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March 17, 2022

142 How to Disrupt Yourself as a Leader and Build a High Growth Team by Mastering the S Curve of Growth with Whitney Johnson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

142 How to Disrupt Yourself as a Leader and Build a High Growth Team by Mastering the S Curve of Growth with Whitney Johnson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In today's episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan speaks with Whitney Johnson. Whitney is the CEO of Disruption Advisors, a tech-enabled talent development company. She also co-founded Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton Christensen,  is the host of the Disrupt Yourself podcast, and is the author of the book Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People To Grow Your Company. Whitney Johnson talked about the S-curve of personal, leadership, and organizational growth. Whitney also discussed creating a corporate culture that encourages continuous learning and development and leaders pursuing new S-curves of growth.


-      Why disruption is about more than products and services

-      The three phases of the S-curve of growth

-      Whitney Johnson on the neuroscience behind the S-curve

-      How leaders can encourage growth in their organizations

-      How to use S-curve as a recruiting and retention tool

-      Whitney Johnson on the CEO mindset needed for growth

-      How to deal with underperforming team members

-      The importance of shadow values and how to use them in guiding your growth


-      Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, author, and co-founded Disruptive Innovation Fund

-      Everette Rogers, originated the diffusion of innovations theory

-      Juan Carlos Mendez-Garcia, co-author of Throw Your Life A Curve

-      Patrick Pichette, former CFO of Google

-      Sumeet Shetty, Development Manager at SAP

-      Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

-      Disrupt Yourself by Whitney Johnson

-      Dare, Deam, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream by Whitney Johnson

-      Build an A-Team by Whitney Johnson

-      The Burnout Epidemic by Jennifer Moss

-      How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen

Connect with Whitney Johnson:

Smart Growth Book Website

Disrupt Yourself Podcast

Whitney Johnson Website

Whitney Johnson Twitter

Whitney Johnson Instagram

Whitney Johnson LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


Mahan Tavakoli on LinkedIn

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Whitney Johnson. Whitney is the CEO of the tech enabled talent development company, Disruption Advisors. She has been recognized by thinkers 50 as one of the top global thought leaders. She's an award winning author and podcaster, and we spend most of our time in this conversation talking about her most recent book, Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People, To Grow Your Company.

Ihave learned a lot from Whitney, both from her previous books and podcasts and this most recent book on how we can navigate and go through our own S-curves of growth and how we can help our team members and organization, also captured opportunity by going through this S-curve of growth.

So I'm sure you will also enjoy this episode and learn a lot from Whitney's examples, both on personal S-curves and organizational S-curves. I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming.mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change-makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Whitney. 

Now here's my conversation with Whitney Johnson.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Whitney Johnson. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Whitney Johnson: 

Mahan, I am very happy to be here.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Whitney, I've been a big fan of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, the Disrupt Yourself Book. And now your book Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People To Grow Your Company

Before we get to some of that though, we'd love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become.

Whitney Johnson: 

I actually was born in Madrid, Spain. And that's important because even though my parents lived there just six months after I was born, because I was born in Spain, I always thought of myself as Spanish. And I could not be more English and Scottish heritage. It is sort of not possible, but I always thought of myself as Spanish. And because of that, I studied Spanish in school. And then I ended up serving a mission for my church in Uruguay.  And then much of my early career was all focused on Latin America. 

So that place that I was born, that you could almost call an accident, has worked its way through my entire life. And, as a consequence, I love Latin America. I love everything Hispanic. My favorite restaurant in the whole world is the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City. That has absolutely influenced me. 

I think another thing that influenced me is that I grew up in San Jose, California. This is pre Silicon valley, which is interesting, and very middle-class upbringing.

One of the things though I think has influenced me and I talk about this a little bit in my very first book Dare Dream Do, which is, I was the oldest child. And sometimes with oldest children, our parents have very high expectations because they're projecting onto you. I've done it with my own child. I wish I hadn't, but I have. And because of those high expectations, and never quite feeling like it's good enough, I've always been very, very driven. And for a long time, I had to pretend like I wasn't driven cause I was a girl. So I pretended like I wasn't, but I really was. But I think that has influenced me, this really strong drive to achieve and to prove myself that I can accomplish things.

And then the third thing I will say is that I grew up studying piano and then, majored in music in college. And that discipline, when I was in college, of practicing three hours a day has held me in good stead in my professional life because I work very hard. 

