Whitney Johnson:


071 – Learn, Leap, Rinse, Repeat with Whitney Johnson

Whitney Johnson:


071 – Learn, Leap, Rinse, Repeat with Whitney Johnson

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In this episode, we are joined by Whitney Johnson to discuss her upcoming book, Build an A-Team. Whitney is the author of the bestselling book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Innovation to Work, and is the founder of the accompanying Disrupt Yourself podcast. Whitney is also a noted speaker, and executive and innovation coach, and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

  • The S-curve, and how it can be used to gauge not only product growth and investment, but individual learning and innovation
  • The stages of learning in the S-curve, and how to predict challenges and boredom in the individual learning process in order to drive growth and prevent a lack of innovation
  • Why Whitney believes organizations should hire “disruptively”, taking on market rather than competitive risk for this core business process

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • ‘Onrampers’ and ‘boomerangers’, and how organizations can benefit from hiring these ex-employees who return with fresh skills and competitor and client knowledge
  • ‘Taking the pulse of the workplace’ and how to optimize your people for innovation and predict disruption by analyzing the different stages of learning within your team
  • ‘Learn, leap, repeat’; Whitney’s theory for leaders on how to use the S-curve model to lead teams towards innovation by implementing fresh learning cycles

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

 

Summary

In this episode, we are joined by Whitney Johnson to discuss her upcoming book, Build an A-Team. Whitney is the author of the bestselling book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Innovation to Work, and is the founder of the accompanying Disrupt Yourself podcast. Whitney is also a noted speaker, and executive and innovation coach, and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

Whitney Johnson

Whitney’s research and work in disruptive innovation shapes how individuals and corporations manage change. Whitney is a frequent contributor for the Harvard Business Review, and a LinkedIn influencer. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself™: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015), Dare, Dream Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (2012) and Build an ‘A’-Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.

What Was Covered

  • The S-curve, and how it can be used to gauge not only product growth and investment, but individual learning and innovation
  • The stages of learning in the S-curve, and how to predict challenges and boredom in the individual learning process in order to drive growth and prevent a lack of innovation
  • Why Whitney believes organizations should hire “disruptively”, taking on market rather than competitive risk for this core business process

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • ‘Onrampers’ and ‘boomerangers’, and how organizations can benefit from hiring these ex-employees who return with fresh skills and competitor and client knowledge
  • ‘Taking the pulse of the workplace’ and how to optimize your people for innovation and predict disruption by analyzing the different stages of learning within your team
  • ‘Learn, leap, repeat’; Whitney’s theory for leaders on how to use the S-curve model to lead teams towards innovation by implementing fresh learning cycles

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

 

Well, Whitney, great to have you back on the show after a two-year pause. Now, you’ve got a new book coming out called Build an A-Team, and when we last spoke a couple of years ago we talked about your previous book Disrupt Yourself, and what’s common in these two books is this concept of the ‘S-curve’ so, perhaps you could start by explaining what the S-curve is?

Absolutely. Well, one of the things that happened when I was investing with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School in his disruptive innovation fund is that we use the S-curve to help us gauge how quickly an innovation would be adopted, and then by extension, when a stock was going to make sense to invest in or not, and so, the S-curve at its simplest, think about it in your mind, I want you to picture an S, I want you to picture a graph, and from left to right, or the x axis, is time, and then from bottom to top on the y axis is improvement or getting good at something, or in this particular instance market share, and so, at the bottom of the S, early on growth is very, very slow. Once you reach a tipping point which is typically 10% to 15% of the market you enter hyper growth, and then at 90% or saturation, growth tapers off. Now, the big ‘aha’ that I had as we were investing is that this S-curve also applies to people. It’s not just products and services and companies, but it’s also people, and so, every time you start something new, you start a new project, you start a new role, you start a new business, it’s an opportunity to disrupt, and it helped me understand the psychology of disruption or the psychology of learning, and so, at the bottom of the S, whenever you start this new project the S-curve now tells you that growth is going to be really slow. You’re working, you’re working, you’re working, it looks like nothing is happening, but what’s happening is you’re learning, and you’re building up momentum until you hit the knee of that curve, and you go up to the straight, sleek, steep back of that curve at which point you’re feeling very competent, and with that comes confidence, and then at the top of the curve it flattens out again in which you’re doing, doing, doing and nothing’s happening, and that’s because you’ve achieved mastery and you’re starting to get a little bit bored, and so, this is the S-curve of learning, and what I’ve done is I’ve taken that, and in the prior book I talked about how you disrupt yourself, seven steps to do that, giving people a structure for disrupting themselves, and in this book I say, ‘OK, now that you do it for yourself how do you manage a team using these S-curves, and in particular this S-curve of learning?’

