How To Help Your Team Master The Learning Curve

Photo courtesy of Whitney Johnson

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: What's the right way to support new hires in their first six months, how can you challenge them for a few years after that, and how do you engage employees who've already peaked out and achieved mastery? Hello everyone, I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to The LEADx Show where we are helping you to stand out and to get ahead.

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Our quote of the day, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort,” Franklin Roosevelt.

Our guest today has been named one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world, that's a part of the Thinkers 50 Program. She's an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. She's a former award-winning stock analyst on Wall Street. She's one of Marshall Goldsmith's top 100 coaches. She's a coach for the Harvard Business School's Executive Education Program and her new book is Build An A-Team: Play To Their Strengths And Lead Them Up The Learning Curve. This is critical, the learning curve. Our guest is Whitney Johnson. Whitney, welcome to the show.

Whitney Johnson: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

Kruse: Well, we're delighted to have you and we're going to talk about your new book in just a minute, but I have a tradition where I ask all of our guests the same first question because I believe failures are stepping stones, there's no win or lose, there's only win or learn, and I'm selfish. I want to learn from one of your failures, so share with us one of your best failures and what you took away from it.

Johnson: Oh, there are so many. Let me give you one, obviously, otherwise we'll be here all day, but this is a speech that I bombed about three years ago. I was delivering it to a financial services private equity firm. I've got an investment background, so I was like, “I've got this,” you know, “I've got this.” The speech is over, they don't like it. They hate it. I have all the comment cards to prove it. Now, there were some technical issues that threw me off, but the fact is they came back and they said, “You're mechanical. You seem like you're kind of just a wind-up toy, and no one, absolutely no one in the entire audience thought this was the best speech of the conference.”

Kruse: Wow.

Johnson: The reason it's one of my best failures is that it was so bad and it stung so much, because this was my peer group, that instead of my saying, “Okay, well, bad day,” or “I just need to tweak this,” I was like, “Okay, clearly there is something wrong here and I have got to do something differently.” Now, what's interesting is over the next couple months, I spent a lot of time revamping the speech, but the content itself didn't actually change that much. What changed was my delivery and my approach to the content. Two major things that I did differently, one, and I didn't realize I was doing this, but now I understand what I was doing, is I recently had Donald Miller's StoryBrand on my podcast. He said, “Whenever you give a speech, you need to be the guide and not the hero.” I realized that at the time when I was delivering that speech, because had said to me, “Your personal story, it's so compelling, you should tell it.” Well, in this particular instance, it was a total bomb and I had to switch from being the hero to the guide. In reframing that, it made a huge difference.

The other thing that I did is one of my mentors, Marshall Goldsmith, said to me, “When you speak, just have fun.” Like, have fun, like if there are mistakes, if the technical issues are there, don't worry about it, just have fun. With those, you know, the revamping of the speech and then having fun and becoming the guide and not the hero, up until that time my ratings on the speeches had typically been sort of middle pack, middle of the pack, then I had that bomb, but because of that bomb and changing everything, now I'm consistently one of the best-rated speakers whenever I speak. I love this quote from Napoleon Hill, like, “In every failure, there's a seed of success.” For me and that failure, it was a seed of success, so that's one of my best failures ever.

Kruse: Well, that's a great one on a lot of levels and it really does sort of prove the point that it took that ultimate failure, and it's hard to get that feedback in the poll, but it hurts to then break through to high ground. If you'd never gotten that stinging feedback, you could have just been good. Right? Good, good, good, good, without the failure that now got you to great. Then, you've got some good coaches on your side with advice there, taking you from good to great.

Johnson: Indeed, I do. I'm very fortunate.

Kruse: Whitney, your new book again is, Build An A-Team: Play To Their Strengths And Lead Them Up The Learning Curve. What is the learning curve like?

Johnson: Such a great question. Since this video, I am going to show you a picture …

Kruse: All right.

Johnson: … Because I think that will make it … Can you see this picture?

Kruse: I can see this picture. Yes.

Johnson: Okay.

Kruse: For people who might be doing audio only, describe what we're looking at. This is a great picture.

Johnson: Okay. All right, so I want you to imagine an X-axis that's time and then a Y-axis that's improvement or capability or competence. Then, I want you to picture an S. At the bottom of the S, I want you to think in your mind low-end, inexperienced. Then, in the middle, that sleek, steep back of the curve, I want you to think engagement and then at the high-end of the S, again, the flat portion at the top, I want you to think mastery.

Now, here's what I want you to know about the learning curve, in fact, I'm going to put this much closer. At the bottom, notice how over time you're going to work really, really hard and not much is happening. It's going to be, because you know this, you're going to be like not much is happening, but you also know, because this is how the S-curve's supposed to be, you're not going to get discouraged. Whenever you start a new role or a new job, it's going to take about six months where you're coming home from work every day like I don't know what I'm doing. Okay. Now, that's the bottom of the curve.

