How to grow your people to grow your company

This episode is with Whitney Johnson – CEO of Disruption Advisors and one of the 10 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. She’s an award-winning author, a world-class keynote speaker, and an executive coach and advisor to CEOs. In this episode we talk about the concepts in her latest book – Smart Growth: How to grow your people to grow your company. Find out how the S-Curve applied to the people in your team can help keep them fully engaged, improve employee retention, and ultimately drive company growth.

LINKS

You’re listening to The Growth Manifesto Podcast, a Zoom video series brought to you by Webprofits – a digital growth consultancy that helps global and national businesses attract, acquire, and retain customers through digital marketing.

Hosted by Alex Cleanthous.

SHOW NOTES

  • 00:00:22 Whitney Johnson introduction to the Growth Manifesto Podcast
  • 00:01:15 Where did you get the idea of Smart Growth?
  • 00:04:49 Why is it called Great Aspiration?
  • 00:07:19 Overview of 6 stages of the S curve
  • 00:12:19 How does the S curve apply?
  • 00:22:55 How can you engage your employees with the S curve when they’re bored?
  • 00:30:21 What are your thoughts about allocating 60% of the team in the sweet spot rather than 100%?
  • 00:34:13 Alex explains that being proactive in your company and helping your team to grow is a great way to achieve success.
  • 00:37:25 What are some other things to watch out for as a part of this process?
  • 00:39:00 What are your suggestions or recommendations that people can do when they are in transition?
  • 00:48:09 Whitney explained that when something’s new, we feel we need to understand how it works but it is not really necessary because you just need to know how to use it.
  • 00:51:26 How do people get in touch with you?

TRANSCRIPT

Whitney Johnson:

What I believe is happening is people are looking at their life, they’re saying, “I want more. I want something different. I want something better.” They’re aspiring to more. So it’s the motivation. It’s not the great resignation. It’s the great aspiration.

Alex Cleanthous:

This is Alex Cleanthous, and today, we’re talking with Whitney Johnson. She’s the CEO of Disruption Advisors, and she’s one of the 10 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers 50. She’s an award-winning author. She’s a world class keynote speaker, and she’s an executive coach and advisor to CEOs.

Today, we’ll be talking about the concepts in her latest book, Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. Just quickly before we get started, make sure to go ahead and hit that subscribe button so you get latest episodes as soon as they’re released. Let’s get into it. Hey, Whitney, and welcome.

Whitney Johnson:

Hi, Alex. It’s nice to be here, and I’m realizing I need to do that, too, and invite people to hit the subscribe button. So good for you because then people probably do what you tell them to do.

Alex Cleanthous:

Well, we hope that, right, but sometimes it’s just a reminder. Some people just watch content and they may miss out on the awesome content that we produce in the future. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Anyway, look, let’s get straight into it and let’s talk about Smart Growth. So where did you get the idea for Smart Growth?

Whitney Johnson:

I had written two prior books in this series, Disrupt Yourself and Build an A-Team, and in both of those books, I had talked about something called the S curve of learning. The history behind that is many of you, many of your listeners will be familiar with the S curve. It was popularized by the sociologist Everett Rogers back in the ’50s and ’60, and we used it at the Disruptive Innovation Fund that I co-founded with Clayton Christensen to figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopted. At the base of the S, the growth is slow until a tipping point is reached or near the curve and you go into hypergrowth and then you reach saturation with a product or a service, et cetera.

Well, the idea it came for me is that in both Disrupt Yourself and Build An A-Team, I used the S curve, but it was always a supporting actor, a backup singer, if you will, but as I talked to people, whether I was coaching or doing workshops or speaking, they would continually come back to the S curve and they would want to talk more about the S curve, and I started to realize that disruption, which is something that I was talking about most of the time was the mechanism by which we grow, but what people really wanted was this map of what growth looks like, and the S curve, the aha that I had was that it wasn’t just about a product.

You could also use it to help us understand how we learn and how we grow and that whenever you start something new, you’re at the base of that S and then you eventually, as you put the effort, you move into the sweet spot of your growth, and we can talk more about this in a minute, but then you reach mastery and you’ve gotten very good at something and then you start all over again.

So the reason for this book was that people wanted to understand it and I hadn’t really done a deep dive on the idea. So this is my attempt to do a very deep dive, make this the leading singer of, “Here’s the map. Here’s what growth looks like. It traces the emotional arc of growth,” and once you know how you grow, then you can increase your capacity to grow.

Alex Cleanthous:

You should see what’s the feeling inside me right now. The feeling is I’m getting very excited about this, right? Because what’s interesting is that a lot of people will question themselves, right? And we’re going to be speaking about this a fair bit, but about their passion on something or now they may start to feel a bit bored, right? And then there’s leaders who are thinking, “How do I support the team the most?” right? And there’s been all these things that are kind of like around, you know, speaking to the team, supporting them, actually how they’re managed, but there’s not a lot that talk about the detail of the skill-based approach, right? We’re going to get into this, but it seems that this book has been written at a pretty opportune time because since 2020, with all the changes happening in the world, some people call it the great resignation, you referenced it as the great aspiration, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

So what seems to be happening is that, you know, like it seems that since 2020, the work has come to the fore, right? So before, there was company culture and there was other things and we’d travel and, you know, like there’d be a place to go, and sometimes that place would balance maybe the passion of the job wasn’t there and the fulfillment. So I think this book seems to really touch on this part of it, right? So could you just speak about the reason it’s called the great aspiration and not the great resignation because I just thought that was a really interesting perspective.