Someone said the other day you may want to be a show pony, but the only ones who succeed are the show ponies that are also the workhorses. And I am a work horse.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's wonderful, Whitney, because part of what you have done and you continue to do with your life is you also set an example. When you talk about taking the time to rebalance yourself. When you talk about disruption, all of those things you've done yourself. But I want to touch on one point that you mentioned. As a father of two girls, I've also seen a lot of factors and what causes people to judge women differently as men.

Now, when you talked about being ambitious and you did spend some time on Wall Street, what challenges did you have to overcome as a woman being as focused as you were on that success and meeting the expectations that your parents had set for you as that oldest child?

Whitney Johnson: 

There are many challenges, but a couple come to mind. 

So when I first graduated from college and I had moved to New York with my husband, he was getting his PhD at Columbia. I was a music major. But I had a 3.9 GPA. I was a good student. And when I went to get jobs, the only job that was available to me was as a secretary. That was the only job. And that's why I took a job as an assistant to a stockbroker. And so right out of the gate, I had less opportunities than my male counterparts. And so I had to figure out how am I going to work my way through that?

I can think of another time, where I was now an equity analyst and I wanted to get paid and wanted to negotiate my bonus for the year. And I remember talking to one of my male colleagues and I said, so how did you do it? How did you go in and negotiate and set it up so they get paid what you wanted to get paid. And he said, “Well, here's what you do. You start socializing what you want early in the year. Here's what I'm accomplishing. Here's what I'm thinking and have this conversation with them.” I thought, great. That's what I'm going to do. 

So I go into my boss and I have all my metrics. Here's what I've accomplished this year. Here's the data. Here's how my performance compares to my peers. And I'm really thinking that I should be paid, you know, an X percentile. And he said to me, “Stop complaining and go back and do your work.” It completely backfired. And so I realized that I've got to figure out how to do this.

Now the challenge has been for me and I think for any underrepresented group is to get to the point where you realize, oh yeah, there is a glass ceiling. Oh yeah. It exists. Acknowledge it. Be aware of it, understand that some of what you're not able to accomplish is because of the system and then still take full responsibility for my own career. And also recognizing that there are plenty of opportunities that I have not gotten because I believed I couldn't get them. 

And so those are just two examples. I could go on, but I think that illustrates what you were talking about.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Part of what you talk about Whitney is that sense of agency is important in going through this S-curve. Before we get to the S-Curve though, where did you come up with this idea of an S-curve for personal disruption and personal growth?

Whitney Johnson: 

So one of the things I noticed, let me give you a teeny bit of background. So I'm working in Wall street. I'm an equity analyst. I did end up being successful. I was an institutional investor ranked. But I realized that, one day when we needed to do training and I found myself thinking about American idol, Tom Peters, a brand called you spending lots and lots of time to think about what brand, all my equity analysts counterparts are. I had this realization, I'm more interested in the momentum of people than I am of stocks. So data point number one. 

Then, I'm an equity analyst. I read The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christianson. When I wanted to do something new, they said, “We like you right where you are.” I know how this idea of disruption in my head. And I realized, disruption isn't just about products and services and companies and countries. It's about people. And maybe I need to disrupt myself. So data point number two. 

Data point number three, I'm now working with Clayton Christianson. Co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund and we're using the S-curve that was popularized by Everett Rogers to figure out how quickly an innovation will be adopted, basically how groups change.

So now I've got data point number one, stocks, disruption. It's a natural progression for me to say, I really look at management theories. And the application to the individual as a way of operationalizing that idea. So it wasn't at that point too much of a stretch for me to say, huh? This is how groups change. Maybe this is also a paradigm for individuals change. 

I, with another fellow, Juan Carlos Mendez, wrote an article 10 years ago, of flying the S-curve. It was in the Harvard business press called Throw Yourself A Curve. And that was actually 10 or 12 years ago now. But that was the vast, intuitive leap that I made. And now I've spent the last 12 years figuring out how to substantiate it with neuroscience and psychology and biology, et cetera, and qualitative data, I should add.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Whitney, what you call the natural progression, is an outstanding insight that you came up with based on all these different data points and understanding that you had of how systems work, how people work, how organizations work. I found myself, over years I used to, in my Carnegie career, talk about getting to Groundhog day, where after a few years I would get bored with what I was doing and would be itching to do something else.