Now, we're going to move into the sleek part of that curve, that back of that S, and this is where, after you put in days and weeks and months of practice, you accelerate into competence. With this comes competence and this is the exciting part of the curve where all your neurons are firing. Every time you do X, two or three Y happens. Super fun, best part of the curve, it's where you're engaged. In a role or a job, you're going to be here two to three years.

Now, as you approach mastery, again, think the top of that S, you start to get bored. Again, it looks like nothing's happening. Like, you're working, nothing's happening, you're working, nothing's happening because you're bored. You can be here for six months to a year before it's time to disrupt yourself and jump to a new learning curve. That's the S curve of learning that you want to move up yourself and also allow everybody on your team to move up in order to build an A-team.

Kruse: Love the visual, love that description, and for our listeners, I just want to again highlight that. For me, as I learned about your concepts and read your book, visually it starts off, that S-curve is very flat. There's not a lot of growth, that inexperience. It gets really steep and that is engagement. I talk a lot about, in my own work, my own research, that growth is a primary driver of employee engagement. We need to be challenged, we need to be learning, we need to be advancing, but then people need to realize that that S-curve, it doesn't just stay going higher and higher at that same rate. It flattens out again as we achieve mastery.

That's something that I've struggled with in the past, Whitney, people have asked me advice. Like, how do I engage my senior people? They've already gone through all our learning and development programs. They already did all that stuff. I didn't quite understand what was going on. Like, well, why are they slowing down? That's a natural part where we'll get to. You have to kind of, you know, jump curves, so I think visually understanding what's going on for ourselves and for the people we're leading, is really critical. What are some of the ways that we can accelerate someone's growth up the curve?

Johnson: Okay, great question. What we'll do is we'll break it into pieces. Let's start with someone who's at the low-end of the curve…

Kruse: Okay.

Johnson: … and how do you accelerate their growth? I think the first thing to do is just to be aware that when they're at the low-end of the curve, they're inexperienced. They don't know what they're doing, which means they're getting discouraged probably on a daily basis, and you're probably getting a little bit impatient, so that's a bad cocktail, their discouragement and your impatience. If you can be aware of this, then you can be patient and that is huge, absolutely huge to someone who's at the low-end of the learning curve.

The second thing you can do is share with them the “why” of your organization. I interviewed a company called Globalization Partners for the book. They are one of the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies and the very first week on the job, they bring all of the new people into what they call GP, or Globalization Partners University, and the CEO sits down with them and explains to them her vision for the organization. It's a triple bottom line, happy employees mean happy customers equal happy company. Then, all of the employees hear from all of the directors of the company. This gives them a very clear sense of vision and also, from day one, creates this cross-silo collaboration that is so important to you and your company and its ability to move up a learning curve.

The third piece of advice I would give for people at the low-end of the curve is to have a plan for the first six months on the job and even I would argue the first month on the job. Set really short-term goals. When you give them precise deadlines, maximum budgets, you give them constraints, you give them something to bump up against, and that gives the feedback and they can figure out how they're doing. Also, give them the task of building out their internal network. For example, this, and over the next month, I want you to reach out to these 12 people. These are your key stakeholders. They're going to be people that you need to learn from, they're going to be people that you need to give something to, but in order for you to get anything done in this organization, you've got to build out your internal network. That's the low-end of the curve.

Now, very quickly, what do you do in the sweet spot of the curve? Now, they're in the sweet spot, they're in that sleek, steep back of the curve, they're competent, they're excited about what they're doing, they're no longer experiencing the friction, so they move into that curve, they may not be getting as much feedback. In fact, every time they do something, two or three Y's happening, so in order to accelerate their growth up the curve, you need to give them stretch assignments. You need to give them friction.

Let me give you a quick example of this. Ilana Golan, she's a formal fighter pilot in the Israeli Army, she's an engineer, and she starts at Intel in Israel. On the one hand, she's an intern, on the other hand, she's a former fighter pilot. Well, her boss is Yad Harnon, what does he do? He gives her a stretch assignment. He says, “Okay, I want you to come up with a big engineering problem that we need to solve.” Turns out, they look at the verification tools, which are basically tools that just test the quality of software, and they say, “You know what? These aren't keeping up with the advances in technology. I need you to figure out how to solve this.”

He gives her the latitude to figure out how to solve it. She does the work, with some help from him discovers this company in Sweden, they have this railway software. It looks like it might work, so she analyzes it, she tests it, they build a prototype. Fast forward, they end up buying the software and it's software that Intel used for decades.

Kruse: Wow.

Johnson: That's an amazing stretch assignment. In the sweet spot of the curve, you give people Goldilocks assignments. Now too hard, not too easy.

Kruse: I like that phrase, Goldilocks assignments.

Johnson: Yeah.

Kruse: That's a great way to …

Johnson: Exactly.

Kruse: … Remember like how much of a stretch it should be.

Johnson: Exactly, and just one last point on this that I think is just so fantastic is that Telisa Yancy, the CMO of American Family Insurance, she said this about her CEO, Jack Salzwedel, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. She said, “He's not afraid to dole out these stretch assignments and send people back to the drawing board.” Here is, to me, the absolute tribute to a boss and this is what you want your people to say about you when you're thinking about how do I lead them up the learning curve? She says, “He challenges me to be more, to give more, to serve more, to do more, and to dream more.”