Whitney Johnson:

Absolutely. Yeah. So as you were saying, we’re in this really unusual time, and I think that there’s a huge opportunity for us because what psychologists have found is that any period of severe stress like a pandemic leads oftentimes to tremendous growth and they call it post-traumatic growth.

And so we have this period where people were doing a lot of reflecting on, “What do I want in my life, in my career?” We were all on an S curve and we were pushed off the S curve that we were on onto a new one. Whether we liked the old one or not, we were all on a new one, but what happened is that we started to build this muscle of, “Oh, I just got disrupted, but I actually know how to disrupt myself. I realized that I’m pretty good at this, and as I’ve had to reconfigure my life because of circumstances, I’ve noticed that there are some things that I want more of and the other things that I want less of, and I want a better, more well-rounded life.”

And so as I look at what’s happening in the world, and I understand that there is burnout and there have been some very difficult things happen, I also believe that in many instances, what people are doing when they’re resigning from work, they’re not giving up. We are not giving up. So to resign is like, “Oh, people are giving up. They think they can’t do it anymore.”

What I believe is happening is people are looking at their life. They’re saying, “I want more. I want something different. I want something better.” They’re aspiring to more. So it’s the motivation. It’s not the great resignation. It’s the great aspiration.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. I think that’s a fantastic point because it puts the role up front and center, right? So now it’s like, “Well, am I just loving the work that I’m doing?” I think this conversation is going to be pretty interesting because there’s quite a lot of people who work from home now, right? Zoom is the standard and in between Zoom is the work, and then, you know, it’s ensuring that there’s something there that they can go towards, but let’s jump straight into the S curve specifics, right? Because you talk about the six stages. Are you able to just quickly provide a quick overview in terms of the six stages of the S curve, please?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah, absolutely. So I know I kind of glossed over this earlier, so let me do a little bit of a primer and then we’ll go into the six stages. So you asked me earlier why I wrote this book. Another reason I wrote this book is I’d made this what some might argue was a vast intuitive leap of applying this not just to products but to individuals. Part of the purpose of this book was to look at the neuroscience, to look at the biology, to look at the psychology and make sure that the research backed up my hypothesis, and in fact, it does.

And so whenever you start something new, you start a new job, you start a new role, you start a new day, your brain has this hypothesis about, “What is it going to take for me to be successful here? What’s it going to take for me to get to the top of the mountain?”

And so when you first start something, you’re at the launch point of the curve. So that’s the first phase. Your brain is making a lot of predictions, many of which are inaccurate, and so your dopamine drops. So as your dopamine is dropping, you’re also in this place where you’re trying to figure out, you’re trying to map the terrain that you’re on, look at what the base of this mountain looks like. So your brain is literally making memories. It is therefore cognitively very taxing. So you’re exhausted.

And oh, by the way, you’re doing this new thing so your identity is like, “Well, who am I if I’m not who I was?” So that’s the launch point of the curve. Now, on the launch point of the curve, I talk about two different phases. There’s the explorer phase, and then there’s the collector phase. The explorer phase is, “Hey, I landed on this curve. I didn’t expect to be here or I did expect to be here, but now I have to decide do I want to stay here.”

And so you’re exploring, you’re asking yourself questions like, “Is this curve in sync with my identity? Is it hard but not too hard?” and just, “Do I want to do this?” And you’re exploring, and then you’re going to make a decision, “No. Actually, I don’t. I’m going to go find another curve because I got pushed here so I’m going to go do something new,” but you might decide, “Yeah, I do want to stay here.” And so now, you go to the collector phase. If you’re thinking about products just like the product market fit, “Yes, it’s the product that I want,” but the collector phase is, “Is there a market fit?” like “Yeah, I want to be on this curve, but in fact, will it work?”

So I can decide, “I want to be a UFC fighter,” right? I might want to do that. It might be in sync with the identity that I aspire to have, but the ecosystem is probably not working in my favor. There’s probably not a great product market fit. So I’ll collect the data, the quantitative data, the qualitative data, and probably decide, “No, that’s not going to work,” or “Yeah, let’s do this.”

So that’s the launch point. The emotional part of this curve is that you’re going to feel thrilled. You’re going to feel terrified. You’re going to feel overwhelmed, discouraged, impatient. So again, I talked about the emotional arc of growth. All of those things are happening at the launch point of the curve. So that helps you when you do something new and you’re having all those feelings to say, “Oh, this doesn’t mean that I can’t be good at it. It just means that I’m doing something new.”

All right. So everybody, we want to Zoom back out. We’re going to go back to the major part. We talked about the launch point. We dove into that, but now we’re going to go to the sweet spot. So here’s what’s happening in the sweet spot. So in your mind you want to picture the steep, sleek part of the curve, and in the sweet spot, what’s happening is your brain is running that predictive model, and your predictions are now becoming increasingly accurate, and as they’re increasingly accurate, you’re getting lots of dopamine, lots of upside surprises, and so you’re like, “This is amazing. I love being here.” You feel exhilarated. You feel this thing of it’s hard but not too hard, it’s easy but not too easy.