Unfortunately, the organization continually gave me that opportunity for many years to do that. What then I understood in reading your work in your book is that it actually is a process that we can both follow. And we can actively initiate for ourselves going through that S-curve. And one of the things you say now with me is that coming out of this pandemic is a great chance for us to experience some post-traumatic growth going through this S-curve.

Whitney Johnson: 

Yeah, absolutely. And let me just explain what the S-curve is really quickly for our listeners who aren't familiar with it. It's basically in the shape of an S, there are three points. There's a launch point, this sweet spot and mastery. And whenever you start something new, you're at the launch point and growth is happening, but because it's not yet apparent, it feels slow. It feels like a slog. In the sweet spot. You're now in the steep back of the curve, and this is the place where all of your neurons are firing. It's still hard, but not too hard at easy, but not too easy.  And growth not only is fast, it feels fast. And then you get into mastery and that's the place where you've figured everything out, you know exactly what you're doing, but you're no longer learning. And so you can get bored. 

And so growth is in fact slow. So you've got slow, fast, slow is how you grow. And so it's a simple model. It's a visual model. Therefore it's useful, the traces, the emotional arc of growth. so just to get that background.

Now, there's been a lot of discussion around how people are resigning from the great resignation. And if you believe, which I do, that growth is our default setting. Over the past two years, what has happened? We were all on an S curve. The pre-pandemic S curve. We all got pushed off that S-curve. We all got pushed off of it.  And in getting the push and being pushed off, we were pushed onto the bottom of a brand new S-curve. 

And one of the things that we discovered about ourselves is that we were more resilient than we thought possible. We climbed S-curve mountains that we never thought we would climb. We've ridden waves that we never thought we would ride. And we've realized I can do a lot more than I thought I could do. 

And so now coming back out of the pandemic, we hope pretty soon, people are saying, I don't want to go back to what I did. Yes. Some people are tired and some people are burned out. But I think most of us were saying, I have seen the world differently. So they're not resigning from. They are saying I just don't want to go back to doing exactly what I did because I'm a different person. I'm aspiring to more. And so much of what we're seeing is the great aspiration. And when you understand the S-curve and when you understand that growth is our default setting, it makes sense.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It does. And this is a great time for that. I love a quote from General McChrystal on your podcast episode 245. Actually, General McChrystal has done a great job reinventing himself and going through new S-curves for anyone that looks at what he has been able to do post retirement from the military but he said, “The greatest risk to us is us.” And I wrote it down. That's a beautiful quote. 

Now with that risk though, and with that desire and need for growth, there's also a lot of fear with me, a lot of anxiety around whether we should and when is the right time for us to initiate a new S-curve. What would be the time for us to reflect on “this is the time for me to think about going on a new S-curve”?

Whitney Johnson: 

Let's make the assumption that it has been the right S-curve. So whatever it is you were doing was the right thing for you. So it was the right role for you. You've been there for a while. 

So here are some things that you can consider and we use what we call an S-curve insight tool to help measure some of this.

But if you've been in a role for more than three years and there's been no significant change, that's a potential marker. If you find yourself saying things like, that's not how we do it here. That is a potential marker. If you find yourself bored, if you find yourself not very motivated, if you find yourself feeling a little bit resentful of the people who are coming up behind you, those are all signals to you that you are stagnating, that this plateau that you think you're on is about to become a precipice. And you're either going to start self-sabotaging, well, you're going to self sabotaging and get complacent and feel bad about yourself. Or you're going to get pushed off the curve. So those are all, some things that you can take a look at when you'll know. 

The other thing is that when you have this feeling inside of you, which is what we just talked about. I feel like there's more for me. That was the experience that I had in a job. Yes. I was making plenty of money. Yes. I could put food on the table. So it was doing all the functional jobs that my job required, but it wasn't doing the emotional job of I want to grow. And that's one thing that I think is really important for everybody who listens to you. And listen to me, I hope. One of the strongest predictors of how long we stay in an organization is do we perceive that there was growth upside? If I believe that I can grow under your watch, I'm going to stay a long time. But the second I think that I'm not going to grow, then money starts to get a lot more important, perks start to get a lot more important. And then I start looking. But if I believe I am growing, this boss is amazing. You're going to stay as long as you possibly can.