I’m curious, do you remember the exact moment when you had this insight that you can apply what is essentially a product launch model and a market share growth model to people, because in retrospect it makes a huge amount of sense, but I guess, when you’re running money for the Christensen fund it probably wasn’t what you were expected to be doing? I’m just interested in what got you to apply a model from one discipline into another discipline?

It’s such a good question, Mark, and I don’t know for sure. I think sometimes we like to think – I love your logo for Innovation Ecosystem which is the light bulb with all these really interesting connections, and I don’t remember exactly when I had the lightbulb moment, but I can think of one particular moment when I was actually still working on Wall Street and I had just read The Innovator’s Dilemma – excuse me – so, this was before I had even started to work with Clayton, and I read The Innovator’s Dilemma, and I remember having this ‘aha’ at that point. I think at this point it was this kernel of an idea which was, ‘I can continue to work on Wall Street, and I can continue to be an equity analyst, but I think that if I want to accomplish some of my other goals that I have in life, I’m going to need to disrupt myself,’ and I think that’s the kernel of all of this, and so, that was the first time I thought this, and this was back in 2004/2005 so, what, fourteen years ago now? And then I think your question around the S-curve, because I already had this idea that it’s not just products, it’s not just services, it’s people, as we started to apply the S-curve for investing I started thinking, ‘Well, if it’s people too then what does this look like for a person, and if you’re at the low end of the curve what does that look and feel like it etc.?’

Right, right, and then segueing in, your new book starts with the WD-40 story which is an extraordinary story. It’s a forty-year-old product with eighty-percent market share, it’s avoided being commoditized, and I know the CEO has been on one of your early podcasts which I listened to again today, but the really interesting thing here is the HR strategy which you describe as being built on learning and disruption which is as you say in the book ‘the most powerful way to foster innovation.’ So, what is the link between the S-curve and a culture of learning which it seems like is a characteristic of WD-40?

Yeah, so, let me give you another image. Think about this idea to lead into the story around WD-40, that as a leader, as a manager, you’ve got this S, and you lead people up that learning curve, and so, they learn, and then when they get to the top of that learning curve you make it possible for them to leap to the bottom of a new learning curve. So, you learn, you leap, and you repeat, and when you do that you’ve got a culture that can be innovative because as you’re learning and you’re taking on challenges and you’re experiencing the friction that comes with those challenges, you’re able to be innovative, and in the process then you become a boss that people love and they want to work for because who doesn’t love a boss that gives the opportunity to learn, and then when they learn what they need to learn they get to try something new? So, with that as a backdrop, let’s talk about WD-40. As you just said, Mark, this is a company that makes a can of oil that stops squeaking. You’re like, ‘Who even wants to work there, right?’ You get this call from a headhunter, ‘Why am I going to work there?’ Well, apparently a lot of people want to work there because you’ve got 93% engagement versus 33% on average in the United States, and globally it’s 15%. So, I wanted to understand this, so, I interviewed Garry Ridge, perfect company to test my hypothesis, and it turns out based on the research and the diagnostics that we administered, as you said, they practiced this learn-leap-repeat strategy, so, this is a company where people are the strategy. How does that look? Well, they have an identifiable career path inside the company. It takes them not just starting at point A and then who knows where you’re going to go, but you’re going to start at point A and then you’re going to go to B and then C and then D. They want people to stay inhouse not chained to a particular role, and so, Garry Ridge said, ‘We’ve got three senior people that started out as a receptionist and one is now the brand manager,’ and so, it’s no wonder based on our research that 60% of the people think, ‘You know what? I can satisfy my career goals here.’ So, again people are challenged, when you’re challenged you stay, you’re happy, you innovate, and innovative people disrupt, they don’t get disrupted, and again this isn’t Google, it’s not Silicon Valley, they make a can of oil, and so, this goes back to my fundamental premise that if you want to disrupt you start with the people in an organization. Let them climb that S-curve, apply the constraints, make things a little squeaky in the process so, they get the grease, and then your innovation is going to happen.