And this is the place unlike at the launch point where growth was happening, but it felt slow because of all those experiences you were having. And the sweet spot growth is fast and it feels fast. So that’s the second part of the curve, and that’s why at the launch point, it’s hard to get started. In the sweet spot, once you get started, it’s hard to stop.

And then in mastery, this is the third part of the curve, your predictive model, you’ve figured it out, you know exactly what you’re doing, but you’re no longer getting dopamine, you’re bored, you need a challenge. Growth now has become slow. So you’ve got slow at the launch point, fast in the sweet spot, slow in mastery. That is how you grow. It traces the emotional arc of growth, and when you understand what it looks like, then you know where you are, you know what’s next.

Alex Cleanthous:

Thank you for that. So you have basically the two stages per section, right?

Whitney Johnson:

Correct.

Alex Cleanthous:

So for the beginning, there’s the explorer and the collector. As for the sweet spot, it’s the accelerator and the metamorph, and then for the mastery, it’s anchor and mountaineer, right? Is this curve, is it the same for every skill or is it the same for every specific role or per responsibility area? So where can this task curve apply?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. So no theory or framework is foolproof, but what I have found is as a starting point to think about growth and development, it works really well. Of course, there are going to be things that you’re going to tweak it. So for example, if you’re studying to be a neurosurgeon, you might get the launch point longer than if you’re figuring out how to work at McDonald’s, but as a starting point of there’s the launch point, there’s the sweet spot, and there’s master, yes, there might be different durations depending on what you’re doing, but you will find once you have this map in your head, as I said at the outset, it can apply to your life. It can apply to a day. It can apply to a project. And so use that as your starting point and then tweak it depending on the circumstances or conditions, whether you’re, like I said, trying to become a rocket scientist versus working in retail or fast food.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. It seems to be that the best performance is found in the sweet spot, but the sweet spot, it doesn’t often I guess last that long. Is that correct or not? Is that an incorrect statement because it seem like that some people could be basically in the sweet spot for their entire life, but then they might start to get a bit bored, right? So they can’t actually stay in the sweet spot, can they? Sorry. I answered my own question, but yeah. I just want to have the conversation.

Whitney Johnson:

You kind of are, but let’s tear it apart together.

Alex Cleanthous:

Please. Let’s tear it apart. Yeah.

Whitney Johnson:

So what I would say, Alex, is that the sweet spot is this place of optimized tension because it’s definitely hard but it’s no longer too hard. So at the launch point, you had too much stress, but in the sweet spot, there’s this place of optimized stress. You know enough but not too much, et cetera.

Now, you do want to stay in the sweet spot for as long as possible, and it is possible to stay in the sweet spot for a very long time, and I’ll give you an example. Garry Ridge who is the CEO of WD40, who’s a fellow Australian, he’s been the CEO for 20 years, and he’s been able to take that company from a market cap of $250 million to $3 billion significantly outperforming the S&P 500. So you say, “Well, wow, he’s been the CEO for 20 years. Is that possible because I thought he would get into mastery?”

Well, what you can do is once you start to say, “Okay. In my role, if I feel like I’m starting to move into mastery but I want to stay in this role,” for example, you’re the founder or the CEO of a business, you’re not going to go to a new curve if you continue to love it. What can you do? What projects can you take on? What launch point experiences can you put together so that as a portfolio of curves, you stay in the sweet spot?

So you might be getting into mastery. Let’s say you’ve been podcasting for five years and you’re like, “You know what? I feel like I got this and maybe I’m feeling a little bit bored. Let’s do it video now or let’s start, you know, adding live streaming or whatever.” So you continue to do things that put you at the launch point, continue to stretch you so that in aggregate, you have this balanced portfolio curves that allows you in your career or in your role to stay in the sweet spot for an extended period of time.

To answer your question, if you’re having an experience of “I’m feeling bored. I’m feeling like I’m dialing it in. I’m feeling like, ‘Hey, that’s not how we do it here,’” that’s a signal you’re in mastery, and that starts to be a danger point because your plateau can become a precipice, and the question you have to ask yourself there is, “Do I jump to something entirely new or do I actually want to be on this curve, and what do I need to do so that it is a summit not the summit?” and push yourself back into the sweet spot.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. So like if we talk about the career of somebody, right? You know, they find a job and hopefully that’s the kind of industry that they want to be in, but sometimes it’s something that we fall into. They spend a couple of years. They get past the first part and now they’re in the sweet spot, and now they’re there for a while, right? That’s the place where they start to maybe get some promotions and so on, where they start to perform above the standard across the company, I’d say, and that’s where stuff can start to get exciting, right?

Whitney Johnson:

Yup.

Alex Cleanthous:

Then they stay there for too long and they’re doing the same specific job per day every single day, and they get to a point where they just understand it completely and they’ve gotten to mastery, but they haven’t actually questioned their position on the S curve or to see if there’s a bigger S curve that they should be on, right? So they may be just are stuck in the same specific role. So that’s the challenge, right? Is like, “Cool. So I’ve done my job. I’ve basically just gotten a promotion, a raise, and all that, and I’ve just been now been doing it just for quite a long time.”

