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Podcast Pit Stop: Whitney Johnson on Unpacking The Growth and Learning Journey

Unpacking The Growth and Learning Journey

In episode 92 of Pit Stops to Podium, we sit down with Whitney Johnson, the CEO of Disruption Advisors, a distinguished leadership development company specializing in change management. She delves into the profound significance of ongoing growth and learning, emphasizing their role in personal and professional development. Whitney also unravels the captivating concept of the S-Curve, providing a deeper understanding of its relevance and application.

For sales leaders aiming to navigate the S-Curve shift, Whitney offers guidance, shedding light on how to approach this critical transition. We also touch upon the significance of partnership and the unique challenges faced by high-growth B2B SaaS organizations

If you’re ready to learn from one of the best, then buckle up and hold on!


Pitstop Highlights

Understanding the S-Curve Concept

3 major parts of the S curve:  the launch point, the sweet spot, and mastery.

When you start something new, you are at the launch point.  Often, at this point, growth feels slow and triggers things such as Imposter Syndrome.

But during the sweet spot stage, growth is fast (and feels fast) and it becomes very easy to keep going.

Once you reach mastery you have mastered your job, but you're no longer learning and growth is very slow.  It's at this point you make the decision to "disrupt" yourself and start something new, causing the S curve to start from the launch point again. 

This cycle happens because our brains are wired to grow.

The S-Curve Shift for Sales Leaders

Taking on a new role within a company represents the launch point of the S-curve from a role perspective, but you may be at the mastery level from a domain/knowledge perspective.  (overall, you may in the sweet spot)

It's also possible to be dealing with ,multiple S-curves at the same time.  There may be one project where you're at the mastery level and another where you're at the launch point. (ideally, you want most of your projects to be in the sweet spot)

Whole teams are also on the S-curve.  If a team is brand new and has little to no cohesion, then they are at the launch point; if they have a high degree of collaboration, then they are probably in the sweet spot.

Connect with Whitney



Full Transcript

Brendan:  Hey everyone, welcome to Pit Stops to Podium, the RevPartners podcast where we talk to execs who have competed and won in taking their companies from high growth to high scale. My name is Brendan Tolleson and I serve as the co-founder and CEO of RevPartners, and I'm delighted to have with me today, Whitney Johnson, for this episode of Pit Stops to Podium. Welcome, Whitney.

Whitney:  Thank you, Brendan. I am delighted to be here.

Brendan:  Well, I'm very excited about this, what's it called, interview? That's the wrong word to use. I'll say conversation. And so for our audience that may not be familiar with Whitney, Whitney is the co-founder and CEO of Disruption Advisors and is also the author of three bestselling books. And so this is gonna be a lot of fun. Whitney, for those that may not be familiar with you or for some of the lessons that you've been able to share with the world, this is a great opportunity for you to talk about Disruption Advisors and a few of those books.

Whitney:  All right, so Disruption Advisors is a leadership development company where we specialize in change management. And as you hinted, I have written three books, Disrupt Yourself. The second book was Build an A Team, and the most recent book is Smart Growth, How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. Our foundational premise is that organizations don't actually disrupt, people do, and that the fundamental unit of that growth is the individual. It is you.

Brendan:  That's great. Well, I'm excited to talk a little bit about that Smart Growth book because I think there's so many powerful lessons and applications that our audience can learn from because as we talk about, we're talking about scaling companies. And so in that B2B category, there are a lot of inflection points. But the experience into your point is really around the people side. So I'm excited to unpack that. But before we do that, we do have a tradition here at Pissed Offs at Podium and that's to get to know our guests outside of work. So what are those passions, hobbies, interests, you have Whitney?

Whitney:  So some fun facts about me are that I was born in Spain and so I always thought that I was Spanish even though I wasn't and studied Spanish all throughout school. I lived in Uruguay for a year and a half in my early 20s and much of my career has been centered around Latin America. Another fun fact is that I majored in music and while I was in college.  I played piano and our jazz band actually got to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. And the third fun fact is that I now live in Lexington, Virginia with my family. We have two college age children and we grow raspberries and blackberries and strawberries here in rural Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. If you know this part of the world.

Brendan:  I mean, it's a cliche question to ask, but do you ride horses?

Whitney:  It's not a cliche question and the answer is no, I do not, but it is absolutely horse country. There is a very large horse center near here and a lot of people do move to Lexington because they do want to have and ride horses.

