In Conversation with Whitney Johnson


In an interaction with Deepak Jayaram, Whitney Johnson shares insights on how to disrupt yourself and understand the S-curve.

Give us some insight on how should people think about picking the right mountain, the right S-curve to climb.

Once you are at the top of the curve, you know it is time to jump, but the question is, where to jump next. This framework gives you an opportunity to check through that. So, number one is checking if this an opportunity for you to play where no one else is playing. There might be some competitive risks but is this playing as much as possible where other people are not? Secondly, check if it is playing to your strengths. For example, if you are a great marketer and you are trying to compete against 19 other marketers, that is a strength but it is not distinctive. On the other hand, if you can find a way to be a marketer in a room of 19 coders, now you not only feel strong, but it is also distinctive, and when you feel strong, you are comfortable playing where other people are not. 

Third point is to look at your constraints. We think that if we could move anywhere in the world or could take any kind of job, it doesn’t matter how much money we make. On the one hand, that sounds liberating but on the other, it is quite paralyzing. If you say you can only can live in Mumbai and you need to make x amount of money, it makes a lot easier to start narrowing it down. 

The idea of battling entitlement is an important one. Whenever you are trying to take on a new job or trying to transition, you are effectively looking to jump to a new learning curve, but you are also saying to the person who you want to be hired by that you want them to jump to a new learning curve too. It is not their learning curve but yours, so you need to de-risk it for them so that they are assured they can hire you. By translating what you know how to do into what is needed of you to do, you are much more likely to be hired. Those are a couple of examples of how you can use this framework to transition in your career.

Can you give a couple of examples of market risk and competitive in the context of individual choices?

Whitney Johnson: Oftentimes inside of an organization, people say to themselves that they want to do something new, take jobs that are already taken. That is competitive risk, and if you get that job then that person loses even though they may be doing a perfectly fine job. Instead, you could go to your manager and say that you want to do something new and that you would like to do those jobs but they are taken, so you have identified new opportunities for it. To give an example, when I worked on Wall Street, I was at Merrill Lynch. I was in banking and I got moved into equity research, but I found they already had an analyst. How could I take a market risk when I did not even have a job? It turns out that there were a number of media companies going public and there was no analyst to cover them. So, I decided to cover them, and the great thing about this is that in finding a job for myself, I found an opportunity for Merrill Lynch. In finding a place for me to play, I found a place for my company to play. I took a market risk for myself but I also in a way took a market risk for Merrill Lynch. That’s why I go back to this idea that the fundamental unit of disruption is ultimately the individual.

Deepak Jayaram: What is the kind of risk that people should not take? With regards to competitive risk, what are the kinds of things people do that you can tell are doomed for failure from day zero?

Whitney Johnson: It is not necessarily doomed but the odds are really low. For instance, if there is a job that I want and I see on LinkedIn that there are 50 people applying for that job, I might be more competitive than everybody else. It will also feel safe to apply for that job because there is a job right in front of me. That is the whole idea of competitive risk, that there is an opportunity but there is a competition. I might get it but I might not. In fact, the odds are against me. 

Instead, if there is a company that looks interesting or if there is a problem that no one is solving inside my organization, I’m going to come up with a way that I think can solve that problem. If they decide to create that job, I might not get it but the odds that I’m going to get it are going way up. Again, the reason I tend to not want to do that is because it is hard to want to go play on the playground where no one else is playing. That is market risk. So, on the one hand, it feels riskier but it’s actually less risky when we are willing to take on market risk.

If you really believe that we are always learning, no S-curve is ever wasted. 

What are the lead indicators we can look at in order to know where we are in the S-curve?

There are a couple of markers that you can look at. The phase of inexperience feels like a jumble of puzzle pieces. We don’t know how to put together any of those pieces, we don’t quite know how to do the job but we are not willing to admit it to anybody. There are lots of days when we feel discouraged in this phase. As per the 10,000-hour rule, we reach that sweet spot in six months. It is when that exponential growth is starting to kick in, when we find we are having more and more days where we feel competent, more and more days where we feel confident, where work is fun, where it is hard but not too hard and more and more days where it is easier but not too easy.

What does the tapering of the curve look like?

Whitney Johnson: If you are mapping against the 10,000-hour rule and you are not making any changes, you need to start evaluating when you have stayed in a role for four years. This doesn’t mean that you can’t stay in a role for longer than four years but four years is a good rule of thumb. At the top of the curve, your brain starts chunking. It is like brushing your teeth; you just know how to do it. This means you are starting to get bored and you need to do something else. There are a couple of different solutions. For example, if you are a CEO who is getting bored, maybe you need to go into a new market, or maybe you need to bring on some new people to mentor. There are different ways to do it but at that top, you feel like you want to dial it in, you are not as excited as before.