And incidentally, the CEO is happy to point out the financial performance of the company has been pretty remarkable. I think 16% CAGRyear on year for, I don’t know, almost two decades. I’m curious, do you know, I know you’ve moved out of that world now, but are there analysts who specifically apply a different set of criteria when they’re analyzing companies? I just wonder what the link is between if there is an explicit link between people strategy and financial performance? Are people doing any work in that? Because those are the two worlds you come from, the world you come from and the one you’re in today, I just wondered if that rings true?

It’s a great question and it’s something that we’re absolutely working on because I think it’s fascinating is, can you build an index that looks at that? So, that is something that we are currently looking at.

Interesting, interesting. So, as we get into the book there’s a couple of things that really struck me which I’d love to explore. One is the kinds of people – well, the S-curve that you analyze, that you talked about, you’re talking essentially about a diverse group of people in a team or in their organization in terms of their diversity of experience up the learning curve, but if we look at diversity from a different angle, the kinds of people that companies are recruiting, and there are two groups that I’ve heard a little bit about, but perhaps it’s not in mainstream yet, but the on-rampers and the boomerangers. Can you just talk a little bit about what companies are doing to recruit these kinds of people in and what the value proposition of bringing in on-rampers and boomerangers, and maybe start by explaining what those two terms mean?

Yeah, absolutely. OK, so, again let’s go back to the theory of disruption. So, your odds of success are six times higher when you pursue a disruptive course and one of the first tenets of this is to play where no one else is playing, basically to take on market versus competitive risk, and so, we oftentimes think of this in the context of launching a product, but it also again applies to people and it applies to hiring, and when you take on competitive risk in hiring you’re going to be hiring Ivy League educated MBA’s who’ve done the exact job you need them to do for the past three years, you’re going to feel safe, but it’s competitive risk because you might not be able to hire them and even if you do you’re going to have a hard time keeping them. So, why wouldn’t you also take on market risk when you’re hiring? If there’s talent there, there’s no competition. So, two examples of this are boomerangers. Boomerangers are people who have worked for you, they will have left and now they want to come back. People used to not want to hire boomerangers. I personally think it’s because they felt jilted. Like, right? ‘You were my boyfriend and now you’ve left, and I don’t want you back,’ but why wouldn’t you want someone you know you can work with who’s gotten further training on someone else’s dollar or euro or pound, whatever, and now they want to come back? I mean, that’s a pretty great deal. And so, one of the people that I interviewed for the book, and you can listen to this podcast interview with Lee Caraher, she is the founder of a PR and content marketing firm, and she had an employee, Jenna Galloway Faller, who was there for two years as Senior Account Executive, she leaves to go to a fast-growing startup, VC backed, super exciting, and then a year later she comes back. She’s got greater skills and greater empathy because she now understands what the client is thinking because she’s been the client, so, that’s the boomeranger. The on-ramper is someone who’s returning to the workforce after being out, usually to care for children or care for parents, and these employees are especially interesting because typically they’re highly skilled in terms of technical skills or domain expertise, although they may need some brushing up, but they also have these competencies that the workforce desperately requires that they don’t have, things like persuasion, things like ability to be positive even when people are not positive, and project management, and so, there’s this wonderful book by Ann Crittenden written, I don’t know, probably two decades ago who says, ‘If you can raise children, you can do anything.’ So, you’ve got this expert on the topic of on-rampers, her name is Carol Fishman Cohen, I’m citing her, not personal, let’s see, primary research, I would say, in terms of, she placed mid-career professionals and internships at Met Life. Met Life hired eleven out of the twelve people, so, 92% percent of these interns within three months. I mean, how about that, right? How about that? So, these nontraditional hires, these market risk hires, they’re not picked over, they’re not overpriced and they’re often really hungry with something to prove and so, there are lots of different ways to take this theory of disruption, again, it’s not just products, you can apply it to people. Fundamentally disruption is individual. You get your people in a place where they’re innovating and you, as an organization, are going to be able to disrupt.

This strategy is it, in your experience, limited to certain types of companies or is it becoming widely embraced across all the different sectors of the economy?

Well, I think smart companies are becoming widely embraced because they recognize, ‘OK, if I’m willing to do this I’m going to get this really interesting talent at a bargain,’ right? And so, I wouldn’t say it’s widely embraced, but I would say that the companies that do embrace it are the ones that are going to have an advantage.

