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Even the most optimistic observer of our current economic, political, and social landscape would have to admit that “chaos” is an appropriate descriptor. Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic continues to hang around like a rude party crasher who won’t take a hint to hit the road.
Legendary business leader Andy Grove offered a hopeful take on situations like this. He said, “Let the chaos reign, then rein in the chaos.”
Of course, chaos is not the lack of order, it’s merely the absence of the order to which we’re accustomed. From another angle, we might consider chaos to be order waiting to be deciphered.
That suggests possibilities and opportunities.
Nobody takes that idea to heart better than Whitney Johnson. She’s CEO of a tech-enabled development company called Disruption Advisors and has been named one of the top 50 business thinkers in the world. She’s author of several top-selling books including Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team.
Johnson skillfully addresses the opportunity paradigm in her newest book, SMART GROWTH: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.
This is an unusually luminous (and entertaining) read, chock-full of riveting stories and sound advice that can help anyone at any level in any kind of business navigate our chaotic—and opportunity-filled—world.
Rodger Dean Duncan: For people who aspire to something bigger and better than their current situation, you propose an S-shaped growth model. Tell us about it.
Whitney Johnson: I apply the S Curve to people’s growth. The base of the curve is the launch point. Growth is slow as competence is gradually acquired. It can be painful and discouraging. Patience and perseverance are required, and good management. Individuals need good training, metrics appropriate to their situation, other people available as resources to help them, and celebration of their wins, even the small ones.
As competence increases, we tip into the sweet spot up the steep back of the S. Growth is rapid, work can be a joy, engagement and productivity are high. This valuable phase can be extended through thoughtful team configurations, stretch assignments, challenging constraints like limited budget or short deadlines. The goal isn’t to make the work too hard, but to keep it challenging enough to maintain a high level of engagement.
Eventually, we reach mastery at the high end of the S. It’s a plateau; we’ve exhausted the growth experience available on this curve, we’re getting bored, and we need a new opportunity. Hopefully, there’s advance planning for that, but we can also be invigorated by opportunities to train and mentor or provide cohesion and institutional memory to teams.
Duncan: Some people refer to the pandemic world we’re currently living in as the Great Resignation. You prefer to call it the Great Aspiration. Why?
Johnson: The Great Resignation sounds negative to me. As though people are just dropping out of the workforce in huge numbers and giving up. People have been unsettled by the extraordinary stresses of the past couple years. But overall, the data do not support the idea of mass resignation.
The workforce is on the move. A huge percentage of working people see an opportunity. The pandemic has forced change for two years; now people are emboldened to change their own situations as well. They are looking for more purposeful jobs, greater flexibility, improved compensation, and other kinds of opportunities to grow. It’s truly a year of great aspiration. We’ve had two years to think about it; now we have a chance to live more of the life we want.
Duncan: You say companies don’t engage in disruptive innovation, people do. So, what can leaders do to build and maintain a culture that’s user-friendly for disruptors?
Johnson: A company is its people. Everything else is tools and props.
Every company innovation begins in people’s minds. Nourish the intellectual capacity of the business. Hire or move people into jobs where they will need to learn and grow. It fuels engagement. Don’t hire the overqualified. Boredom and disengagement come quickly. Have early, open, and regular conversations with every team member about their career purpose and aspirations. Develop individual plans for growth within the organization.
Make sure everyone, at every level, knows that new opportunities will be available for them when they have maxed out their potential in a current role. If there’s not room in-house, you will help broker a move to a promising situation. Don’t just give lip service to people first and talent development—live these things as the top value and priority of the business.
Duncan: In a post-pandemic workplace, what will leaders need to do to keep people engaged and growing?
Johnson: I’m not sure we totally have an answer to that at this point. It’s a restless society, a restless workforce right now. But a few things are always essential—make clear the mission and purpose of the organization. It can’t be too clear. Make sure people know what they’re contributing their time and effort—their lives—to accomplish.
Have the conversations I’ve talked about, so that individuals can see their place in the larger purpose. Find ways to value their efforts and celebrate their accomplishments. Be proactive in taking the pulse of the people who work for you. Understanding how they perceive their growth, where they think they are on their S Curve, is more important than your own perception of it. If they feel they’re stagnating, then they are, unless you find a way to persuade them that they still have potential in continuing to do what they do.
Plan ahead for disruptive personnel moves to keep productive employees producing at a high level and to absorb the temporary decline in productivity that can occur when a valuable contributor moves on to a different role. Remember that the growth opportunity is even more important to many workers than their compensation is—within reason—and act accordingly. Work on growing yourself, both professionally and personally. This is the order of operations: grow yourself, grow your people, grow your business.
Duncan: You quote leadership coach Carol Kaufmann as saying “If anyone is going to get in your way, don’t let it be you.” What are a couple of the most common mistakes people make while pursuing their dreams in the marketplace?
Johnson: I really dislike the phrase “That ship has sailed.” I think many people talk themselves out of trying new things because they think it’s too late—they’re too old, or they got a degree in something else, or they can’t go back to school, or they’re already on a path and it will be costly to change direction. The ship has sailed only if you don’t want to do something anymore. If that’s the case, figure out what ship it is you want to be aboard and don’t trip yourself walking up the gangway.
I think a second common mistake is not putting people first when we pursue a dream. That is, we worry about money, time, expertise, etc. All legitimate concerns, and resources that we need to achieve our objectives. But surrounding ourselves with supportive people, smart people, resourceful people is even more important. We don’t and usually can’t start with a full team. A few key people can make all the difference.
People are resourceful not when other resources are abundant, but when they are in short supply. Resourcefulness is rocket fuel for innovation. We have to be creative and so we are. Always think—people first.
Duncan: How can people be confident in identifying the “why” that motivates them to pursue a new role in the workplace, a new job in a different workplace, or even an entirely fresh start in how they approach life in general?
Johnson: In my own case it was coming to recognize what I thought about when I wasn’t working. It wasn’t my work, not the work I was currently doing. Then I had a friend who figuratively held up a mirror to help me see what I really wanted to be doing.
I recommend a little exercise developed by Simon Sinek along those lines. Ask the important people in your life what having a relationship with you does for them. Chances are, your why is in their answers.
Work is an important piece of life. It consumes a lot of time, and time is life. Who do you want to be, and what do you want to have accomplished in a decade? Two? Five? What do you think won’t matter to you very much as time goes by? Let that fall away and focus on becoming the person you want to be in the world. You may not feel confident that you know your why right away. That’s one of the reasons we disrupt ourselves—to excise the less meaningful in favor of that which becomes more meaningful to us.
Duncan: You say that a willingness to fail is an important factor in navigating personal change. Please elaborate.
Johnson: It’s hard to love failure. But trying virtually anything new is to risk some failures. Failure is a great teacher. X didn’t work, maybe Y will. To be unwilling to fail is to be unwilling to try. We won’t change because there is risk involved. But to have not changed, with all we can learn from our experiences, some of them painful and hard, is essentially to have learned nothing at all. No growth. Human potential is the greatest force on earth and to miss out on growth to avoid failure is its tragic waste.
Duncan: What is the “why” that motivates and inspires you in your work?
Johnson: My “why” is to help people have happier, more satisfying lives by proactively pursuing and directing their own growth, and by helping them recognize their worth and potential and yearn to achieve it. And I didn’t come to that realization until many years into my own career, and then I disrupted myself to do that. It’s okay if it takes some time to figure it out. There’s great value in the journey by which we discover ourselves. We aren’t born into this world knowing these things. We strive for them.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.