Now for the company, that’s where that staff member is going to be producing the best ROI because that’s where they’re excited and that’s where they’re performing, but then there’s the tension between the ROI for the company and the fact that the team member is going to get bored and that’s going to be potentially the great resignation or whenever that starts happening, “Hey, I’m just doing the same job every single day. I can’t see anything that’s going to shift in the future,” and that’s maybe the danger zone, right? Is that-

Whitney Johnson:

That’s absolutely right, Alex. So what happens is that you now, if you look at as a manager, you can very easily say and observe exactly what you just said is you look at an employee and you say, “Wow! They’re doing a fantastic job. They are considered a high performer. They’re killing it,” and then you look at it and you have you talk to them about what experience are they having. So we have an assessment tool that people can take. What you want to know is where do they think they are. So it doesn’t matter if I as a manager think I have an employee in the sweet spot. If they think they’re in mastery and they’re starting to get bored, and they are having the experience of feeling like they’re dialling it in, what’s going to predict their behaviour, where I think they are or where they think they are? We know the answer. That’s going to predict their behaviour.

So one of the things that we have found is, and let me just give you an example that I think will be useful in this, is having a conversation with a company called Chatbooks here in the United States. They turn Instagram books into photo books. One of the things that they did is they had us come in, they administered the insight tool because they had a number of senior executives who they thought, “They’ve been here for six or seven years. We’ve got a great culture, but I’m concerned. You know, It’s been a long time and in fact, when we administered the assessment, three out of the four were showing up or presenting in mastery.”

But then here’s what happened. Because they now had this language of this S curve, which is so simple and therefore useful, they could have a conversation. There were three very different outcomes. The first conversation went like this.

Chief marketing officer says, “Oh, that’s what’s happening. It’s not that I don’t like working for Chatbooks. It’s not that I don’t like working for you, the CEO. It’s that I’m not getting dopamine. If you look at this S curve, it’s basically a dopamine management exercise.” She’s like, “I need to do something new.”

There wasn’t a role for her. There wasn’t something new for her there. She’d been doing it for seven years. So she jumped to a new curve at another company, but because they now had this language, it was amicable. It wasn’t this sense of betrayal. It was just, “Oh, yeah. Let’s look at the data. Here’s what the data. Dopamine, data, go somewhere else.” So that was the first outcome.

The second outcome was you had a person who was the president and he was presenting in mastery, but he’d only been in the role for about a year. So what was happening? Well, he had a conversation with the CEO who had said, “I’m going to go jump to this new curve, and when I jump to this curve, you’re going to be here president in this curve all by yourself,” but the CEO hadn’t quite jumped to the new curve. So he was still doing some of the president’s job.

So the president’s like looking up and he’s saying, “Well, you told me the mountain was 10,000 feet, but it’s actually only 5,000 feet.” So it led to a conversation to rescope the roles and responsibilities so that in fact, the president had that headroom that he thought he was going to have when he became the president. So a different conversation about carving out and scoping things properly.

Third conversation was CTO taking on a bunch of new responsibilities, this idea of the portfolio that we mentioned a minute ago. He’s now doing a bunch of launch point stuff. He’s a CTO. He’s supposed to know everything and he’s feeling kind of dumb some of the time, but this gave him permission to say, “Hey, team,” portfolio of S curve, “I’m doing some new stuff. I’m going to be awkward, uncomfortable, and you might be doing some new stuff, too,” and then it makes it comfortable. It gave him permission to be at the launch point so that he could then present in the sweet spot. So that’s part of what can happen when you have people in mastery and the kinds of conversations that can take place.

Alex Cleanthous:

And the dopamine part again, because this is a super point, the dopamine part is in the middle section, in the sweet spot, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

Because in the beginning, it’s really, really hard and it’s really hard sometimes, right? Then at the top, it’s boring a little bit, right? So what’s interesting is that, and I think anyone that employs staff will basically know that the riskiest part are the people that have just started and the people that have been there for a while, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right. That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

The parting between is fine because they’re being completely engaged. It’s hard for them but not too hard, and they’re getting good feedback, they are learning, right? So this is a really good framework even having those types of conversations. In the scenario where you’re finding a person who’s part of your team, is starting to be a bit like bored, right? What’s a way to engage with them about the S curve because it’s a fantastic tool, but how do you even have the conversations about this? Because obviously, there’s a part where, it’s like a reflection on their existing role, but then there’s a part where we’re talking about the things that are next, and this is kind of, I think, so you call it the explorer, right? So now, they’re masters, but they now also have to start exploring some other areas.

Whitney Johnson:

Oh, yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

So what’s a way to do that where, I don’t know, there’s a higher chance of success that they’re going to choose the next thing?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. So first of all, any manager who has that conversation with someone on their team is going to be deemed the best boss ever, right? Because they’re basically saying to them, “I believe in you. I want you to continue to grow. I’d like you to grow with me. I’d like you to grow in our organization, but I just want you to continue to grow.” And so I think that’s the starting point.

The second thing that I would say is that one of the things you can do is you can draw this out and say to them something like … Well, actually, let me tell you a quick story. There’s a Kara Goldin who owns a company called Hint Water. Hint Water, and here the United States, it’s very popular. She had a person on her team and she went to him and she said, “Hey, you’re doing a fantastic job. Have you thought about what your next role’s going to be?”

He was like, “What do you mean my next role? Do you think I’m not doing a good job?”

She’s like, “No. I think you’re doing a great job, but I know,” and she didn’t use this language, “but I know that you’re going to get to the top of your curve and you’re going to start to get bored, and so you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do next.”

