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Road to creating a high-performing team, with the insights from the Global coach, Whitney Johnson [Interview]

Road to creating a high-performing team, with the insights from the Global coach, Whitney Johnson [Interview]

July 26, 2023
Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together

When it comes to business, these forces can come together, emerging from three major sources -  Employees, Leaders, and organizations. In today’s world, organizations must do more than create a great product or service to stay afloat.

Having a well-thought-out strategy and a skilled workforce is vital to sustainability. If organizations are serious about being able to compete, ‘they must equip their employees with the skills to succeed. It is essential for leaders to create the best possible people strategy to ensure that employees have the skills required to advance the business. 

There are these leaders who have been the guiding light to organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. On our quest to find motivation for entrepreneurs and organizations, we had to stumble upon this big name, Whitney Johnson.

Whitney is the CEO of boutique consultancy WLJ Advisors and one of the fifty leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50––an expert on helping “High-growth organizations” develop “High-growth individuals”. One of Linkedin's Top Voices 2018, Global Guru Ranking of #3 in Organizational Culture, Fortune's 55 Most Influential Women in Twitter and so much more, her list of achievements and glory, is endless.

As successful and magnificent this personality is, we weren’t sure if we’d get a chance to get into a conversation with her. Yet, hoping for the rarest possibility, we reached out to her, to see if she can spare some time out of her extremely busy schedule, to talk to us and enlighten us. To our pleasant surprise, she most graciously agreed to converse with us. And what an enlightenment it was!

We thought we'd start by talking about her family. We wanted to know what were the qualities that she attributes to her family that later shaped her career as a business leader as well as the “Global Guru” that she is today. She says,

“I’m the oldest child and I think that often means extra responsibility early in life. It meant that for me. Also, my parents divorced and even before that my mom always worked. Although women in my generation didn’t choose careers in the overwhelming numbers that they do today, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t envision a career for my future.

My mom encountered some really blatant discrimination as a woman in the workplace, and even lost her job when she became pregnant with her fourth child. I think I’ve always wanted to confront those biases and prove myself and encourage others, especially women to believe in their ability to achieve their dreams and help mentor them so that they can prove themselves—to themselves and to others. These influences have shaped me as a coach.

I also was a serious piano student while growing up and the discipline and hard work associated with becoming accomplished at playing the instrument were good early training. That experience helped me develop an ethic of work, consistent effort, and perseverance.“ 

No wonder this lady reached the roaring success. With that kind of perseverance and determination, she is the perfect example of “Leaders for Tomorrow”.

An award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Education, and an executive coach and advisor to CEOs, Whitney believes an organization grows with its people.

“We’ve always known that people want fair compensation for their work. What we’ve become more aware of in recent years is that compensation isn’t their only concern, and for many people, it’s not a top concern. And the more favorable the job climate is for workers, the less likely employees are to be engaged or satisfied working for an organization where the culture is negative

At the front and center of the company, culture should be the value and priority that people come first. Organizations are really just shells; they are animated and made vibrant and growing—or not—by the people who work in them. A culture that acknowledges that the organization doesn’t grow unless the people within it do, and that strategizes processes to facilitate individual growth, such as personal disruption, helps to motivate and maintain employee engagement.” she says.

But the question is how should companies organize Upskill programs to drive organizational growth?

“I think such programs need to target individuals; there is no one size fits all approach. Every employee is on a personal trajectory, what I call an S Curve of Learning, and needs opportunities to maximize and develop based on where they are on their learning curve, and where they may be best suited to go for the next learning opportunity when they’ve exhausted the potential for growth in their current role.

We’ve developed the S Curve Locator, a diagnostic to help people (and their managers/leaders) identify where they are on their personal learning curve and what type of support they need to optimize that phase of their growth. It also helps facilitate conversations that will prepare both the employee and the organization for the inevitable need for individuals to disrupt themselves, changing roles every three to four years to remain fresh, invigorated and learning.

We are learning machines; make employees aware that there is an opportunity for learning, encourage and facilitate them to make moves and you will harness the natural inclination to change and move that produces energy and promotes engagement. Most people, given the chance, will take responsibility for their own learning and skills improvement.”

An innovation and disruption theorist, Whitney is the author of the bestselling Build an A-Team (Harvard Business Press, 2018), a Financial Times and 800-CEO-READ Book of the Month, and Disrupt Yourself (Harvard Business Press, 2019), which Publisher’s Weekly called “Savvy . . . often counterintuitive . . . superb.” In her books, she codifies her Personal Disruption and S Curve of Learning frameworks for creating high performing team and individuals and organizations. We asked her, how should the new entrepreneurs make employees believe in their Organizational Goals to grow business efficiently?

“Organizational goals need to be clearly thought through and articulated. They need to be authentic and actionable. There is no making anyone believe in anything that doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. Do you believe in your own objectives? Walk the walk, and others are more likely to line up to follow. 

People are most willing to invest themselves in an organization that has the well-being of its employees as a high priority. High growth organizations require high growth individuals. Therefore, the most important organizational goal is to promote the growth of the people.”

Her vision on the Future of the workplace and how the world of automation and AI is going to affect how we work, is every bit of information business leaders need to know and be prepared for. Whitney says,

“It would be naïve to suggest that automation and AI aren’t going to transform the future workplace. In fact, the transformation is in progress and has been for quite a while. I don’t believe predictions of the “end of work,” however. The workforce is going to need to become increasingly pliable and adaptable. We’ve had a taste of this the past couple of decades, but the pace is accelerating and is going to continue to do so. A good college degree, the ticket to ride in the workplace of the past, is now only the beginning of the process of constant education and re-education that workers will need to engage in to be nimble and prepared for the jobs that are integral to a world of constant change and innovation.