Yep, yep. Now, of course, the challenge is when they come, when they get on board, there are pressures, there are cultural elements that maybe will, as you say, they might become blinded by familiarity, in other words, they get – I’m an anthropologist, originally – they get sort of aculturalized, the different perspectives that they’re bringing into the organization are very quickly eroded, so, how do companies stop that from happening because it’s almost like when you buy a new car, right, the moment you drive it off the forecourt you’ve lost thirty-percent of the value, and I often wonder whether you’re bringing a new person in with all these fresh perspectives, with this unique experience, and very quickly the organization, the culture of the organization overwhelms that and they’re left having to follow the standard cultural behaviors if you like?

Yeah, I think there are a couple things that you can do with this is, first of all, recognize that every single person is on a learning curve. They’re only going to be at the low end of that learning curve for a period of time. Based on my analysis, it’s going to be six months, maybe a year, but usually it’s going to be six months and so, it’s important during that period of time to have a check in with them and say, ‘What are you seeing? What are you seeing that we’re doing? What could be done differently?’ and ask them specifically what they’re seeing when they’re two to three months in, they’ve got a little bit of lay of the land, but not too much of the lay of the land. Now, let me tell you why people tend not to do that. It’s because when someone comes in new, they’re questioning the status quo. ‘Why are you doing it like this?’ or asking all those pesky little three-year-old questions, and you’re like, ‘Can you just go back to your desk and do your work? That’s not how we do it here,’ and so, if you’ve got a process in place where you’re willing to say, ‘OK, three months in, I’m going to ask you, in fact, I expect you to sit down, and evaluate for me what we’re doing, and what we could do differently,’ and it’s part of that process, then you’re going to get that nugget of information from them before they get to the point where they are blind through familiarity.

And are there companies that you’re aware of that are actually doing this?

I am in my company. It certainly does make a difference. Toyota does it, yeah, Toyota does it.

But you do it yourself so, can you give a sense of the kinds of things that are being uncovered in this three-month conversation? I suppose the first thing is how do you create that safe space for the conversation to happen because, as you say, after three months if they’re continuing to ask why, it takes quite a confident recruit to continue to challenge the status quo so, I’m just curious, can you give a sense of what sort of things come up in those conversations?

Yeah, and I would argue too, Mark, it takes a confident employer to ask those questions, right? Because they’re effectively saying, ‘Well, the way you’re doing it, there might be a better way,’ and that challenges your sense of identity. So, the kind of things that come up for me often are around process. So, we’ve got a process of how we run the business, and then they say, ‘Well, what if you use this?’ or ‘What if you tried that?’ or, and this just came up for me recently, ‘By the way, although’ –  I had someone say to me, they didn’t say it quite like this, I’m using it for effect – ‘although I really like to try to read minds I’m not very good at it so, if you could be a little bit more explicit about what you need that would be incredibly helpful,’ and so, it’s that kind of thing of realizing that you need to do, at least for me, a better job of what’s our process here, codifying process, and then also being able to explain exactly what you want, and need, and that’s part of the reason why, again, people at the low end of the curve, they’re asking pesky questions, and because they don’t know what they’re doing yet you can get impatient really quickly, and part of the reason that you’re getting impatient might be because you actually didn’t explain what you needed and what the performance goals actually are.

Yep, yep, and I guess in a small, fast-growing company that’s one process being put in place and constantly evolving, but I think there’s also an example in the book, and I don’t know whether it’s from Intel, I can’t remember where it’s from, but you talk about this idea of gentle mobbing. Can you remember which company it was? Sorry, I don’t mean to put you on the spot.

No, it’s OK. I don’t think I was actually referring to – oh, yes, I did, and I can’t remember right off the top of my head, I apologize, yes, I do remember in broad strokes. So, there was a company that they said to themselves, ‘You know, we need to really revitalize our sales force so, I’m going to bring in some new and hungry people that are going to have some great ideas,’ and basically, the more senior salespeople who could have learned from them, and it could have improved their revenue growth and trajectory, they mobbed them out, and the people didn’t survive because they just basically shut them out and sort of said, ‘Danger, danger, Will Robinson. We’ve got to get rid of these people who are going to change things because if they change things they might make me irrelevant, so, I got to get rid of them.’ So, that’s what the gentle mobbing looks like. They didn’t actually mob them, but they mobbed them psychologically.

Yes, you referred to it in the book, I’ve seen the reference now, it wasn’t quite like The Hunger Games, but it was almost like it, but I guess, the reality is that these biases exist, the ways of doing things exist, and clearly, in order to capture the value, which you articulated very clearly earlier on, around bringing in people with different experiences be it the onrampers or the boomerangers it’s important that the parent organization or the recipient organization is able to, I won’t say absorb them, but certainly leverage their skills and preserve those unique perspectives for as long as possible, but as you say, this is probably quite cutting edge in the corporate world today anyway, I would imagine?