And so I think there’s that conversation of, “Here’s what’s going on in your brain. Once you get to the top of the curve, you’ve got to have a plan for what you’re going to do either to continue to stay in this role and to thrive or to do something else, and if you’re going to do something else, you need to be thinking strategically about backfilling who’s going to take on that role behind you.”

Now, what I thought you were going to ask, oh, and by the way, this is just a reminder. This is why for anybody who has ever said to themselves, “I’m really good at this, but I can no longer keep doing it,” that is why. It’s the dopamine. Okay.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. I forgot my point about the dopamine. Yeah. That part’s very important, too.

Whitney Johnson:

Right. That’s what’s going on. So now more often, though, what’s going on is that people get to the top and they’re like, “This is pretty comfortable.” Their identity’s intact, status quo. They’re a little bit bored, but doing something new is scary and they don’t want to do something new. So you now, as a manager, have this person who you’re saying, “Oh, they’re starting to underperform. I mean, they were doing a fantastic job, but they’re kind of dialing in and I’m not sure what to do now because I’m starting to feel resentful, and if they underperform for too long, then our relationship is going to fray and I might have to fire them,” and you don’t want to do that.

So again, you can use the S curve to have that conversation to say, “Here’s what’s going on in your brain,” dopamine, “and by the way, because you’re not spending a lot of cognitive capacity to map new memories, that means you’ve got a lot of latent, innovative potential because you’ve got capacity to learn and to grow and to stretch. So I need you to figure out what you’re going to do to challenge yourself because if you’ll challenge yourself, that means you’re going to help challenge the team, which means you’re going to help challenge the organization. So what do you want that to look like?” So that’s where I would start that conversation.

Alex Cleanthous:

In the pandemic times, if the world is falling apart and then the role is not providing any type of satisfaction or happiness because they’re complete masters, right? Then obviously they’re going to be like, “Well, the whole world is just not a happy place. So the thing I can change is I can change my role,” right? So I think that’s a really good reflection, but I think then now at the mastery stage, so maybe now they’re starting to lose some of the dopamine, and so now they have to start something else. So that dopamine is going to take a while to start to hit again, right? Is there a way to-

Whitney Johnson:

Do it faster? Faster?

Alex Cleanthous:

I guess to reignite the dopamine faster? You know what I mean?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. There is, there is. Okay. So there’s a couple of thoughts. So in mastery, there are two phases. There’s the anchor phase, and then there’s the mountaineer phase. And so when you’re in the anchor phase, that’s basically, “I’m at the top of mountain. I did it.” And so if you can take a moment and celebrate what you did and what you accomplished, emotions create habits, and so that celebration, this is something that BJ Fogg, who’s a behavioral scientist talks about, that is going to give you a little bit of dopamine as that willingness to just stop and say, “Look at what did,” and honoring and anchoring that behavior.

Now, as a mountaineer, you’re going to have this thrill of, “I’m about to climb.” So that’s exciting, right? “I’m going to do something new.” We all think about new school year, new job. That’s exciting is anticipating that even though it might be a little bit scary, but once we get there, we can do that.

The challenge is is that once you’ve made that decision and you’re actually starting that new thing and your dopamine is dropping, what do you do there? What I recommend there is this. Now that we know that launch point dopamine drops, sweet spot it’s spiking, mastery it’s flat, what can you do at the launch point to get your dopamine to spike?

And here’s the hack. You set small, ridiculously small goals. So yeah, it’s maybe going to take me six months or a year to get off the launch point overall, but there are things that I can do every day that will allow me to get that little spike, and I’m going to give you a very simple example, which is I decided that I wanted to start running, and I didn’t say I’m going to run 30 minutes a day or even 15 minutes a day because I wasn’t doing any of that. The odds that I was going to keep doing it, given what I had allocated my time, that wasn’t going to happen.

So I said, “I’m going to run five minutes today,” and 30 seconds running, 30 seconds walking, and I’m going to increase it by 10 seconds a day,” and this is building on James Clear’s work when we had him on the podcast, but what that did then, Alex, is that I’m at the launch point thinking I want to get to run a 5K. I couldn’t run a 5k then, but by doing those super small goals, I was going to meet it every day, and chances are, I was going to beat it if I wanted to. So now all of a sudden in this short timeframe, I’m getting all this dopamine, and the dopamine is building, and the dopamine is giving me momentum to move into the sweet spot.

Alex Cleanthous:

I like that. It’s like those small little steps every day that can push you towards something or that can just take you closer. I’ll come back with an example I have just for myself because-

Whitney Johnson:

Oh, I want to hear one. Yes.

Alex Cleanthous:

Hey, it’s not solved yet. This is a part of the S curve challenge, right? But we’ll come back to that. So I read that the ideal place in terms of the team allocation is to have 60% of the team in the sweet spot, that it shouldn’t be 100%, it should be 60%. So could you talk about that because I thought that was a really interesting point?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Alex Cleanthous:

I think it’s something that can help just to put this together for people.

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah, sure. So one of the things that, as we’ve been talking about this, up until now we’ve been talking about using the S curve to demystify personal growth. We’ve been talking about it, using it as a talent development tool, as a retention tool because if you’re thinking about where people are growing, they’re less likely to resign, but you can also use it to build a team and to optimise your team for growth.

