In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Whitney Johnson. Whitney is CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors. She is one of the top ten business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. Whitney is an expert in smart growth leadership, and she co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s late Clayton Christensen. She’s also the author of the book — Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.
Growing is the goal. Helping people develop their potential and become the self they want to be and are capable of being is what leaders strive toward. And as individuals grow, so do organizations. If you want to lead and scale an organization, that transformation starts within. In this episode, I talk with Whitney Johnson about how to grow a business — the smart way — by cultivating a culture of learning and growth.
Questions I ask Whitney Johnson:
- [1:26] How are you applying the S Curve of Learning to growth and leadership?
- [2:48] Sometimes, there’s a point in the S Curve of Learning where even though it takes off, it can actually nosedive. Is this something you see happening with personal development?
- [4:09] I’ve owned my own business coming up on 30 years. And I feel like there’s not just one S curve of growth – what’s your view on that?
- [6:50] Would you say your book is as much about personal development as it is about leadership development?
- [8:14] What are some of the new habits or questions that people need to start asking themselves instead of just saying this is the new way we’re going to do things?
- [9:54] What advice do you have for people trying to get through the long part where they may not be seeing any advancement?
- [13:25] How can a leader or someone trying to develop personally apply the ‘collect like a child’ idea from your book?
- [15:43] Do you think the leadership part in your book might be harder to install because of the varying cultural aspects inside of different organizations?
- [17:19] Your book is filled with interviews – is there a story in the book that you feel has really nailed it?
- [19:37] Where can people find out more about your book and your work?
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the duct tape marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Whitney Johnson. She's the CEO of the tech enabled talent development company, disruption advisors, one of the top 10 business thinkers in the world as named by thinkers 50. She's an expert at smart growth leadership. She co-founded the disruptive innovation fund with Harvard business. School's late Clayton Christensen and she's the author of a book we're gonna talk about today. Smart growth, how to grow your people to grow your company. So Whitney, welcome to the show,
Whitney Johnson (01:22): John, thanks for having me.
John Jantsch (01:24): So Clayton Christensen is probably the person that, you know, people that have been doing this, as long as me hold up there is like, that's the first person that like said stuff that made sense to me.
Whitney Johnson (01:46): Yeah, so I was exposed to it in investing with Clayton. So we all have our, our place that we learned about it and it's been around for a hundred years and we used it to help us figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopt and trying to make investment, buy, and sell decisions. And as we were applying it for investing, I had this insight that we could use the S curve, not only to think about how groups change over time, but how individuals change over time. Yeah. And every time you start something new, you start a new project, start a new job. You are at the base of that S and growth is happening, but it's gonna feel slow until you reach a tipping point or the knee of the curve. And you move into the sweet spot that steep, sleek back of the curve, right? And then you reach this place called mastery where growth starts to taper off. And my aha was is that we could use it to understand the emotional arc of growth. And when we take on something new, it allows us to say, okay, if I know where I am in my growth, I know what's next. Yeah. So that's how I'm applying it.
John Jantsch (02:46): So unfortunately, you know, while a lot of people accept this idea of yes, oh, there's this point where it takes off, you know, there's a lot of times, that's the point where it actually dives nose dives too, right? Mm-hmm
Whitney Johnson (03:04): Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that was interesting to me is as you have now, surmised, I'm very steeped in disruptive innovation. And what we saw with disruption is that even if you were going to pursue a disruptive course and your odds of success increased by six times that went from 6% to 36%. So there was still a 64% chance that it wasn't going to work. And it's going to be similar. When you decide I'm going to jump to this brand new S curve, I'm going to do something new. There are, there's a large possibility that you'll decide this curve isn't for me, or this is not going to work. And so one of the things that I recommend is at the launch point, you have this Explorer phase of deciding, do I even want to be here? Whether you decided to jump or were pushed, but then you've gotta go through this collection phase. Yeah. And that's that place where you say, I do wanna be here, but can I get the resources that I need from this ecosystem in order to accelerate into the sweet spot?
John Jantsch (04:06): So I've own my own business for, um, coming up on 30 years. And one of the things I've realized is that I'm constantly in about 47 S-curves at any given time is what it feels like to me. I don't feel like there's one S-curve of growth. Yeah. I feel like there's everywhere. So mm-hmm
Whitney Johnson (04:38):
John Jantsch (05:42): I've, I've actually referred to it as seasons. I feel like, you know, businesses go through seasons. You know, they're not, they're not annual linear necessarily, but they're, I think it's kind of what you're describing. Isn't it? It's like, okay, now we're in this gathering, you know? Yeah. You know, because then that's gonna produce, you know, fruit. I feel like that is something almost tangible.