Sometimes disruptors get into a new situation which they later realize is quite different than what they thought it would be. Given the risk of such an event taking place, how should people think about persisting versus cutting losses?

Going back to the number “six times” and “20 times”, six times higher means you are going to go from 6% to 36% odds that it is the right curve. So, there is still a 64% chance it is the wrong curve. Early on, you don’t know if it is the right or wrong curve, so going through this checklist is a good starting place. Number one, are you taking the right kinds of risks? Are you playing where no one else is playing? That may feel wrong, but it is supposed to feel that way. 

Number two, are you playing to your strengths and distinctive strengths? Number three, is it hard but not debilitating, meaning, do you show up at work every day and feel it is really hard but you also feel alive? If yes, that is a good sign that growth is on its way. If instead you find yourself dreading work, you hate Monday morning and you are getting sick, then you are on the wrong curve. Number four, are you getting momentum? When you feel you know what you are doing for four hours, eight hours, or 16 hours, then it is the right curve. 

If your answers to all those are ‘No’, then it is the wrong curve and it is time to cut your losses. The good news is that no S-curve is ever wasted. If you really believe that we are always learning, no S-curve is ever wasted. If you can answer ‘Yes’, then just hang in there because the growth is going to come.

What do you have in mind when you use the term “distinctive strengths”?

It is what you do well that other people around you don’t. as companies, one of the things we often don’t do is, we don’t have a good idea of what the strengths of the people on our team are. To exemplify, I was once talking to an entrepreneur who played basketball in high school. Her coach would have them go out on the court and shoot baskets from every different place on the court and record their percentages. The unusual part was that after they recorded their percentages, the coach had them memorize the percentages of everybody else on the team, so they would know what their superpowers are. 

One of the ways that you can use this in your organizations and on your team is, during a meeting, pick each person and have everyone else tell the superpowers of that person. It is because we may not know our own superpowers, but everyone else on the team does. Write down those superpowers, and the next time you have a project or contract that you are deciding whether to take or not, one criterion that you should use is asking yourself if this contract will leverage the strengths of your people. This is a way to not only play your strengths, but also leverage your distinctive strengths. Moreover, you are allowing them to be a part of the strategy of your business.

In alluding to the point about feedback from the team, you used the term “speedback” in your book. What does that term actually mean?

The term comes from Google. The premise is speed dating, where two people sit down, talk to each other and decide if they want to date some more. In speedback, the idea is to sit down for five minutes with a person and talk to each other, and after five minutes, you ask the person some feedback about yourself and what they think you do well and vice versa. It sounds tough but the reality is that we contain so much information just in the presence of who we are that we give off a lot of information, so that the person who barely knows us can pick up on that and give us a lot of information about what our strengths actually are. 

One of the themes you talk about is hiring for potential, for people who are at the bottom of the S-curve, rather than hiring for capability or expertise. What should leaders look for when they are hiring for potential?

They have got to have some basic skills of course. But often when we are hiring, the hiring is a bit of a vanity exercise wherein we want a person with an MBA from a particular school, and if we hire such a person, we feel important. Hiring for potential, on the other hand, is hiring for basic skills but looking more for skills like ability to learn in the person. 

We look at the minimum requirements that we need from a person from a skill set perspective, and then look beyond that to see if the person knows how to learn or not, if they are curious and can play nicely on a team, and so on.

If you hire the low end of the curve, they have got three or four years to learn, so you have got four years with this person as opposed to a person at the top of the curve who is going to be bored in six months and you wouldn’t know what to do with them. If you hire for potential, you are going to be able to hire people who innovate, who are asking questions, and it allows your organization to be much more innovative as opposed to complacent, bored at the top of the curve.

If you hire for potential, you are going to be able to hire people who innovate, who are asking questions, and it allows your organization to be much more innovative as opposed to complacent, bored at the top of the curve.

How is the hiring process different when you hire for potential versus when you hire for experience? 

Beginning with job descriptions, it should ask for basic requirement. For example, we say we need an MBA but the fact is the job may not even need a college degree, and besides, there are lots of ways now to credential people without having to have them have a college degree.

You can also find out a lot in the interview process by seeing if person who comes in asks you questions or not. To give an example of a person who is now the CIO at the National Football League in the United States, she saw a job description that looked interesting, and it was for hiring a VP of IT. When she read the description, she said they don’t need a VP of IT, but a CIO. In the interview, she told the recruiters that based on the functions they needed to fill, they needed a CIO and not a VP of IT. Thus, part of hiring for potential not is a person coming in who is clearly very interested, engaged, asking questions, trying to figure out what that might look like and what you really need. You are almost co-creating that job together.

Sometimes when we hire, we use the same job description that we used four years ago, but over time things have evolved and there are people on your team who are already playing that role. Hence, if you hire someone to deliver that same role, you create a competitive risk on your team and disincentivize them. So, it is important to rethink the job description.

