The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 110

Whitney Johnson

Building an A-Team

Has your team plateaued? What about you? Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A-Team and cofounder of Harvard Business School’s Disruptive Innovation Fund, says that once you reach the top, you either innovate or atrophy. Discover how to become a talent magnet, when it’s time to disrupt yourself, and how to best support your employees as they navigate their learning curves.


Book: Build an A-Team
Bio: Whitney Johnson is a CEO adviser and the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015). Previously, she was an award-winning Wall Street analyst and cofounded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton Christensen. She is a frequent keynote speaker on disruption, is recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50 and Fortune, and hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself podcast. She is married and has two children.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We are lucky enough today to have with us a very good friend of mine and a great person, Whitney Johnson. She’s the author most recently of Build an A Team, this is what the book will eventually look like. This is an early galley copy. Play to the strengths and lead them up the learning curve.

Whitney also writes for HBR. That’s how I first got to know Whitney, because we were sort of fellow columnists. She published a book recently, Disrupt Yourself, which was a great book, putting the power of disruptive innovation to work. She was recognized as one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50, which she has repeatedly gotten nominated for. This book is sort of the continuation of a conversation around disruption. She’s kind of awesome, so I hope you enjoy it. Whitney, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Whitney: Thank you, Peter. I’m so happy to be here.

Peter: Whitney, let’s start with why you wrote this book, and maybe how it grew out of your last book, or how it’s different than your last book, and what you’re hoping that the book will do.

Whitney: Yeah, absolutely. The prior book, Disrupt Yourself, the whole point of that was … Well, let me backup. I wrote that book because I had had this big a-ha while I was working with Clayton Christensen. We had founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund together, and one of the things that I realized as we were doing this work, is that this framework of disruption doesn’t just apply to products and services. It actually applies to people. For the last five years, I’ve been researching and codifying this framework of personal disruption; so that whether you’re building a team or you’re trying to scale an organization, or just trying to get your people to be more innovative, you’ve got a structure to do this.

In Disrupt Yourself, I outline that seven point framework of personal disruption, which really focused on the individual. How do I know when it’s time to disrupt myself? And then once I do, how do I do it effectively? And then I outlined the seven points, the seven levers, whether it was taking the right kinds of risks, battling your sense of entitlement, or being discovery-driven.

After I wrote that book and I’m traveling around the globe, talking, consulting, coaching, I have a lot of people say to me, “Okay. I got it, I got it, I got it. I get that I need to disrupt myself, and I want to, but how do I persuade my boss to let me disrupt myself? And how do I as a manager get my people to disrupt themselves?” In other words, how do I create an ecosystem where this is possible? From that, this next book, Build an A Team, was born.

Peter: It’s great. And it feels like the essence of the book is really about learning, right? Disrupting yourself is very much about ways in which you’re willing to change and learn. Can you talk about that for a moment?

Whitney: Absolutely. This is where the S curve comes in. It was popularized by E.M. Rogers in 1962 to help you figure out how quickly an innovation or a product would be adopted. But as I was applying that, I thought, you know, I think again, this applies to people and how we learn. And so if you think about, if you can picture an S in your mind right now. At the bottom of the S, you start something new. You feel inexperienced, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re trying to put all the pieces together, and your brain’s trying to process and find patterns. But after six months to a year, yes, there you go. Everybody can see that little curve.

Peter: For those of you watching the video, there’s an S curve on the video.

Whitney: Right. Then after six months or so, the pieces start to come together like a jigsaw puzzle. You have some sense of where you’re going, and so you accelerate into that knee of that curve, or the hyper-growth, where you’re feeling competent and with that comes confidence. This, of course, is the exciting part of the curve; that sweet spot where you’re learning a lot, but you haven’t learned everything, but things aren’t so hard. You’re overwhelmed.

