of what you have tried and done in the past. People who can really anchor the organization.
If you want your people to grow, understand where they are on the S curve and help them build momentum. If you want your organization to grow, optimize the proportion of your workforce that sits on the three points along the S curve, with 70%, 15%, and 15%, respectively.
In your research, how do you define what individual growth is? Is that defined by promotions, i.e. broadened scope of duties? Or by depth of duties?
I think it’s all of the above. Just because a person gets a promotion does not necessarily mean that they’re growing. That’s an important thing to be aware of. You can get a promotion because you happen to be in the right place at the right time. You happen to have the right conversations at the right time, but you’re not necessarily growing.
I actually have a hypothesis. If you think about this S curve, sometimes what happens is when people start to show promise or potential, they move into the sweet spot and then they start thinking, well, I could get more money. I could get a promotion. Or leadership thinks you’re good, and taps you for the promotion. Then that person jumps to the bottom of the new S curve. Many people do this over and over again.
Sometimes it leads to arrested development where they don’t actually grow — they are simply getting more promotions. A promotion may be an indicator that they’re growing, more money may be an indicator that they’re growing, but I think the way we actually know that someone is growing is that they are continuing to contribute. They are happy in the role that they’re in. That’s how you know they’re growing.
What do you think is the biggest pitfall that leaders typically encounter when thinking about investing in their people?
One of them we just alluded to: moving a productive person out of the sweet spot too quickly. It’s not ideal to promote them and make them do something new. Better to let them play out the full cycle, or the season they are in.
Another mistake that managers make happens when they get a strong performer who reaches the top of their S-curve. As a manager, I’m motivated to keep them right where they are. I want them to keep on performing at that level, forever.
But one of the things that we forget is that while people are not machines, we are in fact “learning machines”. We want to not know how to do something, figure it out, master it, and start all over again.
One of the big mistakes that leaders and managers make is to keep a high-performing employee doing the same thing, over and over again. Here is what’s going to happen: that person is either going to leave, or they’re going to stay and start to underperform. You lose the high performer either way due to that inherent drive to learn and relearn how to perform in new and different ways.
You work with a lot of successful companies. How have they adapted their strategies to maintain employee engagement in 2020?
The leaders are thinking that this is something we’re going to do together, and we’re going to learn in the process. Back to the idea of the S curve: we’ve all been pushed to this brand new curve. In many respects, I don’t know any more than you do, but I am the leader and I am supposed to have a plan. One person that I coach is the Dean of the Marriott School at BYU, a top 20 business school. One of the things that she did right when COVID began is that she started communicating every couple of days, and then communicating every day, and then communicating some more. I think one of the things that people have done to adapt is they have just talked out loud. “Here is what we’re seeing. Here is what I’m learning. Tell me what you’re learning.”
Think about any time you’ve seen a movie where people are scared or afraid. What do the people in charge do? They talk to them. Say you’re getting blood drawn. What does the nurse do? They distract you or comfort you by talking to you so that you’re not as afraid. That’s one thing that great companies, and certainly this individual that I coach has done a very good job of. At times it probably feels like it’s over-communicating.
Another thing that I saw that I thought was interesting is the big sense of loss around not being able to do things in person. Especially for extroverts, they want to have that human contact. But companies that have adapted have asked what they can do virtually that we couldn’t do physically.
What does that mean? For instance, events where everybody can now be in the chat and can converse. I work with a company where they had a virtual cook-off between the CHRO and the CEO. What does that do? It allows people to see their C-Suite executives in their own homes and feel a sense of personal connection that they may not have actually ever felt before.
Another company we work with, called Weave, has doubled down on their coaching. They know that they are growing fast and instead of cutting back on everything they are investing in coaching because they know that if their people are growing, their organization grows.
What do workplaces need right now, to grow their cultures and have their people grow as well?
Workplaces need to recognize that, when asked “How are you feeling given the pandemic?” 25% of people surveyed in a Boston Globe survey said that they’ve never been more scared in their life. We all feel a heightened sense of uncertainty. Even for people who aren’t experiencing this personally, everybody knows someone who is. Everyone is impacted by this.
What do companies need? What do organizations need? Well, if you’re going to thrive in disruption, the only way that you actually do that is by learning to disrupt yourself. If you can push to a new S curve, what are you going to do to disrupt yourself on that new S curve?
Those disruptions can be simple micro-actions. What different things are you going to try every day? We have a 7-point framework for personal disruption. You may have several constraints. The question is, how am I going to use these constraints? Lack of time, lack of money, lack of resources.
More broadly, people need to feel like they’re in charge of their S curve, that there is some sense of autonomy. But they also need time to rest, and most importantly, need permission to rest and unplug to take care of their mental health.
What would you challenge our readers to do differently or to take action on, so that this interview goes beyond this page?
I would encourage you to visit scurvelocator.com and actually figure out where you are in your S-curve. Have people on your team take our “S Curve of Learning Diagnostic” and identify where they are. If you’re a team leader or even just a peer of folks on your team, ask your colleagues what you can do to help them build momentum. You can even ask your boss and actually help them move along their S-curve as well! Identify where you are or where your colleagues are, and ask yourself, what is something concrete you can do for one person to help them either gain, maintain, rebuild, or regain momentum on their S curve.
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