Brendan:  Okay, and then I guess they were going a little off script here, but how, so given your background on what you were studying, how did it translate into what you're doing now? What was the tipping point for you?

Whitney:  Hmm. You know, what I would say is I studied music as I said in college, but I realized that even though I was majoring in music, it's not what I wanted to do for my career. Sometimes we do things, I think in part because our parents really want us to do them and my mom really wanted me to major in music.  But then once I got to New York, I had just gotten married and my husband was in school and we needed to eat. So I had to go out and get a job that would actually pay money. And that's when I discovered Wall Street, which was very exciting and really was the start of my career. So it wasn't an obvious transition. It was really driven by the need for food on the table.

Brendan:  Well, sometimes force is more impactful than dreams. So it's fun to see how your journey originated and where it is today. So thanks for sharing a little bit just in terms of that piece, but also some of those passions you have outside of work. Well, let's transition into the big idea for today. You mentioned you had the book behind you, but also what we're talking about is around smart growth, how to grow your people and how to grow your company.  Now, before we dive into some of the principles, I'd love to just understand what caused you to write this book. You talked a little bit about disruption in the intro. Really, it's more of the people is what you should be focusing on. But I'd love to understand what led you to write this book.

Whitney:  Yeah, so let me give you a little bit of the origin story behind all of these ideas. As I mentioned, I worked on Wall Street. And back in the early 2000s, I had a number of epiphanies, if you will. So I was an equity analyst. I was covering stocks. But we had this session where we were training all of the research analysts. And American Idol was at its zenith. A brand called You had just come out, this article by Tom Peters. And so I had this thought of what if all of the analysts were a brand? And again, this is 20 years ago, so people weren't thinking of people like brands. And as I was preparing for this training, I was spending an inordinate amount of time realizing that maybe I was more interested in the momentum of people than I was of stocks. And then I came across the innovator's dilemma by Clay Christensen, and that helped me understand what was going on. I was covering stocks in the emerging markets in Latin America specifically.  And at the time, every single quarter, I would build this financial model and my estimates for wireless were too low every time. And when I read the innovator's dilemma, I realized, oh, that's what's happening. Wireless is disrupting wireline. Well, as I took that explanatory mechanism, that was interesting, but about a year later, when I had gone to my boss and said, hey, I wanna do something new, and they basically said, well, we like you right where you are.  I'd now read the innovator's dilemma, had this kernel of an idea that disruption wasn't just about products and services, it was also about people. And that is what led me to disrupt myself to leave Wall Street, but also to set this pattern of, okay, I'm interested in the momentum of people, not stocks. Disruption isn't just about products and services, it's about people. And then once I ended up co-founding the investment fund with Clay Christensen, we were using the S curve that people usually use in product.  I had my third epiphany, if you will, which was maybe we can use the S-curve not only to look at how quickly an innovation will be adopted, maybe we can also use it to help us understand how individuals change, how we learn and grow. And from that came the S-curve of learning, this framework that helps us understand change management really because it helps us understand what growth not only looks like, but what it feels like. And that's what smart growth is about is when you understand what it looks like, what it feels like when you get smart about growth, you're going to increase your capacity to grow.

Brendan:  Yeah, I love that in terms of it's, you know, that focuses generally on the product and service, but you're saying it's really, not that it's not important, but you also need to be mindful of people. And this really provides a model for not only growth, but for change and using that S-curve as the way, a common language for people to engage with. So let's start there in terms that you mentioned S-curve in terms of how that's kind of a central point of the book. And you talk about from a product now to people, how should people think through what that S-curve is for those that may not be familiar?