Well, what’s interesting actually, it’s cutting edge, but what’s fascinating is that if you are willing to do that even with people who have been in your organization for a long time, because remember if you’re practicing this strategy of personal disruption you’re going to have a person who’s potentially been at your company for fifteen years, right, twenty years, and like I interviewed Karen S. Carter who’s the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Dow, she’s been there for twenty to twenty-five years, same company continually disrupting herself. Every time you go to the bottom of a new learning curve you are inexperienced again. Yes, you have domain expertise, yes, you know something, you’ve got skills, but you’re still seeing things afresh, and so, it’s not just brand-new recruits into the company, it’s anybody who’s jumping to a new learning curve.

Yep, yep, and you mentioned the D and I, diversity and inclusion piece here, because a lot of this is around ensuring not only the individual, but the organization is remaining fresh and being open to fresh perspectives, and so, the diversity, in the broadest sense, cognitive diversity, is a constant theme throughout your new book, I guess. Do you see it that way or am I missing something?

You’re not missing something, you actually teased out something that was there embedded in the ethos of the book, but not something that I stated explicitly, but I think it’s really interesting that you brought it up, that you’re an anthropologist you said, by training, and just thinking about this from the perspective of biology. Diversity is truly one of the – you know, there are lots of studies out there that it’s tough to be conclusive from a business perspective around the importance of the value diversity, but biology tells you it is absolutely one of the most powerful forces in nature, and I won’t go into all of it. Well, actually I’m going to say really quickly, when you think about our ancestors, they couldn’t survive unless they adapted, and the way they adapted is you would have these genetic alterations in the DNA and replication, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, we survived,’ and so, then it would continue to get replicated, and you’d see this over and over and over again, and that’s what insured survival. What’s fascinating to me is that for an individual, every time you learn and you leap and you repeat, you are effectively iterating, and you’re the next generation you and you’re slightly different, and so, in biological terms you’re better poised for that next wave, and the same is true for your team, as you have this team of people who are at the low end who are questioning. You want the sweet spot. Yeah, go ahead.

Well, I was going to say what happens in nature is, and I’m not a biologist, but the adaptations are blinded by nature, right? The agents aren’t aware of the adaptation but they’re just happening through natural process, survival of the fittest, whereas in the workplace we as agents, we can manage this process, we can actually leverage this incremental adaptation for our own goals both at the individual level and also for the organizational level as well.

Absolutely, bingo, and because we can manage it we can make it happen more quickly.

Yes, yeah, and so, the whole concept of the ecosystem which is the other half of our business, we know that ecosystems’ monocultures which are not diverse ecosystems collapse very quickly whereas diverse ecosystems have these buffers, these margins of safety to use in financial investment language which means that when they are hit by external shocks they’re able to survive, and I suppose that’s the other piece of riding the S-curve, is it? You’re actually building in that level of resilience, I guess, from a career point of view or indeed from a business point of view if you’re looking at it from a team perspective?

Exactly, and what’s interesting and what we found in our research is that if you want to know if you as an organization are about to get disrupted all you have to do is take the pulse of your workforce because if you’ve got too many people, the way you optimize for innovation is you’ve got 70% of your people in the sweet spot on that steep part, 15% at the low end, inexperienced, and 15% at the high end, the masters who can set the pace and have a vista and see what’s happening, but if you’ve got 40% of your people at the high end of that learning curve, they become bored, and bored people leave or bored people get complacent, and when you are complacent you do not innovate, and so, that’s one of the best ways to manage your ecosystem for innovation is to optimize where your people are on the learning curve.

Now, you touched on this complacency. Now, when I heard that word I was wondering, it’s not a million miles away from entitlement, right?

No, it’s not.

So, let’s pick up another big theme which I’d just love to understand which is, I think you said that forty-percent of the founders of Fortune 500 companies included either an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, and I’m just really interested in this other piece of the story here around why is that? What is it about immigrants or people who are outsiders that have such a big impact on the makeup, for instance, of corporate America?

