By Henna Inam
Quick, think about a great boss you had in your career. What made them great?
Chances are you thought about a boss who had your back. Likely it was also someone that helped you learn and grow. In my twenty year corporate career I was lucky to have three bosses who really stand out for me. Each of them were people who grew me by giving me tough challenges, but also helped me succeed in those challenges.
I sat down to discuss this topic of how great leaders build people and teams with Whitney Johnson. Whitney is an innovation and disruption theorist, an executive and performance coach, strategist, and the critically-acclaimed author of Build an A Team, newly published by Harvard Business Press.
Henna Inam: Can you share your thoughts about why this book is particularly needed in today’s workplaces?
Whitney Johnson: Too often, organizations lose their top talent because they don’t understand that every person on their team is a learning machine. You want the challenge of not knowing how to do something, learning how to do it, mastering it, and then learning something new. We want to learn. Leap. And repeat. My own story illustrates this. I had been an equity analyst for eight years, at the top of my game. I had always enjoyed mentoring and coaching and approached my senior leader about moving into a management track. Instead of being supportive, he was dismissive. In retrospect, I probably could have gone about this differently, but the fact is, I was a top performer. It was time to do something new. And the answer was no. I quit within the year. This scenario plays out every day in workplaces across the globe. It’s costing companies time. It’s costing them money. Not to mention, you become that boss-the one no one wants to work for.
Inam: In your book, you make the connection between personal disruption and employee engagement. How are the two connected?
Johnson: Studies show that nationally, only 33 percent of employees are engaged in their work, and worldwide, just 15 percent of employees say they’re engaged. For companies that practice personal disruption, early indications are that these numbers are reversed. For example, one company we studied shows 93% engagement levels, and 97% are excited about their work. This is an outlier as far as engagement goes, but still indicative.
Our research has shown that employees are most engaged when they are in the “sweet spot’ of their learning curve, that middle section where they have moved past being a beginner and are now quickly learning, growing and starting to master their responsibilities. A company that encourages personal disruption, allowing their people to move into new roles, work on stretch assignments, and continue learning on the job, have employees that are happy, productive, motivated and engaged.
Inam: How do you define personal disruption?
Johnson: In 2015 I published Disrupt Yourself, a guide to radically reinventing your own career, where I introduced the concept of Personal Disruption. Personal disruption is a strategy that is centered around learning: You start as a beginner, embracing the confusion that comes with being a novice; you experience a state of deep engagement as you learn, grow and gain traction; and you feel the joy of mastery once you get to the top of your learning curve. But then—crucially—you find a new challenge to tackle, or else you risk becoming bored, complacent and ineffectual, and the cycle starts over.
Inam: How can a great boss help their team members engage in personal disruption?
Johnson: Great bosses allow, encourage, even require their employees to move along their personal S-curve. Whether they oversee a team of ten or ten thousand, they can encourage disruption by saying yes when employees want to move on to new projects, by promoting them, by hiring individuals that show potential rather than proficiency, by giving people work that will stretch and challenge them. And most important, they ensure that for individuals that have proven mastery in their role – they come up with a new plan for them before they get bored or worse, want to quit. The best bosses facilitate growth and celebrate the success of others, and this establishes their reputation as a talent developer and a boss who people love to work for.
Inam: Most people today are fairly exhausted with the pace of change and ambiguity in their organizations. The last thing they want to hear about is more disruption. How is your book a great tool for them to work in the disruptive environment around them?
Johnson: It may seem counter-intuitive, but our framework of personal disruption actually helps to calm the seas of constant change and volatility in the workplace. This is because it gives individuals and managers an internal guidepost within the organization that paves the path for intentional change–change that they can control and manage. When an individual is moving along their personal S-curve, they are in a flow of learning and growth, change that is intentional and foundational, not volatile. It is the same for managers: when they know their team is moving along the S-curve, with an optimal proportion of beginners (15%), engaged learners (70%) and masters (15%) they are assured that their team is on course and primed for excellence. Eager, capable employees, tackling new challenges are a key driver of innovation within an organization.
Inam: Some people are naturally more excited about personal disruption and change than others. How can this book help everyone?
Johnson: Within an organization, this is where leadership and management come in. Leaders that build A teams create a culture that oozes personal disruption. It needs to be part of the organization’s vision and mission. When new hires are onboarded, they need to be immersed in the walk and talk of learning curves, personal growth and change. As a culture of learning sets hold in an organization, HR will start making hiring decisions based on a prospective employee’s willingness to try new things. They hire those who are unafraid to start at the bottom of the S-curve. They bring in managers who can spot talent and who are willing to sponsor and facilitate jumps to new curves.
Importantly, they look for prospects that have expansive potential rather than proficiency.
Inam: What are the biggest challenges to motivating employees? How can the ideas in your book help bosses?
Johnson: That’s an interesting question, because we actually found that motivation is not the core problem for bosses to be addressing head on: it’s learning. Employees become un-motivated because they are bored and unchallenged at work. Change, not stasis, is the natural mode of human life, we are wired for change. Stasis, standing still, being stuck in a non-challenging role, is what leads to boredom, un-engagement and a lack of motivation. Whether managing a small team or overseeing thousands of people across several business units, the best bosses get this. They cultivate environments that keep the work experience fresh. They encourage and facilitate personal disruptions. They recognize that the best reward they can give their people—the thing that motivates and engages beyond money or praise—is learning. It’s what makes each of us more productive. It’s what turns our organizations into talent magnets.
Now, it’s time to look in the mirror. Regardless of whether you’re a boss who leads others or someone who doesn’t yet have direct reports, how will you use these compelling insights to engage in personal and team growth?