Whitney Johnson (06:03): Oh, I love that. I love that metaphor. So, and I love talking about growth. And as you can see our, our listeners, can't see, but I've got behind me, botanical prints of strawberries and peaches because we grow raspberries and strawberries, et cetera. But if you, if you wanted to pull that metaphor, you could argue that the launch point that's the spring and that's the time where you are planting. And then you're going to move into the summer, which is a sweet spot where you've got that bountiful, you know, everything's growing. And then you're gonna start to harvest when you get into mastery. And then when that decision's made to do something new, you're gonna go dormant. There's gonna, there's this period of latency where you're quiet and it's the winter. As you start to think about moving to your new curve.
John Jantsch (06:48): So, so the subtitle book, how to grow your people to grow your company would imply that this is a book about leadership. Mm-hmm
Whitney Johnson (06:58):
John Jantsch (06:59): So is
Whitney Johnson (07:00): That so you are very astute
John Jantsch (07:57): Yeah. Cuz really, without a great deal of self-awareness you're probably not gonna be a great leader. Right?
Whitney Johnson (08:02):
John Jantsch (08:03): So are there some, I I'm sure this is like a lot of things, you know, people read this book and they go, we've gotta do this.
Whitney Johnson (08:23): Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I love that question because I believe in setting small, ridiculously small goals, I read atomic habits and you probably did too. Had em on a podcast.
John Jantsch (08:34): One of my questions actually
Whitney Johnson (08:36): Well, there you go. So yeah. So what I recommend you do is if you find yourself thinking, oh, this model makes sense to me. Yeah. And it is purposely simple. It is purposely visual because that makes it useful. What I would say to you is just get out a piece of paper and draw the S and say to yourself, where am I on this? S yeah. And then have a conversation with a person, a colleague, a person on your team and say, where do you think you are on the S now we have an assessment tool that you can use, but you ask me a simple way to start. Yeah. That's where you'd start is you draw it out, you have a conversation and then you can plot where your team is. But that initial spark of just drawing that curve and talking about where do you think you are, that orients yourself, orients, you orients your team and you can start to have a very robust conversation about growth and the growth upside you see in this role in your organization.
John Jantsch (09:33): So this leads me to my James clear moment as a matter of fact. Yeah. So you just talked about orienting yourself and I, and I suspect that there is a point, I, I think people probably can orient themselves in the sweet spot and they probably can orient themselves into getting started. It's that messy middle, that sometimes is really long, boring slog mm-hmm
Whitney Johnson (10:22): Yeah. It's a great question. And what I would say is I wouldn't necessarily call that the messy middle, cuz I think when you're in this sweet spot, that's where you're exhilarated and you've got this optimized tension of it's hard, but not too hard. So you're feeling this sense of, of competence and autonomy and relatedness. I think what you're referring to is when you're at the launch point and you've made the decision, Hey, I'm gonna do this and growth is happening, but it's not yet apparent. It's like the, the Lily pads in a pond, like there's one and then there's two and then there's four. But ah, there's not very many pads in the pond. And so what I recommend you do there is number one is know psychologically what's happening is that you are at the launch point. It is going to feel like a slog.
And that helps you talk yourself through the impatience that you feel. But then to your James clear or James clear moment to make things clear is if you think about what's happening in your brain, whenever you do something new, you're running a predictive model. And so with the launch point, you're running this model and you're making lots of predictions, most of which are inaccurate. And so your dopamine is dropping a lot and that is not fun. And so what you can do is you can set those small ridiculously small goals. Like for example, I'm learning Korean right now. Am I studying well because I love K dramas, but am I studying 30 minutes a day? No, I have an app. I pull out dual Ando and maybe I do 30 seconds a day. Maybe I do three minutes. Yeah. But I've done it for 103 straight days. Right? Yeah. And so what happens is when that goal is really small, you can hit it every day. You can oftentimes beat it. And when you beat goals, guess what happens, dopamine ding. And so it's that ability to have those small goals, beat those small goals at the launch point that allows you to basically gamify it and move through the slog of that place where growth is not apparent until you hit that sweet spot and things become exhilarating.
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So you have a lot of you break kind of the stages down into a lot of things that you should be doing or paying attention to. Or I talked about maybe new habits and I'll just let you, um, kind of talk about how it applies is collect like a child. You know, I've always told people, I think curiosity is really, you know, my superpower. I mean, I'd love to see how things start, how they work, why they don't work, why something is out place. And so that to me, I was like, well, yeah, I just do that instinctively, but talk a little bit about that. How a leader, you know, or somebody trying to develop personally can apply that idea.
Whitney Johnson (13:32): Well, first of all, I want to flag for you. That is a superpower. Whenever someone says, Hey, I just do this instinctively that is telling me, oh yeah, that's a strength. Not everybody. Does that just a reminder. Yes. Yes. So just wanna wanna say that one of the things that, that a child does that around the curiosity is first of all, they, and we would go into something and say, I just want to understand what this is. I just want to figure this out. And at that point there's very little ego and your identity is not on the line. And so for example, I can remember when I was three or four years old, our family had gone to see the sound of music and I came home and we had an upright piano and I started to figure out how do I play? DOE re me on the piano.