Yeah, so, entitlement is the belief that this is the way things should and will always be, and so, if you think about it from a company perspective, and I’ll bring it to the individual perspective, think about that S-curve again, I talk about entitlement right when you’re in the sweet spot. So, your revenue’s growing, your margins expanding, and you’re like, ‘We are successful,’ and the more successful you are the more you think you deserve your success, and yet innovation only really happens when you don’t know quite what you’re doing, and when you’re in this place that’s somewhat uncomfortable where you don’t like things the way you are. You’ve got this burn, you’ve got this itch, and so, they’re fundamentally at odds with one another, and so, I think the first step in recognizing that as an organization is to just recognize that we’re going to get entitled, and then recognize it as an individual that we’re going to get entitled, and you can be entitled because everything’s working, you can be entitled when things aren’t working and you think you deserve more than you have. The thing that’s most important about entitlement is to know absolutely that we are all entitled, it’s just a question of how and when we’re willing to be aware of that, that’s the first step to being able to disrupt the current version of ourselves, and one more concrete way of doing that is to impose constraints to give yourself friction. So, for example, if you’re starting to get a little too comfortable, things are too easy at work, and this is where stretch assignments come in for individuals, if you’ve got a person’s sweet spot they’re going to get complacent pretty quickly because things are easy, they’re fun, they’re having a great time, impose constraints. For example, if your revenue target for this year is X then tell them that you want your revenue target to be 1.5 x X, or if their revenue target is X and you’ve got twelve months to do it say, ‘What would you do if you only had nine months to do it? What would you do differently?’ and start imposing these constraints that force people to think, ‘OK, how could I do it differently?’ because that’s how almost always people really actually innovate, and there’s a great example, it’s coming out on my podcast today, Patty McCord of Powerful. She was saying she was the CHR at Netflix. They only really figured out their business model when they were about to go bankrupt, and so, it’s the same for individuals. Oftentimes, you will find that when people get fired or lose their job it’s that point at which they’ve been pushed off the learning curve that they start to get really innovative and resourceful about what they’re going to do with the rest of their life, and so, we all have entitlements, it’s always there. Sometimes entitlement, we get pushed off a learning curve and it takes care of itself. Ideally, we’ll recognize it when we’re on the curve, and we take care of it so that we don’t have to be pushed off the curve, but we’re still going to get pushed off because that’s just the way life goes.

Yeah, or we actually proactively make a habit of disrupting ourselves, and when I say ‘we’, I actually mean you because, just to come off the book for a moment because as I read the new book what struck me was quite a lot of the content comes out of the podcasts, right? Quite a lot of the stories-

Exactly.

And I’m really curious, before I go to the questions that I sent to you in advance, I’m just curious about your journey because we said at the beginning we last spoke two years ago, you subsequently launched a very, very successful podcast, we’re now talking again and the podcast is resonating with me as I listen to it, but also, it’s being echoed in the book. What’s the role of the podcast in your journey, Whitney, and your disruption, your ability to continue to disrupt, because there’s also videos you’re pushing out there, you’ve got e-learning, I’m just really interested in how the portfolio is developing and where the podcast fits in?

Hmm, what a great question. I have always loved to interview people. I interview informally. If we were to sit down I would ask you lots of questions. I mean, I know you’re asking me questions, but this is not what’s most comfortable for me, I’d rather be asking you questions, and so, I’ve always enjoyed it, I think it’s fascinating to listen to someone and hear their story, and so, it’s something that I knew I wanted to do, and ask people stories, but it took me a while to actually get started because even though it seems like it’s pretty easy to start a podcast, it’s not, as you and I both know, and so, when I first started I was very much at the low end of the learning curve, I hired someone who had done radio for NPR to basically be my Sherpa in terms of how do you interview people, how do you set this up, how do you edit the podcast, etc., and so, there was definitely a learning curve, and if you go back and listen to my early interviews versus my interviews now, I’ve improved vastly as an interviewer, and I’m sure you can relate, and so, I think that there was a sense of I wanted to interview people, I wanted to have these interesting conversations, and then I found as I was having these interesting conversations then hearing all these really rich, detailed stories that they naturally just became a part of the book.

Yep, yep, and I presume you’re beginning to be on the other side of the mic to promote the book. Is that fair or is most of your time still interviewing other people at the moment?

That’s absolutely fair. Yeah, in promoting the book I am most grateful to people who are interested enough in my ideas to want to interview me like you, so, thank you, Mark-

So, my question, Whitney, and this is a difficult one, but I’ll put you on the spot. What’s different being on one side of the mic versus the other? In the moment here now, is there anything, I’m just interested in different perspectives here as someone who prepares the interviews and asks the questions versus suddenly being on the other side of it. Any things that strike you as this change in perspective?

