Whitney Johnson is a world-leading business thinker, the author of the new book Build an A-Team, and the host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast. She recently sat down with Claire Díaz-Ortiz, former head of social innovation at Twitter and author of Design Your Day and Twitter for Good, to talk about optimizing your — and your team’s — learning curves for a successful, creative, and fulfilling career.
Claire: I’m really interested in [your] idea that people make changes in their careers based on gut feelings.
Whitney: We have this sense inside of our bodies when it’s time to do something, and so often we don’t listen to it — yet our gut actually serves us very, very well. Our bodies are these data centers that give us all this information, and we should listen to them more. When [people] quit a job or decide to jump to a new learning curve, they may not even be able to give you all the logical reasons why, but they knew that there was something in their gut that said, “It was time for me to do something new.”
Claire: So, tell me how you knew that Build an A-Team was going to be your next book, and why this mattered to you so much at the time.
Whitney: At least for me, book ideas come gradually. I can’t think of an aha moment, but what I do know is, a couple of things happened. I wrote this book called Disrupt Yourself, which helps you figure out when it’s time to make that jump, and actually gives you a framework to logically follow when your gut is telling you to do something. A few things that happened [after I wrote Disrupt Yourself]. One, people would say to me, “I want to disrupt myself, but how do I make sure that my boss will let me do it? And if I’m a manager, how do I get my people to disrupt themselves?”
In other words, “How do I create this ecosystem where people are actually comfortable, willing, able, and required to disrupt themselves?” So that was the genesis of me thinking about these ideas from the point of view of a manager. I would also have people read Disrupt Yourself and say to me, “Well, I’m not going to have you come in and talk to my company, because everyone will leave.” [But] if an organization is actually going to stay competitive and innovative, the only way to pull that off is if you let the people inside of your organization disrupt themselves. Because people who are bored either leave or, if they stay, they’re not engaged, which is really bad as a company. So this book came about for a couple of different reasons, but the fundamental perspective is, if you want to be competitive, you’ve got to let your people disrupt themselves.
Claire: Let’s talk about this idea of disengagement [in the workplace] and how that relates to hiring. You say, “Here’s what usually sets the stage for a new hire: We’re shorthanded and overwhelmed, a key employee has moved within the company, opted for a fresh start elsewhere or taken a leave of absence, maybe business has suddenly ramped up with a signing of a new client or the winning of a large contract — we need help in the form of a body who can step into the role today and do the job now. Someone to solve our pain. Desperate, we hire the person who we perceive to be the most qualified to fill the void and for a time, they do. ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’ goes the adage. Because we hired someone at the top of the curve, within months they are bored and looking around for a new suitor. Soon, we’re back at square one, overwhelmed on the rebound and poised to hire in haste again.” Talk to me about this.
Whitney: You go to a place called Butte, Montana for the answer. Butte, Montana is known as the richest hill on earth. In mid-1800’s there was the gold rush — miners came [and] the early rush was disappointing, so a lot of those early speculators sold off their claims. So the next wave of miners comes in and they discover copper. Well, copper in the mid-1800’s was not valuable. But as technology advanced and electrical wiring became a thing, then copper became extremely valuable. So these people, these miners who were patient, they’re actually now known as the Copper Kings.
I think of Butte, Montana when people say to me, “I can’t find anybody to hire.” My question is, “Are you looking for the gold standard, the silver standard, when in fact copper would do?” When you hire for potential, not for proficiency, time is on your side. Time plus confidence equals boredom. When you hire for potential and not for proficiency, it’s the equivalent of buying low and selling high from a stock market perspective.
Claire: One of the companies you talk about in the book is called Chatbooks. They basically put your Instagram posts into cool little books that you can give to friends and family. But you talk about them in relation to this idea of what you call giving people real responsibility. Can you talk to me about that?