Do you feel like you're growing? That's an indicator of how long they're going to stay or go.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that growth opportunity is really important for people all throughout. Now, one of the things that I'm finding with me is that we are going through faster and faster paces of change in the environment. I recently had a conversation with Azeem Azhar, a brilliant book on the exponential age and the technologies that will speed up the pace of change that we're all experiencing.

So does that therefore mean we as individuals need to launch into S-curves at a faster pace?

Whitney Johnson: 

Yes, it does. Part of this is that it's so exciting. The pace of technological change is accelerating. That is thrilling. That is exciting. And if we are going to harness it, if we are going to ride that wave and not be tumbled by that wave, then we need to be able to accelerate our pace of change. It doesn't mean we need to do everything perfectly, but part of what I argue is peak performance, that ability to move through this growth cycle evermore rapidly. To navigate the launch point more successfully. To optimize the sweet spot, that place of optimized tension. And to be willing. once you know you're in mastery, to jump to a new S-curve and/or find a way for it to be a summit, not the summit. 

So yes, the pace of technological change increases as that disruption increases your ability to manage through that and actually write it. It’s dependent on your ability to disrupt yourself, your ability to jump to new S-curves.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

One of the things I love about what you say, Whitney, is that the leaders of the organization, CEO on down need to understand that this disruption and need for disruption starts with themselves. 

I had a meeting a few days ago with a CEO of an organization, and he was very frustrated talking about some of the thinking around returning to work and how his people were not willing to be disrupted.

And I was reflecting on even, back 20, 25 years ago, CEOs were buying, who moved my cheese book and sending it to their people, telling them you need to be willing to move around. You need to be willing to change. What you say is that this change starts with us.

Whitney Johnson: 

Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I'm actually really encouraged by Mahan is that there was a study recently put out by Egon Zehnder and they surveyed a thousand CEOs and 80% of those CEOs strongly agreed, a hundred percent agreed, that the transformation of an organization required that they also transform themselves, which is what we're saying.

The reason I'm encouraged is that two years ago, pre-pandemic, that percentage was only 26%. So it's tripled over the past two years. There's a lot of bad things about the pandemic, but that is definitely a good thing where people who are leaders of organizations recognize that it starts with themselves.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's an opportunity for us to go through this S-curve on an ongoing basis. You also mentioned the neuroscience of it, Whitney. I found it fascinating, as we go through this S-curve, the launch, the sweet spot and eventually the mastery. It's seven accelerants you talk about but those three groupings, what role does neuroscience play in us going through this curve?

Whitney Johnson: 

Yeah, so it's so interesting. And this is one of the things I was really excited about in writing this book because I had this intuition, but I needed to make sure that the neuroscience worked. And in fact it does. I had a wonderful conversation with Dr. Terry Senowsky at the University of San Diego. And here's what's happening in your brain. 

So we run predictive models all the time. And whenever we start something new where the launch point of an S-curve, we have this hypothesis of what it is going to take for us to move into mastery. At the top of that S curve. And so early on we are making lots of predictions and many of our predictions are inaccurate.

And so our dopamine drops. So that's why it's really hard to start something new, but then we keep making those predictions. And as we make more and more predictions, like any model that iterates you're eventually going to get more accurate with your predictions and that increasing accuracy hits the knee of the curve and moves you into the sweet spot.

And so what's happening there is, as the predictions are accurate, your brain is getting lots of dopamine, that's saying this is working. That's working. Remember that, remember that. Lots of emotional upside surprises. And that is why the sweet spot is so exhilarating. 

So the launch point drops in dopamine. Sweet spot, you're getting high, lots of dopamine and surprises in your dopamine. And then you get into mastery and what's happening is the brain has figured it out. Oh, yeah, I got it. Model finished. There's no more iteration, which is great, but then there's no more dopamine. And so your brain says, I need more dopamine. I need another challenge. And that is why you can be really good at something, you can't keep doing it because there's no more challenge. And so that's what's going on in neuroscience. Isn't that interesting?

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really is. And before reading your books Whitney. I thought there was something wrong with me, cause I would feel that need, as I said to move on. But what you say is that all of us have that desire. Have that want. There's a point where we get to that mastery, where eventually we need to be able to move on.

So as leaders reflect on this, first and foremost, this disruption starts with this self before wanting to get other people to disrupt themselves and go through S-curves. However, there is also some thinking that you've done with respect to how leaders can create an environment in their organization that encourages people to move on to new S-curves.