Yeah, I think that the best way to describe it for me is to take the hero’s journey, and so, when you’re in your position your job is to be the guide. You’re the guide, you’re asking the questions, you’re bringing me through as the hero, and the audience as the hero, and so, that’s a very different role to be the guide, and pull someone’s story out of them, and to put them in their best light, and then also in the process think, ‘OK, what do my listeners need to hear and understand, etc.?’ whereas when I’m on this side of the mic, yes, it’s a little bit of my job to be a guide, but also, you’re asking me to be the hero, and to tell my story and what experience I’ve had and what I’ve learned, and so, yes, I need to toggle back into the guide area, but I think primarily or fundamentally they’re different functions. You as the interviewer are the guide, and me as the interviewee, I’m the hero, and so, to toggle back and forth between those two roles, they’re very different roles.

Yeah, and now that we’ve called it out, I’m certainly feeling very nervous about the final questions that I ask because I don’t want to blow it at this point in the interview, but luckily, Whitney, these are the three questions I sent in advance, right, so, can we switch, because I know time is of the essence-

Absolutely.

Can we switch to the final three questions? So, the first one, what have you changed your mind about recently?

Yeah, so, collaboration. I’ve never really liked to collaborate, and I don’t know if it’s because I grew up playing piano, in classical piano there wasn’t a lot of collaboration, I played some tennis which is not necessarily collaboration because it was singles so, it was thorny, complicated, and what caused me to change my mind? Two things actually. I recently interviewed Peter Sims on my podcast, and he talked about collaboration and how at its core, generosity is at its core, and it got me thinking about what good collaboration looks like, and then I’ve had this real-time experience of collaborating with a fellow by the name of Richie Norton on this course that we’re developing called Unstuck, and the reason I’ve changed my mind is because going into that course I would have been very, ‘OK, what’s our outline? What are we going to talk about?’, be very organized, very structured, and Richie’s approach was, ‘Let’s show up, let’s talk, we’ve got these general ideas, and then we’ll figure out what the course is after we’ve had the conversation.’ Very, very different than I would ever have done, and I was very, very anxious about it going into it and yet, once we started I was like, ‘This is magic, this is amazing, this is fun, it’s interesting,’ and so, I think I’ve changed my mind about collaboration. If I can be willing to be generous when I’m collaborating and I can find another person who’s willing to be generous, and I think there are breadcrumbs on the internet as to whether or not people are generous, there is this really wonderful opportunity to develop, and grow, and stretch, and make discoveries and connections around ideas and thinking of people that I wouldn’t be able to if I were working more in my own silo.

And when you say ‘breadcrumbs’, what specifically are you talking about? Can you give an example?

Oh, yeah. So, I think that there are people out there and we’re like, ‘Oh, this person, they’re awesome, I’d love to work with them,’ but you don’t know if they’re good to work with. One of the ways I think you can find out if people are good to work with is that you can find based on how they behave, and what people say about them, you can damn people with faint praise, so, what do people say about them? Are they a great collaborator? Are they great to work with? Have you learned a lot from them? And you can get a lot of information just throughout, those are breadcrumbs to me, and they help you understand, ‘OK, this person actually could be really good to potentially work with, I want to explore what that could look like.’

Got it. OK. And second question, Whitney, where do you go to get fresh perspectives to help you solve problems and make decisions?

OK. I’m going to give you two answers. The first is I go to church every week. I think being able to go to church and be around people that I don’t work with at all, and be in this frame of mind of a more religious, devotional place, I get fresh perspectives. I remember, in fact, in this upcoming book this example around the asphalt that I use, everybody go read it – by the way, you can download the first chapter if you go to www.whitneyjohnson.com/ateam – but this example of the asphalt, I got this because of someone who was teaching a lesson in church. I wouldn’t have got that otherwise, and so, that to me was really powerful. The other way that I get new ideas is, you’re going to laugh, when I commit to go do something I show up to it. For example, just a couple of weeks ago one of my friends, Liz Wiseman, who wrote the book Multipliers, had arranged for us to take a tour of the Tesla factory, right? Tesla. And I almost didn’t go because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to prepare my remarks for the next day, I’ve been on the road for a week and a half, I don’t have time, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah,’ but I committed to going, and I’m really trying, if I make a commitment, to show up. Well, when I went it was astonishing. It was like this plant, there were transformers, they looked like Transformers, these robots that are building the cars, there was a stamping press that’s like several 747s who are stamping the panels of the machine, I just felt this sense of awe, and I would call it almost religious awe of just this idea that had come from the mind of a human being, and now many human beings that are creating this beautiful machine, and after I came out of there I was like, ‘Just think, if I hadn’t gone, if I hadn’t kept my word, all of these ideas, all of these thoughts, all of these learnings, none of them would have happened.’