You also say that when we hire for potential, there is a greater chance of having more women in the leadership team and there is a greater opportunity for diversity, at least from a gender perspective. Could you expand on that?

There is a research that says that men are judged on their potential and women are judged on their track record. So, we are more likely to hire a man who doesn’t have the skills because we think he has got the potential, whereas when it comes to woman, we say she has never done that before so we can’t hire her. This is just one piece. 

The second piece they found is that if a man doesn’t know how to do the job, he says he can learn it, but a woman will not even apply for a job unless she can deliver on 100% of the job requirements. This means that when you hire a woman, she is probably further up the S-curve than you think she is, and when you hire a man, he might be further down the S-curve than you think he is. You can obviously calibrate for that but it is really interesting to know that and so, when you are willing to be a little more minimalist in your job requirements, you are probably going to get more women who are willing to apply.

While people want to climb another S-curve, they also want to climb vertically in an organization. How do you see people deal with that trade-off where they need to sacrifice a bit of career progression in the spirit of jumping multiple S-curves? How does that play out in a corporate context?

It is going to be a lot easier if the leadership makes that possible, because sometimes people are willing to make moves but have not been asked. We assume that people want to climb up and sometimes people are just thinking about trying something new and not necessarily climbing up. They might even be willing to take a little bit of a cut in pay if only they are able to do something different. The thing that we need to be thinking about is, when we are crafting these steps back, will it be a slingshot? It is not a step back or sideways for no reason. When you disrupt yourself, you go down the y-axis. That is why everybody thinks you are out of your mind, but the reason you do it is because you believe that the slope of your line is going to be steeper. This is why it is a slingshot, and this is why you are willing to disrupt yourself.

We cannot control what the people above us do, but what we can control is what we do on our own watch. So, you make it possible for the people on your watch to move around. You might think that if you try to move someone somewhere else, they will think they are not wanted, so here’s my advice for that. When you have a star performer that you want to give the opportunity to grow and you are willing to advocate for them to move, vouch for them to the person who is going to take them in, say that they are so good you will take them back in six months if the move does not work out. Give them that money-back guarantee. What happens next is, they are at the bottom of the curve, they are engaged, they innovate, they are happy, the company is happy, and now you have opened the door for someone underneath them to start to move into their sweet spot. It is complicated, but it can start with you and your team.

What is the mindset shift required for the CEOs to start running organizations with this paradigm?

Firstly, it is important that leaders realize they too are on a learning curve. It does not necessarily mean that they need to quit or step down as CEO. One of the most innovative companies in terms of practicing personal disruption is WD-40, and the CEO has been there for 20 years, but they have done things like going to China, and so they have found ways to jump to new learning curves. 

Another way that CEOs can do it in a more synthetic fashion is to do something like a drive-by. Choose a day to go have the experience of working on the floor of the plant. If you can, do not tell them you are the CEO, or else you will be treated differently. This is an opportunity to go to the bottom of a learning curve. 

There is another way that can be better illustrated with a story. There was a fellow working at LinkedIn. He was a VP running a billion-dollar unit of business. He had started early on, and had gone in sales from $10 million and eight people, and now he is at a billion dollars and 1000 people. One day, he went to the CEO and said that he wants to be a tech company’s CEO someday. The CEO told him that he has been in sales, whereas for being a CEO, one needs to know how to build product. Completely devastated, he went to reflect, and when he came back, he said, “Let’s make great product.” He was willing to go from a billion dollars, thousand reports to individual contributor, four direct reports and no guarantees. But the CEO agreed; he let this incredible high performer jump to the bottom of a new curve in product where he had four direct reports. Five years later, he is now the head of another division. It is a $2 billion division, and he has sales and product reporting to him. This step back was a huge slingshot forward for him and for LinkedIn. 

Thus, CEOs can make it possible for people to practice personal disruption. If you have people on your team who are high performers and high potentials and they want to try something new, let them. The former CEO of Ford, Alan Mulally says that when you are the CEO, your face isn’t yours anymore. Everything you do is micro. It is analyzed in detail. If you do just one or two of these high profiles, let people disrupt. You will start to see some movement, and when you start to see that movement, you are going to see more innovation and you will then be able to disrupt rather than be disrupted.

Ajay Nanavati (audience member): On a personal front as well as the corporate front, a huge danger is that we surround ourselves with clones of ourselves, Do you have any suggestions on how to break that paradigm of not surrounding ourselves with clones?

Whenever you hire a person you need to look at the functional reasons, why you’re hiring them, what jobs you want them to do, but you also have to look at the emotional reasons why you are hiring that person. Oftentimes the emotional reason is that you want a clone. You want to hire more of “you”, a shinier sleeker version of you. The more we become aware of that, the less we will do it.

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