Kruse: Love that to dream more. We talk about those initial new hire or new to the role time period and then the Goldilocks assignments as you're going up the curve. Then, back to where the curve flattens out again with more senior talent, where I think I have failed a lot in the past is not really understanding how to keep them engage. Like, what do we do with the people who have achieved mastery? What's your advice there?

Johnson: Well, it comes in two phases. At the top of the curve, and I think you just alluded to this, they're masters, I'll just leave them alone…

Kruse: Right.

Johnson: … but the fact is that this the danger zone because they can get bored and bored people leave or they get complacent. Complacent people don't innovate, they get disrupted. I think what you and we need to do with our employees as they get to the top of the curve or even as they're approaching that is say to them, “Okay, here you are. You're going to be in this place six months to a year before you, and I'm going to help you, jump to a new curve, so here's what I need you to do in the meantime. I need you to set the pace, I need you to train people and convey the corporate memory, and I need you to mentor the younger professionals.” When you have high-enders mentoring the low-enders, they're going to reach competency more quickly and it also helps them kind of see things from a fresh angle. That's one thing.

Now, the second thing, and this is I think the most important and the most critical and the hardest, is now it's time to help them jump. You do that by coming to their aid. I'm going to give you a quick, little acronym.

Kruse: Okay.

Johnson: Number one, you applaud what they've ‘accomplished’. At the beginning, at the low-end of the curve, you say “Here's what you need to do in order to get to the top of the curve.” Now, you want to say to them, “You know what? Because you were on this curve—channeling Wicked there just a little bit—you have accomplished these things. Our organization is better because of you and the people around you are better because of what you've done.” The second, you want to do I, which is to ‘identify’ a new role and number three, D, so A-I-D, is ‘deliver’ on your promise to help them find a new role. Now, let me give you a quick idea of what this can look like.

Dan Shapiro, he started at LinkedIn in 2008 in operations. There were 600 people at the company. It grows and grows and grows, he does well. In 2010, he gets to jump to a new S-curve. He moves into sales, he's got eight people reporting to him, a 40-million-dollar budget. By 2013, so five years later, he's at the top of the curve. He's one of 25 VP's, VP of Sales, a thousand people reporting to him and a billion-dollar business. He goes to Jeff Weiner, the CEO, and says, “I want to be the CEO of a tech company. That's my dream.” Jeff Weiner says to him, if you want to be the CEO, you're in the wrong job because you can't get there from here. Dan Shapiro, after a bout of frustration, he comes back and he says to Jeff Weiner, and to his current boss, and says “Okay, let's build product. I'm ready to jump to a new curve.”

Now, you need to understand that based on all of LinkedIn's data, people don't move from sales to product. People don't move from a VP to a role where they're a contributor and you have only three engineers reporting to you, but that's what he did. He says, “Half the time, I'm in this individual contributor role and there are no guarantees, I'm terrible, but half the time I'm really, really good.” He was at the bottom of the curve.

Well, three, four years later, he's now at the top of the curve. He's the VP of LinkedIn's two-billion-dollar business, where sales, which he used to have under him, reports to him, as well as product. This step back became a slingshot for Dan and for the business. That's what you do with people at the top of the learning curve. You sub-optimize the present, what's happening for you currently, in order to optimize the future. You let people disrupt themselves because when they can disrupt themselves, then they allow you as an organization to be the disrupter, rather than the disrupted.

Kruse: This is such a great lesson for all of us as individuals and maybe, especially for some who are earlier in their career, that this is a powerful, and not necessarily a negative thing, to change roles maybe into something that isn't your first pick. You know, lower title, maybe there's an adjustment in compensation, I don't know. Yet, what you're doing is intentionally changing curves that are going to lead to something better.

I know that in a lot of large organizations, there's sort of an understanding there that we're going to move you around to different roles. A lot of times, of course, for high-potentials, oh, you'll do two years in marketing, two years in sales, kind of, you know, maybe three years in some areas to master the curve as they're developing their future leaders, but I think that in small to mid-sized companies, we often don't think about moving around to get different experiences to get to that next level. That's pretty powerful. Whitney, tell our listeners like how can we find out more about you, of course, and your new book, Build an A-Team?

Johnson: Well, the first thing I have an offer, so if you go to my website, to, you can find out where you are on your current learning curve and also find out where people on your team are on their learning curve. What you want to look for in terms of optimizing for learning and engagement and innovation and avoiding disruption, is to have about 70% of your team in that sweet spot that we talked about. 15% at the low-end, inexperienced and 15% at the high-end who are masters getting ready to jump to that new S-curve. That's the way that people can find me. Obviously, my book is everywhere, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CEO Read, and thank you for asking, but I hope you'll take the S-curve Locator and find out where you are. I'd love to hear what you think and what you learn about yourself as you do.

Kruse: Well, I know I'm personally going to take the S-curve Locator. I love complementary diagnostics. Thanks for offering that to our audience.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at