There was no question in my mind of like, will I not be able to do it? Will I look dumb if I can't figure it out? None of that identity ego was part of the equation. And so collecting like a child is to be at the launch point and say, I like this curve. I, I want to be here. I now have to get the data that would tell me, can I get the resources that I need? And, and I'm gonna be able to gain momentum here and just to collect that data and not have it be a referendum on your identity. It's just data. Can I get the resources? Do I enjoy this? If the answer is yes, then I keep going. If the answer is no, then I stop. It's not about my ego. It's just about iterating and learning and growing and developing. And so that's the collecting like a child where the ego is out of the equation.
John Jantsch (15:10): So it may actually be a superpower. My parents didn't always think it was
Whitney Johnson (15:14): Then it definitely is
John Jantsch (15:15):
Whitney Johnson (15:39): Yeah, no it doesn't. And I think that one of the things that is increasingly apparent to me, the more experienced I get in life is that so often will say, well, I think this using this as a tool to think about growth is a great idea, but can you persuade my manager? Right? And the answer is, no, I can't persuade your manager. Um, but you can. And the way that you can is if you will start with you and if you will start to implement this idea with the people on your team. Yeah. And to collect those data points, because when you are persuading someone to do something new, you are effectively asking them to jump to a new S-curve, which is scary. They don't want to do it. And so what you're doing is you're packing a parachute for them to make it safe for them to do that new thing. Yeah. And you make it safe by you being a Proofpoint by being the people on your team, being a Proofpoint and something as simple as drawing an S and having a conversation. That's not very scary. Yeah. That's pretty easy to do. And so you have more control than you think you do, and start with something so simple. So ridiculously small, it's pretty tough to say, well, I don't wanna listen. No, it's something simple. You can start there.
John Jantsch (16:53): So you filled this book with a lot of interviews of people that you had talked to that, you know, kind of are, are doing some of this. This is probably a difficult question. So I'll let you break it up. If you want, you know, is there a story in the book or is there a person that you've talked to since, you know, reading the book, even that you feel like has really kind of nailed this approach, brought this approach to their organization and it's made a difference.
Whitney Johnson (17:15): Yeah, I do actually. So, and they're not in the book. So it's a company called Chatbooks. They're in Provo, Utah, and they turn Instagram photos into, or actually Lehigh, Utah. They turn Instagram photos into books and they have been around for about seven years. It's a great culture. People like to work there. And because people like to work there, they had a lot of people who were getting to the top of the S-curve. They were reaching mastery. And so we administered our S-curve tool. And our CEO said, Whitney, this is really helpful because it's giving us a language to talk about our, our experience. Three examples specifically, what happened? One person, the chief marking officer said, now I understand the experience I'm having. It's not that I don't like working here. It's not that I don't like you as a boss. It's just that I'm at the top of my curve.
I'm not growing anymore. I need to do something new. And so it de personalized her jumping to a new curve at a different company. In another instance, you had the president who was presumably on a new curve, but he was bumping up against the scope of the CEO that allowed them to have a conversation said, Hey, CEO, go jump to your curve. So that I've got headroom on my curve. Again, allowed them to have a conversation. And then the third thing that happened was the CTO who had been there for several years, was taking on some new responsibilities that were putting him at the launch point. And he was kind of uncomfortable, cuz he's supposed to be the expert. Yeah. It gave him a way to say, Hey, everybody doing something new I'm at the launch point, it's supposed to be uncomfortable and awkward and gangly. And it gave him permission. And then also could talk his team through that. And so very simple language to talk about the experience that people were having.
John Jantsch (18:58): Well, that's a, that's such a great example too, because very different outcomes for all of them. Yes. But all of them, even if they were painful because they caused change all of them very positive.
Whitney Johnson (19:08): Right?
John Jantsch (19:09): Yeah. That's awesome. So, so when you tell people where they can find out, I know the book's available anywhere, but where they can find out more about your work as well.
Whitney Johnson (19:16): Yeah. Thank you for asking. So one easy place is to go to Whitney johnson.com and or to our podcast disrupt yourself. But Whitney johnson.com is the easiest place to start.
John Jantsch (19:28): Awesome. Well, I appreciate you taking the time out to stop by the duct tape marketing podcast. And hopefully we'll run into you in person one of these days out there on the road.
Whitney Johnson (19:36): Oh thank you, John, for having me.
John Jantsch (19:38): Hey, and one final thing before you go, you know how I talk about marketing strategy strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the marketing strategy assessment. You can find it @ marketingassessment.co not .com .co check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketingassessment.co I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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Running a small business means doing it all. You deserve an online marketing platform that does the same! Semrush is an all-in-one platform that will lighten the load. Handle SEO, social media, and advertising all in one place. Attract new customers, save time and money on marketing, and get ahead of the competition. New to online marketing? No problem! Semrush will get you started. If you’re ready to grow online, try Semrush free today at semrush.com/now.