And so what we recommend you do as a starting point is to think of a standard bell curve distribution and say, “Okay. I want to think about having 60% of my people in the sweet spot of their growth.” Why? Because they’re asking questions of why do we do it like this, but they’re also competent enough that they can answer questions like, “Well, here’s what we’ve tried before. Why don’t we try this?” So they can really wrestle a challenge and do it competently, but do it in an engaged way. So you want 60% of your people there, again, as a starting point.

Now, I also recommend that you have no more than 20% at the launch point. Why? Well, on the one hand they are very capable of asking questions like, “Why do we do it like this?” Whether it’s a new college graduate or a new CEO, they’re looking with fresh eyes. They’re not blinded by familiarity, and they require training. They require encouragement. It’s a heavy lift to help. There’s a lot of support that’s required in order for someone to build momentum off the launch point of the curve.

So if you’ve got 60% or 70% of your people there, that’s a challenge. By the way, that’s what happened in the world back in March of 2020. All of us were at the launch point of a how do we deal with a pandemic curve. So it was tough for all of us, even whether we were directly or indirectly affected by it.

So then in mastery, you don’t want more than 20% because on the one hand, you have people who can very much anchor everybody else and say, “Here’s why we do it like this, and they have the institutional memory, but because they’re getting a little bit potentially bored, they’re answering questions, but not necessarily asking questions.

Also from a team organization configuration standpoint, if you’ve got 80% of your people in mastery, and this is what’s happened over the past couple of years with all the baby boomers retiring, you got a pipeline problem. So you’re optimizing for growth with this 20, 60, 20 in terms of asking and answering questions about innovation, but you can also use it to think of it from a pipeline perspective of, “We need to have enough people at the launch point so that over time they can move into the sweet spot and we don’t all sudden have a whole cohort of people depart because they’re all in mastery.”

Alex Cleanthous:

So for companies that have extremely fantastic retention rates, there’s a danger of having a lot of people in the mastery level, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

That’s when they’ve been in the role for too long and the role isn’t changed, but potentially, the company’s not growing that fast and so the roles are becoming static, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

And so what you kind of need is to be proactive in this process so that the company can stay competitive because if everyone in the company now starts to perform at 70%, you’re never going to win in the competitive landscape that it is in 2022 and beyond, right? So it’s a really interesting concept to really be proactive in helping the team to continue to grow.

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

Is that right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s absolutely right. Again, you can take the assessment tool, but you can also just draw it out and be like, “Okay. Where is everybody?” and these are conversations that we have with people on our team of saying to them. In fact, a contractor that we’re working with, and you can do this with contractors as well because presumably, you bring in a contractor because they are in mastery, but have a conversation with them and say, “Hey, I hired you because you’re in mastery and you can do thing for me, but what is it that you want to do? What are some launch point things that you want to try?” because if you know that, then there’s this contract that you’re having with them of, “You’re going to help me grow and I’m going to help you grow, and if I can help you grow, then you’re going to get the best work from people,” because they’re going to feel like, again, there’s growth upside, and growth upside is a very strong predictor as we talked about earlier, the great aspiration. That is a very strong predictor of how long someone stays in an organization.

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah, and it seems to be that it’s a skill for a leader to be able to ask the right questions and to be able to be proactive in the kind of questions that they ask, right? I think that anyone who asks those kind of questions basically is a leader, right? So they could have just started at the company, but that kind of thinking, that kind of openness to thinking course, “What is the opportunity and how can we fit the team and the people and so on to be a part of that?” and to kind of start to engage on these conversations, right? Because what’s interesting, especially I think across the board for leaders, there’s no way of doing anything, right? It’s just completely creative work, right? The questions which you asked, how you ask those questions, how those questions then lead to the direction of the company and how that can be fluid. So it’s this really interesting concept, right? We’ll jump-

Whitney Johnson:

Can I?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah, please.

Whitney Johnson:

Can I add one thing, Alex?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yes, please.

Whitney Johnson:

I think to this idea of asking the questions, what I think one of the things that’s really important when we’re doing that is that when we’re asking, you said this idea of open, we need to genuinely in that moment care about their development because if you’re asking what they want, they will smell, because business is so inherently transactional, they will smell from 10 miles away that you’re trying to figure out how to move around the chess pieces. So you need to when you’re asking those questions know that your intention is to help them grow, believing that if you help them grow, they will help your company grow. So I just wanted to-

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah, no, that’s fantastic. Yeah.

Whitney Johnson:

… say that.

Alex Cleanthous:

So on that point then, what are some other things to watch out for as a part of this process or to be careful with so that it doesn’t fail or it doesn’t start the wrong conversation or I’m not sure. I’m just asking that if there are any other things to watch out for.

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. It’s a great question. So I think the other thing to watch out for is not for the employee, but for you. So for you personally, one of the things that can sometimes happen when you will know that you’re at the top of the curve is if you find yourself saying, “That’s not how we do it here,” or “We already tried that,” and/or you find yourself feeling resentful of other people who are coming up along the curve. Those are all signals to you that you are stagnating in some form or fashion because when we’re growing, we feel the sense of abundance. We feel like there is enough for us, but if you’re starting to worry about other people and what are they doing and what’s going on, then that’s a signal to you that it may be the top of the curve, it may be the wrong curve. It’s just something to be aware of.