Then after two to three years in a role or a project or a job, you get to the top of that curve where you’re a master and things are easy, but because your brain’s no longer enjoying the feel good effects of learning, you can get bored. At that point in time, if you want to continue to be productive, all in, engaged in whatever it is you’re doing, you’ve got to disrupt yourself and start over. It’s this cycle of learning, and then leaping, and then repeating.

Peter: Got it. Okay. Let’s play with this a little bit, because it’s an essential element of the book, and I think it’s really interesting. Breaking it up into these three segments is important and I want to start with the first segment which is the transition in effect. The space when you’re inexperienced before you’ve gotten to engagement. That is a really hard place for people to sit with and move through, I find, because they don’t know what they don’t know, but they know that they don’t know a lot, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s sort of like getting into a cold pool. The transition is always much more painful than once you’re in the new state.

You probably find people falling off this curve at various elements, but I imagine there’s a tremendous number of people who resist getting on the curve to start with. And what you have found helps people. You’re thinking about managers helping other people to learn. One way is how you help yourself, and the other question is, how do you help someone else who is intimidated by the hump of doing something they just don’t know anything about, to get to a place where they begin to learn enough to get some self-momentum?

Whitney: I think there are two questions there, is how do you get them to disrupt themselves in the first place? And then once they have, how do you help them? I think one of the things to remember is that whenever you get to the top of a learning curve, it’s like a plateau or the top of a mountain. But if you stay there too long because you’re bored, you can actually precipitate your own demise. You can either jump, or you can get pushed. That’s basically the idea, the innovator’s dilemma.

I think as a boss, when a person gets to the top of a curve, if they’re not ready to jump on their own, you can just make it scarier not to jump. Here are all the bad things that are going to happen to you if you try to stay here indefinitely. You’re going to get bored, your performance is going to dip, and if your performance dips, then your ratings will go down. You’ll get paid less. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Sometimes, you just have to make it scarier not to change.

Once you do that, then you can hand them the carrot and say, “And here are the exciting things that will happen once you do change.” But I think that can help. Once they’ve actually jumped, or sometimes been pushed … One of the things that I find interesting is that often times, when people have lost their job, they’ve been fired or laid off, they knew it was time to jump to a new curve, and yet they wouldn’t do it, and so the universe just kind of gave them a little bit of a nudge.

Now, once you’re at the bottom, I think the ability to understand this S curve and what it means, and how your brain hasn’t pieced things together, knowing that you’re going to do a lot of things, and it feels like nothing is happening. What’s happening is that the exponential growth hasn’t kicked in yet. So when you’re aware of that, and you come home from work feeling discouraged, you can say, “Oh. That’s right. I’m at the low end of the S curve. I’m supposed to be discouraged. Oh, that’s right. I just hired this person. They’re at the low end of the S curve. I’m supposed to be impatient. But if we’ll stay with it, I’ll get less impatient, or I’ll feel like I made the right decision in hiring you, and this person’s going to feel like they’re increasingly competent.”

Peter: This is going to sound like a non-sequitur, but it’s not. It’s totally connected. You’re no longer running an asset management firm.

Whitney: No.

Peter: You’re no longer managing money.

Whitney: No.

Peter: That was a major disruption for you, right?

Whitney: Correct.

Peter: You made this decision to say, “I’m going to leave this, and I’m going to go do this other thing.” And you had no experience in this other thing called writing and speaking, and being a thought leader, and defining your brand in that way.

Whitney: Well, because I was an equity analyst before, but no, I hadn’t. Keep going with your question, and I’ll come back to that.

Peter: What I’m curious about is it’s one thing to push yourself, or for a manager to push an employee when I’m going to warn them, “Okay. Here are things you’re going to lose if you don’t disrupt yourself. Your salary’s going to go down,” et cetera. “And by the way, while you’re learning, I’m going to be supporting you, so your salary is not going to go down while you’re learning, and you’re going to be learning new things,” and et cetera. There’s this natural buffer and support, and foundation, and scaffolding that allows people in an organization to go from mastery to inexperience to engagement and then again to mastery.