How can leaders encourage that environment so people can grow and have the greatest value while they are with the same organization, rather than finding new S-curves with other organizations?

Whitney Johnson: 

So one of the things that you can use the S-curve for is it allows you to have this artifact to start a conversation around talent development. It can become a great recruiting tool and it also can be used for retention.


Whitney, one of the things I'm hearing most from a lot of leaders they're concerned about is as they bring on the talent, in many instances, they aren't keeping the talent long enough for people to be real productive and part of the culture of the organization.

Whitney Johnson: 

So, here's one example. One of the people that I've interviewed for our podcast was Patrick Pichette and he was formerly the CFO of Google. And so this is a great example of how you can use this mental model to think about retaining people. 

Patrick, before he started at Google, had been in operations at a number of companies in Canada. so bell, Canada, and then one other prior to that.

And so he's interviewing for the job at Google as a CFO, he could do it in his sleep. And so that's another thing. So he's in this place and he's having this conversation with Eric Schmidt, who was a CEO at the time. And he says, “Okay, Patrick, I want to hire you, but we have a problem because based on what this S-curve requires of you,” He didn't say that, that’s my language, “But based on what this job requires of you, you're going to be bored in probably 18 months. And then you're gonna start looking for something new. So I rather, you look for something new here inside of Google. So let's just have an agreement that when you feel like you're ready for a new challenge or at the top of that curve, I want you to come talk to me and say, ‘Hey, I need something new.’

So that's what Patrick did. Every 18 months he went and he said, I need something new. So he got real estate. He ended up with people, Google fiber, which is the broadband initiative and their nonprofit arm. 

And by doing that, he was able to stay at Google for seven years. Which is not insubstantial when you consider that he was already at the top of his S curve when he started at Google in the first place. And so it becomes a retention tool if you can say to yourself, when you hire them, where are you on the S curve right now? Here's where I think you are, but I need to know where you are because what you do is going to be predicted by what you think, not by what I think. I could think you're in the sweet spot all day long, but if you think you're in mastery, that will predict your behavior. 

And so when you have that conversation, you can say, all right, you're a high performer. I want to keep you. You think you're a mastery. Let's talk about what a new curve looks like. Ideally, we'll be here, but if it's not, let's have you go somewhere else because then you've helped them go somewhere else. And they become a brand ambassador or a Boston Vassar, which is a whole lot better than them saying you're a bad boss cause they're going to leave anyway. So they might as well say good things about you when they do leave. If they're at the top of the curve.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So one of the things I would recommend to the listeners as they read the book is to reflect on their direct reports and in conversation Try to determine where their direct reports are on the S-curve. and to be able to either provide them new S-curve opportunities within the organization or help them along on their S-curve.

So it is a good way of reflecting on each individual's growth path within the organization.

Whitney Johnson: 

Yeah, absolutely. So one of the people that we profiled actually in a Harvard business review article that came out, is out right now, is a fellow by the name of Sumeet Shetty who's a mid-level manager at SAP in India.

And when someone new on his team comes in. He has a conversation with them. What are your aspirations? What's your purpose, general direction of your career. But then once he identifies where they are on the S curve, in that current role, he comes up with a development plan. Here's how I'm going to develop you. And depending on where they are, they need different things. 

So if they're at the launch point, they're going to get a lot of support training, encouragement, feedback. In the sweet spot they just need you to focus, help them focus, to prioritize because they're high performers and people are throwing stuff at them. They also need you to see them because they're doing everything right. So you tend to ignore them. So they need focus. And then in mastery, what they find that they need is, well, you're kind of bored. So how am I going to make sure I challenge you? So once he sees where people are, he puts together a development plan and finds ways to either support, focus or challenge them.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's a wonderful practice for all of us to reflect on as we lead our teams and organizations. And one of the other things I wanted to get your perspective on Whitney, both, in serving on boards of directors, of organizations and in working with some CEOs is there a shelf life to a CEO's tenure in essence. In larger organizations, a lot of public organizations over a period of time, the transition ends up happening. But in many smaller to midsize organizations and quite a few non-profit organizations where I also serve on boards, the president and CEO has been there for a very long time. Is there an opportunity to continually go through new S-curves in the same role or do the board of directors and others in the organization have a responsibility to move leaders along?