Then also I think the other risk is just sometimes when you jump to a new curve because it’s scary to be in that new place, and I alluded to this earlier, we tend to want to hang on to our old curve, but by hanging onto our old curve, we not only are not growing, we are limiting the people who work for us from growing as well. So just be aware that if you’re spending a lot of your time doing things that are really easy for you, it probably means you’re not delegating and you’re not only stunting your growth, but you’re stunting the growth of people that work for you. So those are a couple of other watchouts.

Alex Cleanthous:

That’s awesome, and that’s a great segue into the last part of this conversation, which is actually, how do you manage yourself in this process, right? I have an example about myself, but I think the most common challenging area that I can say is when a producer who’s fantastic at their work, they get promoted into becoming the manager, right? I think this is a very common S curve shift, right? It’s like, “Hey, I’m a complete master in terms of the work. Now I have to become a leader.” It’s a whole another level of skills. It’s like nothing at all. It’s not even about the work anymore. It’s all about the people, right? So what are some suggestions or recommendations for what people can do just when they are having that transition because I think that from what I can see is one of the hardest transitions for most people to make.

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. It’s such a great question. I think the first thing I would say, Alex, is just make sure that this is what you want. I think there’s a tendency to think, “I want to be a manager because I perceive that being a manager will raise my status,” when in fact that is not what you want to be doing. Some people are good at managing. They enjoy managing, they’re expert at managing, and some people are not and they don’t want to do it and they’re not good at it. So I think that would be the first thing I would say is really ask yourself the question, “Is this what I want or do I want to be an individual contributor?” So that’s number one. So that goes back to the idea of exploration at the launch point, “Is this a curve that I want to be on?”

The second thing that I would say is assuming that you’ve made that decision that you want to be on that curve and the ecosystem is going to work for you to be here is to recognise that from an identity perspective, this is a huge challenge because you have gone from being the person who is delivering the good, the person who is getting the props for delivering the good and your identity, and our society is so based on that, is so rooted in that, you are now, I mean, so I sometimes call it the PE ratio, the puke to excitement ratio of jumping to that new curve, your identity is undergoing this massive, massive shift and you’re saying, “Who am I if I’m not generating revenue?”

And so that would be the next thing I would say is just be really gentle and patient with yourself of saying, “Okay. I understand what’s going on. This is really hard. This is really hard for me. And so I need to give myself some grace around this and also talk about it out loud about what’s happening.”

And then the third thing I would say is that you’ve switch your metrics. So your metrics are no longer, “How much revenue did I generate?” but “How much revenue did my people generate, and what did I make possible for them to do?” The other metric I think is really important is that ability and a learned skill of talking about and advocating for your teams because you can’t just go from, “Hey, we delivered this revenue,” and to not anything, you still have to talk about an advocate of, “Here’s what our team is doing. Here’s what we pulled together. Here’s what it looks like. Here’s what we’re building. Here are our metrics,” but it’s we, we, we, we, we, we, we. I sound like little pigs.

Alex Cleanthous:

Okay. All the way home, but that’s awesome. So then, okay, so for people that are at the mastery stage, that think that potentially that the next stage is some kind of the leadership role of some sort, should they now start to listen to some podcasts about it or start to read some books about it and say if the content itself is actually interesting? Is that a hint to is this is something-

Whitney Johnson:

Of being a leader?

Alex Cleanthous:

Well, that that’s the right path, right? Because sometimes it’s like, “Hey, look, I want to be this,” and then I transition. It’s like, “Actually, I just like doing the work and I’d rather just do the work and not actually the people stuff,” right? Because the people stuff is not for everyone, and I understand that, but is there a way to test it, to trial it in a way?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. In some organizations, there are opportunities where you can do some type of secondment briefly, but I do think that you can start trialing it without trialing it. Just observe how you spend your time, right? If you look at your day right now, and even when you’re not yet a manager, and all of your day is focused on tasks, and that’s where you get your dopamine, that’s where you get your enjoyment, that may be a signal that this may not be as fun for you. Whereas if you, for example, if you played sports, that’s an another signal for you. When you were growing up you played team sports versus solo sports, that may be an indication that you’re more interested or not in building a team and in leading a team.

Then also look at do you get satisfaction when you’re able to have that conversation and help people move forward, not the inspirational conversation, but the blocking and tackling conversation and the logistics of how are we going to do this and how are we going to put this person here and what’s that going to look like? Those are all starting point indicators for you that maybe you’ll actually really enjoy the process of management as opposed to, and I’ve met many leaders who are like, “I love inspiring people, but I don’t like managing people.” So that’s another question for you to ask yourself.

Alex Cleanthous:

These are really good questions for the managers of the new managers to also have as well, right? I think that’s a fantastic point. Okay. Let’s jump to the example which I wanted to talk about, right? Which is about myself, right? This is about stacking S curves, right? Well, I figured this could be a good way for the listeners to understand some of the challenges and to talk through the process, right? So I’ve been basically in the marketing game for 20 years. I’ve started a business back in 2003 and 2004 and 2005 and so on. So I have this level of mastery, right? Also, there’s all these innovations out there that could disrupt all the skills I have, right? The big one at the moment is artificial intelligence, right?