Whitney: Chatbooks is a good example of a company that didn’t get the business model right immediately. They started with one business model, that didn’t work, but fortunately, they hadn’t run out of money. They started with another business model, that didn’t work — again they hadn’t run out of money, so they tried a third time. They finally started to do some of the lean startup methods so they could get the business model right. Like you said, they print these lovely little books and hire candidates for high-performance creativity, and they want qualities like “grown-up, amazing, kind, and optimistic.”
“If you want to be competitive, you’ve got to let your people disrupt themselves.”
Often times, there’s not this immediate, obvious fit. One of the co-founders, Vanessa Quigley, told me, “If they’re excited, if they’re flexible, if they’re going to work hard, then we’re willing to hire them and move them around over time.” Their marketing director took over the email campaign for six months while they looked for someone to do that job, but then once they found someone to do that job, then they were able to move her into doing a content initiative. They’re finding people, letting them start at the bottom of the curve, moving to the top, and once they do, they allow them to jump to the bottom of a new learning curve.
Claire: So how does this relate to this idea of creating a milestone chart? What is that and how does it work?
Whitney: A milestone chart [comes from] a conversation: “Here’s our vision for the company, here’s our vision for the team. What’s your vision for your job here? What’s your vision for me as a boss for you? And, here are some things that we want you to get done in the first week, in the first month, in the first three months.”
If you can give them these milestones of things that are fairly easily achievable, it allows them to start getting their footing, to gain some traction at the bottom of the curve, while still having some constraints. Once they get three months in, they’ll be able to figure out if this is the right curve for them. Sometimes people end up in the wrong role when you hire them and so early on, you want to have those milestones to constantly check for fit and make sure that over time you’re iterating until you find the actual right role for them.
Claire: It’s interesting that people tend to lead with what they do well, but not what they do best.
Whitney: What happens is that every single person has genius, every person has a superpower. Because it’s your superpower, it’s this thing that you do reflexively well, so you don’t notice it or value it at all.
I’ll give you a great example from my own career. I remember when I moved into equity research, I was so proud of the fact, because here I was a music major [in college]. I built these financial models and [was] proud of myself, but that wasn’t my superpower. My superpower was the fact that I could connect investors and I was great at making stock calls. But guess what I wanted to tell everybody I was good at? Building financial models. I didn’t want to talk about my superpower because my superpower couldn’t possibly be valuable.
So part of the job of a great boss, of a great leader, is to identify the superpowers of the people who work for them and then persuade them that those superpowers are actually valuable and then get them to use those superpowers.
Claire: You talk about this idea of a “best by” date for an employee. Like the thing you see on a milk carton. What does that mean? What does that look like and how does it help on both sides, from the hiring perspective and from the employee perspective, and understanding where you are in the S curve, and if it’s time to stick around or move on?
Whitney: If you think about this S curve or the learning curve, you’re going to be at the low end of your learning curve for six months to a year. Where you’re inexperienced, you don’t quite know what you’re doing, you’re figuring stuff out, you’re probably coming home from work a lot of days feeling discouraged like, “Did I take the wrong job?” And if you’re the boss, you’re thinking, “Oh, I may have hired the wrong person to the wrong role.”
But it’s just that you’re figuring stuff out, and the exponential growth of your learning hasn’t kicked in. But then after about six months to a year, you move into that knee of that curve and that’s the sweet spot, that steep part of the S. Mapping against the 10,000-hour rule, you’re going to be in that place two to three years on average. And this is where you’re very competent, and this is where you want most of your people on your team, in that place where they know enough but not too much — you can challenge them, you can push them, you can give them stretch assignments.
Then two to three years later, you get to the top of the learning curve, and that’s the stage of mastery. You can be at that place for six months to a year. And at that point in time, everything is very easy for you. Your brain knows exactly what it’s doing, but you’re also getting bored. Because you’re bored, this plateau can quickly become oppressive if you don’t jump to a new curve. And so you’re best by three to four years and then it’s time for you to jump to a new curve. You need to learn, and then you need to leap, and then you need to repeat. When you’re willing to honor that cycle, that biology of change, your people are going to be the most productive, they’re going to be happiest and most engaged. And that’s good for them, but it’s especially good for you as a boss and for an organization.