Whitney Johnson: 

Well, they have a responsibility obviously, to move leaders along If the leaders are not continuing to grow. But one of the things that we all know because growth is our default setting, CEOs can continue to grow. 

One of the people that I've profiled in my prior book Build an A-Team with Gary Ridge. He's been the CEO of WD 40 for 20 years. And that is a company that 20 years ago, their market cap was $250 million. And now it's $3 billion significantly outperforming the S and P 500. 

And so what I would say is that when you're the CEO you're not going to necessarily have a new job or roles that are going to give you this external impetus to grow. You have to do it yourself. You need to really guard against complacency. Make sure you're getting feedback from people. You also can grow by understanding that every time you've got a new senior leader, you can effectively do it. 

If you think of an S-curve as a mountain, you can do these S-curve loops and come down the mountain, bringing people up the mountain. As a leader, developing your next level down is a tremendously challenging S curve of learning. It will cause you to grow as a human being, your character, if done well.

So yes, if they're not growing, they should absolutely have them go. There's some great research by Jim Citron that we quote in the book that oftentimes CEOs hit this complacent place around three or four years. But if they can move through that, they end up having a really productive eight or nine or 10 years.

And so what I would encourage people who are CEOs of companies or organizations for an extended period of time, know that around three or four years, you're probably going to get complacent. And so you've got to make a decision at this point. Do I want to just go do something else or am I going to figure out a way to make this a summit, not that summit. Otherwise I am probably going to get complacent and I will get kicked out and no one likes to get kicked off. Always better to do it yourself.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And in those conversations with me, I also know that you coach some CEOs yourself. What are the practices, approaches and mindsets of the CEOs you find like Gary Ridge, who you mentioned has done an incredible job at WD 40. What are the practices and mindsets of those CEOs that continually go on new S-curves?

Whitney Johnson: 

So number one, is that there’s this tremendous sense of humility of what do I not know? What do I need to learn? That responsibility of recognizing that if I'm going to transform the organization, it starts with me. So there's a sense of self-awareness. They're able to listen and receive feedback from other people.

And then the third thing I would say, and interviewed at Catmull for the podcast a few, like a year ago now who's arguably. That may be a little bit of hyperbole, but he was a great manager. And one of the things he said is that you never know what's actually going on. And this awareness that you don't know what's going on, you can't just take in the messages that you're getting, that people are giving to you because they're going to manage you. And so you have to be willing to go out and get other information so you have a better read of what's actually going on. It’s knowing that this is, it starts with you having humility to know that you need to continually grow and develop. And then know that you don't know everything that's going on. 

And the final thing I would say, and I talk about this in the ecosystem chapter is this idea that keystone species. Whenever we think about growth or being able to be successful in a role we think about is the ecosystem hospitable to me? Do I have the resources I need? Are our people resilient, et cetera? When you're a CEO, you are the keystone species. You are. And so the question you need to be continually asking yourself, and it's certainly one I ask myself is this: am I giving to this ecosystem? Am I giving to the people in my organization more than I am getting from them?

And if you can answer those questions and say, the answer is yes, then you're continuing to grow. And, barring the fact that maybe you don't have the actual skills that the organization needs right now. You're going to be in that role a long time.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are great thoughts and perspectives. And I love the way you put it when you look at the ecosystem, you are the person that others are looking to whether it is in this aspect of going through the S-curve, the humility that it takes, the awareness that it takes to know that the information you're getting is limited perspective, getting different perspectives.

So, you mentioned that in the book, and I think that's really important to reflect on.

Now, part of what happens in other roles also within the organization Whitney is that sometimes people in mastery stay in those roles because of their fear to move on. What should leaders and organizations consider with people that might be doing the job well, they are in mastery, but as you said, at the stage where they've been there, done that, they've seen it done that way before an organization, to the point that they are bored, clocking in, clocking out.

Whitney Johnson: 

The first thing I would say is that you can have a person who's been doing a role for a very long time and they're still in the sweet spot. That's the thing that you want to do. Sometimes people can stay in the sweet spot a long time. They may have other S-curves outside of work that are very important to them. As long as they're showing up and are engaged, then that's fine. 

I think what you're referring to though is the person who's been a very high-performer they're in mastery and you could just kind of feel it. They're just not quite doing things. They're just not quite there like they were. 