When you made the kind of move that you made, or that many people make, where they don’t lose a job, but they decide to leave a job, they don’t have that kind of scaffolding. It’s a much scarier move. And I wonder from your own experience, if you can talk to what helps people get over that hump and take the risks? Because they’re real. They’re even bigger risks when you don’t have that kind of scaffolding underneath you.

Whitney: Yeah. It’s interesting. In particular, I think about when I first left Wall Street. I was an equity analyst, it’s 2005. The reason I said I had some experience writing is because as an analyst, you write. But 2005, here I am. I’m at the top of my curve. I’m institutional investor ranked. I remember when I left, my boss said, or my boss’s boss said, “You’re making such a stupid decision,” which oftentimes happens. People say to you, “You’re out of your mind.”

I think what happens is that whenever we’re working, any job that we have is doing a functional job, which is putting food on the table, but it’s also doing an emotional job. Usually, when people make these moves that seem to not make any sense, you realize that what’s really happening is that that job where they were isn’t doing the emotional job that they needed it to do anymore. You’re not learning. It may be that you’re not getting the acknowledgement or the accolades, or whatever you feel that you need to feel valued in that work that you’re doing.

It’s that sense of, “I think if I …” It becomes painful at some level, emotionally painful for you. And that sounds a little bit intense, but I think there is some level of that, where you say, “I need to go do this new thing, because I know I will be happier, because at some level, I’m in a little bit of pain, and I believe that this next opportunity will be bigger for me. And I will say to you, I think this is important. I remember at one point, I had written in a Harvard Business Review article, and this one man said to me, “You know, I’m at the top of my curve. I have 10 years worth of savings, and I still won’t jump.” And I think that sometimes … So it means it wasn’t a financial concern. Sometimes, when we don’t jump, the reason that we’re saying that we’re not jumping isn’t actually the reason.

Peter: Right.

Whitney: Something to consider.

Peter: As you know, my next book that’s coming out is called Emotional Courage, and it’s about the willingness to feel the hard things we need to feel, in order to do the things that we really want to do. Even when it is money, it’s really an emotional block that says, “Am I scared? Can I survive?” Sometimes it’s really a question of materially surviving. More often than not, there’s a fear about that that’s not necessarily embedded in the truth.

Whitney: “Will I emotionally survive?”, is really the question.

Peter: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that’s exactly right. You talk about seven ways managers can support and accelerate their employees’ movement up the learning curve. Can you just go through them briefly, just to give people an overview of here are the things that we do to prop people and nudge them.

Whitney: Yeah. Just to be clear, are you talking about the seven different points of how a manager can apply the framework of disruption?

Peter: Yes, like the right risks in playing to an individual’s distinctive strength and imposing thoughtful constraints.

Whitney: Okay. All right. I just wanted to make sure that that’s what you were talking about. Okay. Number one is a willingness to take the right risk, which is this idea of playing where no one else is playing. Sometimes, when we hire people into a job, over time, the job … what people do day to day actually morphs. When you’re hiring someone, you sometimes hire people into a job that someone else on the team is already doing. So make sure when you hire them, to allow them the ability to play where no one else on the team is playing, because they’re more likely to be successful.

Second one is to play to their distinctive strengths; is to identify what people do well that other people on the team don’t. That’s a lot harder to do than we would think, because people tend not to actually value what they do especially well, because it’s reflexive. It’s like breathing, like, “Why would I value breathing?” So a manager not only values those, but says to the person, “This is important, and I might be taking this away so that you can actually do this thing.” And that thing that they’re taking away is often something that they worked hard to do, so there’s this whole psychology that goes to getting your people to play to what they do well.

Peter: That’s interesting, because often times we don’t work as hard on our strengths, because they’re strengths. They come naturally.

Whitney: Right.

Peter: And it actually seems like what you’re describing now is also telling managers, leverage the upside of the mastery element of the curve in order to then generate some energy and engagement around the inexperience part of the curve.