So I’ve been trying to get into learning about AI, but I’m so at the beginning, and it’s such a big shift from the mastery I have across all these other things and all these other things actually produce proper result in the world that have value, and now I have to go back to AI, but I can see the future of it, and I want to prepare myself and have some skills on it, and it’s just really, really hard because every time I start, it gets overwritten by something that is either a lot more urgent, maybe not as important, but it seems important basically now, right?

So I know this is going to be the future, but trying to carve out time, right? So I find it really hard at the, what’s the first, at the explore stage because I’m exploring. I found a few courses. I like your point about course. So I’ll just do five minutes a day, and I’ll just start a course. Is that the best way to approach it? Is something in this that I’m not kind of understanding? Is there something that I just don’t want to do it because I haven’t started doing it? You know what I mean?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah. It makes complete sense. I love this example because I think this is how disruption happens, right? You’re getting paid. You know that it’s there, but your value chain is not set up to make time for it. So I think, first of all, your suggestion or idea of, “Okay. Right now, it’s really hard for me to start this, but I know I need to do it. So I’m just going to commit to do it for five minutes a day,” because you know that the momentum will start to take over eventually. So I think that’s one thing that makes a lot of sense to do.

The other thing that I’m wondering as I hear you talk about that, and for you in particular, is is there a project that you can take on or a piece that you can commit to write that will require you to get up that S curve faster? How do you create some type of deadline or deliverable that will force you to incorporate that or promise it to a client that you’re going to do it?

The other thing, too, that I’m thinking about, and I think this happens, I was having a conversation with someone the other day about cryptocurrency. I remember this happened 20 years ago with wireless is when something’s new, we feel like we need to understand how it works like, “I need to understand how wireless works. I need to understand how crypto works. I need to understand how AI it works,” but you don’t necessarily need to know how it works. You just need to know how to use it. So that’s the other thing that I would be thinking about is do you actually need to know how it works or do you just need to know how to use it and how to apply it in your work?

Alex Cleanthous:

Yeah. I guess the reason I’m happy about this example is this could be something that is a common challenge for people that have had a career for longer than 10 years, right?

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

It’s like the identity and the value is super high, right? So because in terms of the marketing space, I understand basically the full scope of all of it, it feels that I need to understand the full scope of AI, which is the coding and the databases and all that, but what you’re saying is that, “Hey, you can just stack a smaller S curve on the applications of AI. You can find people who understand that part. They spend their whole lives on that, and are you going to compete with that as effectively as someone else that has been doing it for 10 years already?” Then there’s a smaller S curve that could be the way in because it’s about the way in, right?

Whitney Johnson:

Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous:

Because that’s what starts the momentum, right? The hardest part is starting because it’s full, it’s hard thought, it’s all new, it hurts. It’s got to be in the morning when-

Whitney Johnson:

It hurts.

Alex Cleanthous:

It hurts the brain sometimes. So okay, it’s helpful just to have this story because I think this is a story that quite a lot of people at the mastery stage are going to have, “Hey, listen. Cool. I’m here.”

Whitney Johnson:

That’s right.

Alex Cleanthous:

“I could learn there, but there could be something else which I should be doing.”

Whitney Johnson:

The thing is, Alex, is it plays out over and over and over again in our lives. One of the things that happens is the older that we get, the more adept we become at never doing anything new. When you’re young, you cannot insulate yourself from new curves. They were there, but as adults you can get so that you never do anything new. So part of this is also just flexing that muscle, but one thought that I just had that I think could be really cool is what if you’ve got a T-shirt on that says Web Profits, but what if you’ve got a T-shirt that said Web or AI Profits, and just play with that just from a priming of the brain standpoint and finding … Again, that five minutes of the day, that will start to get your head where it wants to go, but you don’t need to understand all of it.

You know, and you think about from a business perspective, like “I don’t have to understand all of marketing. I don’t need to understand all of IT. I hire an expert to do it, but I need to know how to plug it into what I’m doing.”

Alex Cleanthous:

Awesome. We’re out of time. What a great convers- This has been an hour. That’s gone like that.

Whitney Johnson:

There you go.

Alex Cleanthous:

I mean, I seriously have so many more questions, but this has been such a good overview for the people listening to the podcast. How do people start to follow you? I know that you have a podcast. The book’s available on Amazon, Smart Growth. It’s highly recommended for any leader across their organization just be competitive and to be proactive about their team, and who wants to hire someone, spend all that time and then lose them because of a few conversations and a few supportive directions, right? So that’s highly recommended, Smart Growth on Amazon, but you’ve got a podcast as well. Is there anywhere else that people can subscribe?

Whitney Johnson:

Yup, I do. Yeah. I love that, subscribe. So it’s called Disrupt Yourself. I run that podcast and I like to talk to people who are trying to figure out how to disrupt their own lives, disrupt industries. I do a variety of guests on there. So that would be lovely if you came and listened and subscribed, and then like you said, we have the book out called Smart Growth. So yeah, super fun and exciting.

Alex Cleanthous:

Fantastic. Whitney, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking about Smart Growth. It’s such a good concept, and I’m sure that everyone is going to get quite a lot of value out of this conversation. So thank you again for coming on the podcast today.

Whitney Johnson:

Cool. Thank you for having me, Alex.

Alex Cleanthous:

Thanks for listening to the Growth Manifesto Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please give us a five star rating on iTunes. For more episodes, please visit growthmanifesto.com/podcast, and if you need help driving growth for your company, please get in touch with us at webprofits.io.

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