The first thing that I would say is one, that moment happens If you haven't caught it early, give them a little bit of grace because there's going to be a piece of you. And this has happened to me before. There's gonna be a piece of you that's kind of like they're underperforming. They don't care. This is off with their head. And remember that they were a very high performer and now they've just gotten bored and they probably don't even realize what's going on. So you've got to give them a little bit of grace while you figure out what they're going to do next. whatever that is. 

The next thing is then you can use this S-curve and this conversation around dopamine to talk to them and say, hey, you've been a really strong contributor, but I can just feel that you've gotten to the top of your curve. And what that means is that you, now you could potentially underperform the perhaps more importantly, you have latent capacity, you have capacity to learn new things. Which means you have the capacity to innovate. Which means you have the capacity to contribute in a more meaningful way, but that's not going to happen if you stay here.I need you to think about what you're going to do. It might turn out that you decide this isn't the place for you anymore. And that is okay. 

But leading to do that sooner than later. Cause we don't want this to get bad. But it might be that you stay in the role and you just take on some projects that are at the launch point of the curve, which if you put the portfolio together, pushes you back down, back into the sweet spot.

But here's what I know, you're growing or you're dying. You've got this capacity. It's not being used. What do you want to do?

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It takes a lot of courage to have those conversations Whitney. And it takes a lot of love for the individual you're having a conversation with. If you have that love, then you have the conversation with the individual enabling them. This is not pushing them, enabling them to see the opportunity for new S-curves.  

In many instances, within the same organization that can excite them can bring more energy to them. I think you have laid out the framework of the S-curve that people can go through both for themselves in reflecting on their own leadership and in coaching and guiding others, including their teams within their organizations. 

Now, Whitney, you've done a lot of work over the years on disruption, organizational disruption, individual disruption. We are going through one of the most disruptive experiences of our lifetimes. And many of the leaders that I interact with, have tremendous anxiety with this future of work.

The part they have figured out, or they think they've figured out is whether they're going to be back to the office three days a week or two days a week or four days a week. But there's still a lot of anxiety around it. So we'd love to know some of your thoughts and perspectives with respect to the future of work and how leaders should think about that future of work, incorporating some of your thoughts with respect to the s-curve.

Whitney Johnson: 

Yeah, it's a great question. So first of all, because it's the future, we don't know. I do believe that we will absolutely go hybrid. I don't think we will ever go back to where we were. It's going to be some combination of in-office and remote. And I think that's a really good thing because this allows a blending of people's personal and professional lives which really you don't want them to be separate at some level. Because work is important to us. And our family is important to us. All of those things are important, so we don't know for sure. That's number one. 

Number two is I would say, as a leader, the most important thing you can do when you have the power because you do, you're, the leader, is to say I don't know what this is going to look like. Here's what I think it could look like. And let's figure this out together. But the more people are willing to say, I don't know for sure. These are our best guests. We're going to go down this path and we'll figure it out. Let us know what you think. Now here's my decision for now. And you can decide to agree with it or not. You get to choose. This is the direction we're going to go. Are you with me or not? But still being willing to say, I don't know. I think that that goes a really long way because then people feel a sense of safety, but you're still communicating with them.

So that's the thing that happens, when we, as leaders sometimes feel uncertain, we stop communicating and that terrifies people. But if we're willing to keep communicating. Then they feel a sense of, okay, we're together. We're talking about this out loud, by talking about it out loud, we're diffusing the fear. We're creating a sense of certainty. We're finding ways to disrupt ourselves because there is actually even admits that uncertainty. 

So Dave Ulrich wrote this fantastic article recently about the fact that in a period of uncertainty, there are still a lot that's very certain. And so a leader can communicate that. There's a lot that is certain, let's focus on what certain, because when we focus on what certain, then we can manage the uncertainty more easily.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

People will be a lot more willing to, as you say, be flexible with respect to the experiments of going back to work. If they are made a priority and their leaders in the organization care about them and show that caring, including guiding them through their own S-curves, Whitney. So I think as you mentioned, none of us know exactly what's going to happen.

Communicating that lack of certainty is important clarity with respect to where we are headed, but lack of certainty with respect to the specifics. However, that's just one small aspect of the future of work. A bigger aspect of it is all of the learning and disruption individuals have been craving for a very long time. And now is even more important than it's ever been before. That's why I think going through these S-curve conversations, both for ourselves and for our team members, at least we'll give them a certain level of clarity with respect to their own growth in the organization.