And as you say it’s not good enough just to be there, but it’s actually to be completely present, and be 110% engaged in your surroundings and the conversations.

Exactly, exactly, and then the other thing I would add to that is just there’s so much around the future, and it’s so dystopian, and things are going to be awful, and you go somewhere like that and you go, ‘You know what? There are so many reasons to be full of optimism and hope for the future when you see what people can create and build.’

Yeah, we took a test drive in one the other day actually with my kids because we were on holiday and they were offering a test drive, and it was remarkable. I won’t call it an out of body experience, but it was really a glimpse into the future, and it was an amazing experience, but I should imagine, having read about the factory that Musk built in his bio, it does sound like a remarkable place. And that’s the west coast isn’t it, that’s in LA, I guess?

Yeah, well, it’s in Fremont in California, in Silicon Valley.

Yeah, got it, I think I’ve driven past it when I was there a couple of years ago. Super. The final question, what’s your most significant low, what have you learned from it and how have you applied that learning, Whitney?

I don’t know if I’m going to say this is the most significant, but it was very significant for me anyway. So, a few years ago I bombed a speech, bombed it, and it was financial services, private equity firm, I was like, ‘These are my people, they’re going to love it,’ but when the speech was over they didn’t like it, they hated it, they got these comment cards to prove it. There were some technical issues that threw me, but they said I was mechanical, I was dialing it in, it was terrible, and the reason that it was so important is that it was so bad, it wasn’t just kind of bad/off day, it stunk so much that instead of just saying, ‘OK, I’ve got to tweak this, I’ve got to improve it,’ I thought, ‘I have to change what I am doing.’ Now, what’s interesting for me as I analyzed that situation is the content itself, it didn’t actually change that much, but my delivery did, like, significantly. So, I stopped being the hero and started being the guide because when you’re onstage the audience is the hero, you, the speaker, are the guide, and the second thing I started doing, and this is from one of my mentors, Marshall Goldsmith, is I started having fun. No matter what, when I’m on stage I’m going to have fun, and that was a really important shift. It’s not so serious, it’s time to have fun, and up until that time when I bombed it, so, this is the idea of personal disruption, step back to move forward, my speeches were good, I was getting kind of middle of the pack ratings, and now consistently, I’m among the top-rated speakers. So, that was a really important significant failure for me because speaking is a big part of what I do.

Yeah, and are you still able, I presume you are seeing as you say you show up, but are you still able to have fun in this part of your business?

Yeah, now I’m starting to have fun. Yeah, so, it made a big difference, and every once in a while people say something to you, like Marshall Goldsmith said this to me in twenty seconds, he probably doesn’t even remember that he said it, he’s just like, ‘You should just have more fun when you’re on stage, just have a good time,’ and if you’ve ever seen him speak you’ll understand exactly what he means. He has fun, he’s silly, and gives serious content, but he’s willing to make fun of himself and have fun with the audience.

Yeah, I saw him speak about twenty years ago and he was wonderful, he really was, yeah, super. Whitney, as always, a great pleasure. You mentioned your website, but anywhere else that people can get in touch with you?

Yeah, so, a couple of things. They can obviously e-mail me at wj@whitneyjohnson.com. Like I said, if you’re interested you can download the first chapter of Build an A-Team if you go to www.whitneyjohnson.com/ateam, and if you’re interested you can also download the S-curve locator and see where you are on your current learning curve, and that you would just do www.whitneyjohnson.com/diagnostics, so, I think those three things are a great starting place to be able to connect offline.

Wonderful. Well, we’ll put all those, as always, in the show notes, and best of luck with the new book. Is it on the shelves yet or is it preorder?

It’s preorder until the launch date is May 1st, so, I don’t know when this podcast is coming out, but that’s the actual launch date is May 1st, 2018.

Wonderful. OK, well, we’ll make sure that we liaise with your team to get it out to help you with that, and, as always, thank you again. It’s great to have you back on the show after a two-year respite, I continue to enjoy your podcast, and let’s keep in touch, and I’m sure that one of these days we’ll meet face to face.

Thank you, it’s been really fun.

Good. Have a great day, Whitney. Thanks a lot.

Alright, thank you, Mark. Bye.

OK. Bye.

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