Whitney: Yeah, exactly. The third one is constraints, the importance of constraints. In order to climb a curve, you have to have friction. Friction can come in the form of constraints, where you’re giving people stretch assignments. We often times don’t give high potential stretch assignments, because we’re afraid that they’ll fail. But you need to give them stretch assignments if they’re going to climb that curve and really be productive and engaged in all.

The fourth is to battle your sense of entitlement. That’s your sense of entitlement as a manager, meaning when a person gets to the top of a learning curve, and your team is humming and you’re humming, there’s a sense of, “Well, I built this team. I deserve a fiefdom.” And yet … so when people get to the top of the curve, you don’t want to let them go. You become a talent hoarder, and so you’ve got to battle your sense of, “I deserve this,” and let people jump to a new learning curve.

The fourth is to step back in order to grow, which is a little bit of a build on of that. Again, you’re going to have short-term productivity losses when you let people come on that are inexperienced, or when you let people jump that are highly experienced, but that step back can be a slingshot in terms of the ability of your team to innovate.

Number six is to give failure its due, which is to recognize that the up and down are part of personal disruption. You do need to be pushing people hard enough that they actually make mistakes, otherwise they’re not going to be able to innovate. At the same time, when they do fall, remember that that’s often the time where they need the most encouragement, not the least, from you.

Then number seven is a willingness to be driven by discovery. Again, because people often times lead with what they do well; not with what they do best. You’re going to, not infrequently, hire people into the wrong slots. They’ll start, and it won’t be that they’re … They won’t be kind of doing as well as you thought they were. And it’s not because they’re not working hard; it’s just that they’re not slotted to their strengths.

So be willing to say, after three or six months, “Huh. This person, I think they might be better here,” and be willing to move them, as opposed to showing them the door because right out of the gate, they weren’t exactly what you thought they were going to be. That’s the seven steps of personal disruption, applied not to you as an individual, but to you as a manager.

Peter: It seems like the sort of thing about emotional courage is the need for the manager to be courageous. It’s not just the learner who’s courageous, but the manager who’s saying, “I’m going to …” First of all, they need to be strategic, right? You’re saying, “Don’t just sit and manage people, but sit back and think about them, and think about your people, and think about the roles, and take some time,” which is something a lot of managers never do; which is to take some time away. This is not just about getting work done. Right? It’s about thinking strategically about who you have, what you’re having them do, and how they’re going to be most leveraged, in a sense, and where they have the capacity to grow. Then you’re asking them to take a bunch of risks with their people, too, and a bunch of risks with how they manage their teams.

Whitney: Right. The only thing that will … Sometimes, people will say to me, “Well, I can’t get my boss to let me disrupt myself.” The manager says that. And I say, “Okay, that may be true. But they’ve never seen this before, so the best thing you can do is create a proof point for them. And that proof point, the starting proof point, is for you to manage your team that way. When you’re managing your team that way, the only thing you need to have your boss do is not get in your way. Because over time, if you do that, then they will get buy-in, and so that’s really the only thing you need to do in order to manage your team this way.”

Again, the upside for you is that as you allow your people to learn, leap, repeat, then you become a boss that people want to work for, because they’re like, “I want to go work for Peter, because I know that when I’m ready to move, he’s going to let me move on.” So then you start to become a talent magnet, like John Calipari, the … Kentucky, the basketball coach. And then you start building these A teams and vast networks of A teams.

Peter: I’m curious about how dependent all of this is on a generous learning organizational culture, right? I worked at a very large consulting firm, and actually, they asked me to look at their competency model for consultants, because I had done a tremendous amount of work in competence models. And I said, “Look, there’s one competency that glaringly is missing to me, and it has to do with creativity and innovation.” And they said, “No, no, no. Our star performers don’t have that.” And I said, “What do you mean?”