My work focuses on developing talented individuals to be continual and rapid learners, and coaching organizations so that they are providing an environment where employees are growing the organization because they have personal high growth opportunities within it. Talent development and learning opportunities that may have been nice add-ons in the past are increasingly essential to attract and retain employees who can reiterate as rapidly as the advance of technology and automation will require. Individual workers, knowing the health of their own career means they can’t afford to be stuck, will ignore and/or abandon employers that don’t make talent development a top priority.”

More than one in three (35%) working Americans are millennials, eclipsing other generations in the labor force, and thus the question arises, how should organizational programs be strategized for Millennials? Whitney says,

“Frankly, I think the challenge of Millennials in the workplace is a diminishing issue. Increasingly, Millennials are the workforce. They are managers and leaders. They have influence in culture shifts and evolution that are friendly to their generation’s values and priorities. We may need to refocus our efforts on ensuring that ageism is being confronted and we’re not discriminating against older workers.

That said, it’s important to remember that the younger generations are accustomed to an “on-demand” world. That includes on-demand opportunities. They are very willing to take advantage of a favorable job climate and make strategic moves to improve their access to learning and growth. Organizations need to prioritize ongoing training, learning initiatives, individual growth plans—they need to prioritize people and their development.

High growth organizationsn look forward to creating high performance team and require high growth people, and there’s a lot of energy that can be harnessed in a mobile workforce. Calibrate organizational programs to promote employee learning and growth and they will come.”

Whitney was the co-founder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, through which they invested in and led the $8 million seed round for South Korea’s Coupang, currently valued at more than $9 billion. She was involved in fund formation, capital raising, and the development of the fund’s strategy. According to one of her former colleagues from HBS, “Whitney has impressive insight into how people think”.

Hence, we believe there cannot be a better person to advise on how should employees expand their opportunities and strengthen their careers in a distracting environment?

”Employees need to take responsibility for their own growth and learning. Don’t wait for the boss to suggest everything. Ask for what you want; if it isn’t available or possible then you may be in the wrong organization. But make your goals and ambitions known, be willing to say yes to opportunities in order to open future doors. Show up for what you’re committed to doing. Be a proactive advocate for your own career.”, she says.

She has mentioned in her widely cherished writings that the recruitment leaders should be willing to recruit in unconventional, disruptive ways. How to turn the odds in your favor in such a scenario? Whitney believes,

“First, what is the conventional way? Sadly, it is to overinflate the requirements for a position and then hire the most qualified (overqualified) candidate for the job—on the basis of those excessive accomplishments. It demonstrates a preference for hiring the shiny new penny from outside rather than moving and promoting the known people already within the organization. It is increasingly relying on the algorithms of AI to evaluate applicants who, as human beings, are non-linear, non-quantifiable, and difficult to predict.

I suggest instead that HR professionals and hiring managers use digital tools to help in the process but continue to use human inputs to evaluate potential talent. I recommend that people be hired for high potential rather than the greatest proficiency. Hiring overqualified candidates almost ensures rapid boredom, stagnation, and high turnover. Instead, hire individuals who have room to learn and grow in their role and will, therefore, enjoy fuel for their brains for a few years in the position. 

I would like to see more internal hiring and movement of people. Observing an employee on the job over a period of time offers greater opportunity to evaluate potential than anything that can be done in a recruitment process.

Finally, there’s a great return on a modest investment available by hiring capable and ambitious workers from unconventional places—on-campers, older workers, interns, gig workers, remote workers and so forth. Often marginalized in the hiring process, such people are often hungry for an opportunity and will give a top-shelf effort when one is opened to them. “

How can the leaders enhance the ecosystem they create and thus the productivity generating out of it

“Again, I believe that organizations that don’t focus on creating an ecosystem that promotes the learning and growth of the employees are doomed to miss out on organizational growth as well.

One of the startling and defining metrics of our time is the high, high levels of disengagement in the workplace that are reported. Manage people so that they are learning and growing in their roles and disrupting new roles and the attendant learning curves before they become bored, stagnant and disengaged. Organizations are inanimate, non-sentient shells. They are enlivened by their people and they grow—or don’t—depending on the growth of those people. “

People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives. And hence, the speed of the boss is the speed of the team. So how to be the boss that accelerates the learning curve of the employees? Whitney says,

“I’ve articulated the framework of personal disruption in my book Disrupt Yourself, which has just been released by Harvard Business Press in a second edition. This framework helps individuals put the power of disruption to work in their lives and careers. Build an “A-Team” is my book that helps managers, leaders, and other interested parties understand how to implement the personal disruption framework to help employees and team members accelerate their learning.

It answers the question of why this is valuable from an organizational point of view. We have developed the S Curve Locator, a diagnostic to help identify where people are on their individual learning curves and to help support them to optimize the growth possible there. The bottom line is to acknowledge that human beings are learning machines—our brains are programmed to do their best work when challenged and learning.” 

And why not? We are most engaged in a task when we are learning. After all, the very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet. You have a duty to find time to shape the future. Be the boss that recognizes that positioning employees so that they are learning in their roles results in employees who are positioned for the greatest engagement, productivity, and success. Because as Whitney Johnson says, “When people grow, so do organizations.”

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