Whitney Johnson: 

Well, well said Mahan.


Whitney, organizations for decades have said our people are the most important assets. However, in many instances that has been what they've said, the behaviors of some of the leaders and managers hasn't been reflective of that. You have provided a framework where both individual leaders can reflect on their own growth and help their team members grow along with that. So it gives the specifics, not just the generality.

Whitney Johnson: 

And I have a quick hack for you on that. So one of the things that people have brought up a lot in the book is this idea of shadow values of like, what are your shadow values? And I think one of the ways you can think about this idea of your people is to take a look at your list of your priority of the 10 things that you want to get done today. And look at that list and say, how many things on this list are about a conversation with a person and developing a person versus a task to get done. For most of us, it's going to be mostly tasks. And so if you want to have people be the most important, it doesn't need to be all people, but you might want to consider. Okay. Do I have one thing on my list today that's about people and not just about executing tasks.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Whitney at first, I wasn't very happy with you when I was reflecting on my shadow values, but that's exactly why it was very beneficial and it's really important to do that. I think it's a very valuable exercise to go through for leaders.

Whitney Johnson: 

Just for the record. I am guilty too. I try to eat my own cooking, but it is tough. I mean, we write books so that we can learn the things that we need to learn.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's why, as I said, I enjoy your own experience and your growth mindset being a learn it all as much as the content that you talk about. Because the same way for leaders, their behavior says more to their team members than what they say. Same thing for authors and podcasters. And that's why I really enjoy your content.

Now you say learning is the oxygen of human growth, and I love that.

So are there any leadership practices or other leadership resources that come to mind you would recommend?

Whitney Johnson: 

Well, there's actually two people right now that I'm very intrigued by and I'm finding very useful. I've interviewed both of them on my podcast Recently. One is a woman by the name of Emma McAdam, who is a psychologist. And she puts out great Simple videos on YouTube. I interviewed her, I could have been on the call with her for three hours, that helps people with emotional regulation, which is so, so important as we move through this. She has this great saying, and I think she's quoting someone else, Stephen Hayes, but she says “You don't want to feel better. You want to get better at feeling. Because when we're able to feel then we're able to have a sense of integrity and that sense of emotional well-being allows us to move along the curve and all the things that are up and down and topsy turvy, we can manage through that.” So that's one practice that I'm very focused on right now.

The second one is that Jennifer Moss, she wrote a book called The Burnout Epidemic. And really good work around burnout that it's a systemic problem. And again, it starts with you, what are you doing as a manager to contribute to the burnout of your people? Are you sending emails to people on a weekend? Are you slacking them on the weekend? If you want to write on the weekend, go for it. But make sure you save it so it doesn't hit their inbox until Monday. Because every time my boss sends me an email of something, my cortisol would spike of like, oh no, I need to close that loop. What do I need to do? And we do that. And if we won't send it, if we wait to send it, then we're going to allow them to have a greater sense of wellbeing. 

So Emma McAdam and Jennifer Moss both on my podcast, but obviously they're out in the broader world as well. Very valuable stuff.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are great recommendations. Then what we need to reflect on is being able to also balance ourselves as leaders. That's really important as we guide our organizations.

Now, Whitney, how would you recommend for the audience to connect with you? Find out more about your podcast, your book, and all the great content that you've produced.

Whitney Johnson: 

I think that the easiest way to find out about the book is to go to smartgrowthbook.com. You can obviously buy it on Amazon. Any bookstore. My podcast is the Disrupt Yourself podcast. So that's easy to find. And then if for whatever reason you want to email me, wj@whitneyjohnson.com

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Whitney. I really enjoy your podcast, Disrupt Yourself. I  have been a longtime listener. The conversations of our great value. Loved your Disrupt Yourselfbook. And now most especially Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People To Grow Your Company, because it provides a framework that leaders can use both for themselves and in coaching and guiding their teams.

I also know you had a lot of love for Christiansen, as many people did, but you were fortunate to work with Clay for quite a few years and you dedicate your book to him. So, I wanted to read a quote from Clay from How Will You Measure Your Life. The only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help one by one to become better people.

Whitney Johnson, you have helped many individuals become better people through your work. Thank you so much for all of your great work and a great conversation for the partnering leadership podcast.

Whitney Johnson: Thank you. Mahan. It's been a privilege.