They said, “We’re 50,000 people, and the way we operate is we replicate methodology across 50,000 people, and if we have a bunch of innovators and creative people, they’re not going to follow the methodology, and it’s going to mess with our whole business model.” And I thought, okay, so that actually totally makes sense. I thought, one, that makes sense in terms of their business model. Two, I left, because it didn’t make sense for me. Right? That was not the right place for me.

But I wonder whether in manufacturing organizations, or organizations in which there are process-driven, repetitive management or execution operations, you want to find other ways of rewarding people. But you don’t want them learning so much, and it might be hard if you’re someone who wants to disrupt yourself, to be in that kind of a culture, and that there’s certain organizations that are more predisposed to building the kinds of teams you talk about.

Whitney: I mean, absolutely. There are going to be organizations that are predisposed to it, but I would push back. I’m thinking of a company, actually. A woman that I featured in the book, her name’s Kim Richardson. It’s a company called CPS Technologies. They’re in Norton, Massachusetts, and she started as a … on the floor, assembling parts. Right? Now, she manages the whole factory floor. It’s been 20 years.

I think that there’s creativity and there’s learning. What I’m focusing on is this idea of learning, and the fact is, no matter what job you’re in, there are ways for you to be innovative. There just are. Anybody … I suppose some people want automatons, but those automaton jobs are going to be taken over by robots anyway. Right?

Peter: Right.

Whitney: Yeah. I think that to say you don’t want someone to be creative, or someone to think of a different way to approach a problem, or a different way to help get buy-in from a client, or that … I think that when people say that, they’re not actually entirely being accurate. Of course they want their people to be innovative and creative in how they’re thinking about approaching their job.

Peter: Right. And I guess also, if they feel like they’re in that organization, then using your book as a structure is useful in order to convince leadership otherwise. Meaning, unless the individuals are disrupting themselves and the leaders of the teams are disrupting the teams, it’s a recipe for the organization to lag behind its competitors.

Whitney: That’s right. To me, the real punchline of this book is that if you want to know if you as an organization are about to get disrupted, just look at how many … you know, what percentage of your people are at the top of your learning curve? Because when you’re at the top of that curve, the neuroscience says you’re bored. And when you’re bored, you either leave or you get complacent and, to the detriment of the organization, you stay. That, to me, is the real punchline. There are reasons that consulting types firms, or law firms, et cetera, are getting disrupted; because we’ve got too many people at the high end of the curve for decades and decades and decades.

Peter: Right. I know when I’m working with leaders in organizations, and sometimes they only have another three to four years to their career because they’re expecting to retire, and they know that this is their last job, there’s a little bit less of a predisposition to push the organization to learn and grow, because they figure in a sense, even if they’re relatively good leaders, they could ride out the next three or four years and they don’t have to do major disruption. I guess that’s a conversation for the board, in some ways, to say, “Do you ever want your organization to ride out any number of years, given the pace of change?”

Whitney: Right. Right. Right. You know, it goes to something that your mentor and mine, Marshall Goldsmith says, is that as CEOs, he will advise them and say, “It’s time for you to leave. You do not ever want to stay. You can leave one year too early, but you never want to stay one day too long.” This is the whole idea of you can disrupt yourself or be disrupted, and I think that’s when you get to the top of a curve, as you say, it’s the board’s responsibility to make sure that people aren’t just … You never want to hear the words, and we all have done it, of, “I’ve paid my dues.”

Peter: Right.

Whitney: “I’ve paid my dues,” means I am complacent-

Peter: Right, and it’s time to leave.

Whitney: … and I am bored, and it’s time to leave.

Peter: Right. Whitney, thank you. Whitney Johnson. The book is Build an A Team, play to their strengths and lead them up the learning curve. It is always a pleasure to talk with you. Every time I have a conversation with you I think of ways in which I need to disrupt myself a little more. I always leave with a little more work than I came with, but that’s always a good thing. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Whitney: Thank you for having me, Peter.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

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