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Author and advisor Whitney Johnson, named one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50, is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. She’s authored three acclaimed books, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, Dare, Dream, Do, and her latest, Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.

Johnson co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, the person who originated disruption theory. In addition to her work as an author and investment company founder, Johnson is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review and hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself Podcast. The NCMM recently chatted with her about “Build an A Team.”

Why is personal disruption so important for careers and the growth of middle market companies?

Johnson: Organizations that do the same thing over and over get disrupted because they open the door for disruptive innovation by competitors. The only way for a company not to do the same thing over and over is for the people at the company not to do the same thing over and over.

This theory of disruption, and what I now call personal disruption, doesn’t just apply to companies and products, but applies to people too. So the need for individual upskilling is constant, as is the need to find problems that need to be solved. In the process of finding a problem to solve, people end up finding problems for their organization to solve.

So why don’t organizations and managers typically provide more support for personal disruption?

Johnson: Every boss intends to be a great boss, one who allows people to bring their dreams to work and who empowers his people to grow and develop. But when you’ve got these tight deadlines, you’ve got products to ship, you tend to want people doing the same things they’ve always done. So in the day to day struggle to get things done efficiently, that whole vision of what you were going to do for your people gets lost, you take your eye away from personal growth. So your people start feeling bored and stuck, and they stagnate.

What is the “S-curve of learning” and how does it impact an employee’s career development?

Johnson: It looks a lot like a wave, and at the low end of the S, you’re starting a new job, a new project. The curve is flat and low and so a lot of time passes, and people feel like not much learning is happening. Then after about six months to a year, you move on to the back of that S which is really steep. This is the time where you actually know quite a bit, and so you’re feeling increasingly competent and confident. That’s the sweet spot of learning where you want your people to be for as long as possible. Then you get to the top of the S and it gets flat again, so a lot of time passes and not much more is learned. This is the time of mastery. People know exactly what they’re doing, but because they’re no longer learning, their brain is no longer firing off these feel-good chemicals. They’re bored. That’s where you want to figure out what you’re going to do next because if they stay too long on the same curve, people disengage.

How is this S-curve relevant for assembling or managing teams at middle market companies?

Johnson: Every person is on a learning curve. You build an A-team, one that can actually innovate and manage through change, by having at any given time 70% of your people in that steep part of the curve, 15% of your people at the low end of the curve, where they’re asking questions like, “Why do we do it like this?” Those questions open the door to innovation.  And you should have 15% of your people at the high end, with mastery. You don’t want too many people in the sweet spot, you don’t want too many at the low end, where there’s lots of questions and no one to answer them.

Why do you suggest that middle market companies hire people toward the low end of the curve rather than at the high end?       

Johnson: If you hire people who are at the high end of the curve, they’re going to be bored within six to nine months. It’s going to take them a few months to figure out how to navigate their way inside the organization. But after that, their engagement and productivity are going to go way down. So you’ve got a problem, whereas if you’re willing to hire people at the low end of the curve, then time is on your side: you’ll get two to maybe four years of really good solid work out of them once they move into that sweet spot. The work will be challenging and interesting for them and they’ll be engaged and productive.

Why should middle market managers pay close attention to a new hire’s point of view?

Johnson: Knowing nothing means that new hires are not blind through familiarity and routine. They’re going to ask great questions. Think about your middle market company as big jigsaw puzzle. The new hire looks at it thinking, “I don’t even know what you do with all these pieces.” But in trying to figure that out, they’re asking key questions like, “why do we do it like this? Why don’t we do it like that? Have you thought of this other way?”

Now, one of the reasons managers tend to quash those questions is that they can annoy us like a three-year-old constantly asking “why? why?” For a middle market leader who’s not secure, it can feel like a frontal assault. But if you can create a culture where those questions are welcomed and you even sit new hires down and ask, “What are you seeing? What do you see that we can improve?” then that’s going to make a big difference in how you manage change within your organization.

How should middle market managers deploy those at the high end of the S-curve?

Johnson: First, have a conversation with them and say, “Okay, I recognize you’re at the top of the curve and we’re going to figure out what to do about that over the next six to nine months. In the meantime, here’s what I need you to do in order to finish strong in this role.” These masters can serve 3 key functions: number one, be willing to set the pace for the people below and in the sweet spot of the curve. Second, ask them to train people: it’s important that they are training the people who are going to replace them. Third, they can mentor and support collaboration among people who are below and lower along the curve than they are.

How can the middle market managers help these “masters” jump to a new learning curve?

Johnson: They can come to their AID which is an acronym for applaud, identify, and deliver. Applaud means saying, “look at all you’ve accomplished, probably even more than you expected. Look at how our company is different because you were on this learning curve.” Second is to identify the new learning curve if you haven’t already, working with the person. Finally, deliver: they’ve come through and finished strong, so it’s important for you to deliver on helping them adjust to the next learning curve.

If you help them to continue onto new learning curves, you become a boss people love because they know that if they’re on your team, you’ll be their coach for life. That’s really powerful in attracting and engaging talent. It also helps your organization thrive.

This post is part of a larger research project by the National Center for the Middle Market. Get the full picture through the resources below:

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