Whitney:  Yeah, absolutely. So you can picture in your mind that there are three major parts of the S-curve. There's the launch point, the sweet spot, and mastery. And what's happening in your brain whenever you start something new, and it can be a new job, it can be a new project, it can be, I want to learn how to play five songs on the ukulele, but whenever you start something new, you are at the launch point and your brain is running a predictive model.  It has this hypothesis of what is it gonna take for me to go from the bottom or the launch point to the top of the curve? And at the launch point, most of those predictions are inaccurate. So dopamine, the chemical messenger of delight, it drops. Which means that you're going to oftentimes feel thrilled, but also terrified, discouraged, frustrated, impatient, even like an imposter. And it's not that growth isn't happening. In fact, mathematically growth is happening very quickly, but it's not yet apparent, so it feels slow. And for that reason, it makes it very difficult for us to start and stay with something new. So that's the launch point. But then the sweet spot happens and the tipping point, and we know that Malcolm Gladwell popularized that a number of years ago, that happens when you continue to run a predictive model and your predictions are increasingly accurate. And now dopamine, it starts to spike and you have these emotional upside surprises. You're going that sleek steep back of the curve. You feel exhilarated and here grows not only fast, it feels fast. And so it becomes very easy to just keep going. The third part of the curve is mastery. And this is an interesting place because on the one hand, you are at the top of the mountain. You've done what you came to do. You've figured out how to play those five songs on the ukulele. You've mastered your job.  But because you're no longer learning, you're getting a little bit of dopamine, but not a lot. And so here growth is in fact slow. And now you have a dilemma because on the one hand, it's good to be on top of the mountain, but on the other hand, because your brain needs more dopamine, you decide that you're going to find a way to keep climbing. You make the decision to disrupt yourself and jump to a brand new curve. And what this now does is it gives you this map because you understand what's going on in your brain to understand how am I gonna feel when I start something new? What's it gonna feel like when things are going well? What's it gonna feel like when I'm really good at something and I have that feeling of, I know I'm good at this, but I can't keep doing it. It's because our brains are wired to grow, I need to continue to grow. And this S-curve helps you navigate the experience of growth. And it navigates as you're scaling a company, the experience that you're having as you're scaling your business.

Brendan:  Yeah, I think it's a great way to put words and language to what people are oftentimes feeling, but don't really know how to express that. So I appreciate you bringing that to the world. And how, you know, if, if we have like, let's take a, you know, a VP of Sales or a CRO, and they're hearing what you're saying, are you, how should they think through that? Is it, is it related to the job specific function? Is it related to a project, a season of the company growth? How does that S curve apply to that?

Whitney:  You know what, it can be applied on a number of different levels. So first of all, you can take the VP of sales and it can apply to this VP individually. So they can say, all right, I'm new in role, so I'm definitely on the launch point of the curve in this role, perhaps in this company. I may not be at the launch point from a domain expertise standpoint. In fact, I might be in mastery because I'm really, really good at sales.  So now you can start to say, well, I'm at the launch point from a role perspective, but I'm in mastery from a domain perspective. So overall, I probably could argue that I'm in the sweet spot. You could also argue that in that role as a VP of sales, that it's a portfolio of S-curves, that you may have one or two projects where you're in mastery and one or two projects where you're at the launch point and several projects where you're in the sweet spot. And you want to make sure you balance that so that you've got most of your projects in the sweet spot. You can then zoom out and say, well, where is our team on the S-curve? Do we work together really well, so we're definitely in the sweet spot? Or are we kind of figuring out how we're going to work together, and we're still at the launch point? And so what the S-curve does, as you said a minute ago, Brendan, it gives you this language and allows you to talk about talent development. It allows you to think about succession planning. It allows you to think about how am I going to configure my team so that I'm optimized for growth and innovation.

Brendan:  I think it's interesting too, because oftentimes, you find, what's called the great resignation, whatever word you want to use for that, where people are getting disgruntled for one reason or another. But this can be a really powerful framework to work alongside your employees and say, look, here's what we're observing, and so that they can actually visualize it and say, really you're at the launch point, but we have a path for you to ultimately get to the sweet spot and eventually get into mastery. So they have that clarity to say, hey, this company believes in me and here's what that roadmap looks like.

Whitney:  That's right, Brendan. And you know what's so interesting is that based on our research, one of the greatest predictors of longevity in an organization is do I perceive that there continues to be growth upside for me? So definitely the launch point, I know there's growth upside. There you've got to make sure that they don't get too discouraged and give up. In the sweet spot, they absolutely feel like there's growth upside. But where you start to get at risk is if you have a person who you think as a manager, oh, this person is doing a terrific job. They're absolutely in the sweet spot. But then if you start to administer our tool, we have a tool that tells you where people are. And it shows that they actually, they're having the experience of being in mastery. They're good at what they're doing. They're feeling bored. They're not feeling motivated. You have a problem. Well, if they're not a high performer, you don't have a problem because they're gonna leave and you don't have to worry about it. But if they're a high performer, you have a challenge because if they start to look around and look at what other options, what other S curves are available to them, they can't unsee that. And so what you want to do is use this as an artifact to have those conversations while they're still in the sweet spot so that you can collectively jointly agree, hey, once you get into mastery, here's what we're gonna do to make sure that you stay engaged. Because I know that I want you to stay here. I know you like this company. We wanna make sure that you have an opportunity to continue to grow.

Brendan:  Yeah, I imagine to your point that that's as companies mature, that's the tension of in the beginning, it's like there's tons of upside and there's lots of potential and you have a lot of high performers or in theory you do. But as they mature and scale and you have that mastery, what next? And so I think that's a really good way to think through what do you do with that?

Whitney:  Would it be helpful to give a quick example? Would that be helpful? OK, yeah. So we had a company reach out to us. They had seen our work and were intrigued. And it's a company that is named after the largest river in South America. And you can buy almost anything from them online. And they administered our tool. And they found out that on a team of nine people, seven of the people were in mastery. So obviously, it had implications for succession planning.  But what it did is it allowed them to have a number of conversations. And one of the conversations they had was a person who was absolutely in mastery. And now that the manager didn't take it personally, he said, oh, I just know this person's in mastery. They like working here. They like working for me. They need to continue to grow. So he brokered a move for this person to another part of the organization. But what's interesting is once they were there for about six months, he said, hey, I've learned a lot of new things being on this launch point. I'd actually like to come back into your org, but now they were going to be in the sweet spot again. Another conversation that happened is the person said, you know, I understand that I'm in mastery, but I have a lot going on at home. So thinking about that portfolio of curves. And so I'd like to stay in mastery and want to stay in role, but the way I can be on a launch point is if I do some S curve loops and I help develop people on our team and bring other people along, which is its own kind of development curve as we're trying to figure out how to train people. And then the third person, they both collectively agreed, you know what, this isn't the right ask her for you anymore. And so they were able to amicably find and ask her for them somewhere outside of the organization. So it really does give you a way to have a conversation that doesn't feel personal, but at the same time feels very personalized for the person that's on your team.

Brendan:  Yeah, it's a way to respectfully engage and kind of, I can't remember the author on the tour duty concept, but it's that partnership. Reid Hoffman, yeah. Just talking through, hey, you know, you're looking at the interests of the individual and the interests of business and what makes sense for both parties. So I really liked that. We took a larger organization. Now let's look at that on the other side. When you think about high growth companies, let's take a, you know, high growth B2B SaaS organization. And so they may not be on the mastery curve and they may be earlier on, but what's the challenges that they're experiencing in those early inflection points of scale?

Whitney:  Yeah, there are two that really come to mind. One is perhaps a less obvious one is that in a high growth company and especially in a talent market that's hot, you're going to have people who are going to tip into the sweet spot and they're feeling very confident, they're feeling engaged, they're feeling like growth is fast and then people start trying to pick them off. Hey, why don't you come at my company and we'll pay you 2X or whatever that number is, 50% more.  And the risk there is that they start to move into the sweet spot of the curve, but they don't complete the curve. And so if they do that too many times, you start to get a rest of development because they've never gone through the process of completing that cycle of growth. So that's one risk factor of people who are moving into that sweet spot. And how do you have that conversation of, I know you think you're in mastery right now, but really you're in the sweet spot. Let's make sure that you really can grow and develop and flourish. And when you get there.  I will be an advocate for you to do something new. So that's in the sweet spot, that's a risk factor. At the launch point for a high growth company, you end up having a lot of people all at the launch point at the same time, and so you get imbalanced the other way. What we found can be most useful there is, first of all, just to acknowledge the experience that people are having of, I feel out of my depth and I feel overwhelmed.  And this is normal so that people don't start feeling shame or discomfort and start trying to perform instead of being in a place of learning of, hey, we don't know how to do this, but we're gonna figure it out. The other thing you can do is you can synthetically create a more balanced portfolio of curves by bringing in an expert on a very short-term basis. So I've got a lot of people at the launch point. They don't all have the domain expertise that I need them to have. I'm just gonna bring in an expert, a consultant who knows this field really well.  I don't need to hire them, I don't have the budget for that, but I'm gonna pay them $2,500, I'm gonna pay them $5,000 just to give them a little bit of fuel to get into the sweet spot of that curve. So you're synthetically creating that balanced portfolio from a team perspective that you need. So that's the sweet spot, arrested development, avoid against that, avoid people becoming unfocused and the launch point, get some help so that they can get the training that they need and support so that they can move into the sweet spot quickly.

Brendan:  That's really timely and relevant for me, as I even think about our organization. I mean, we've gone from zero to 60 people in about two years and probably gonna double that in the next 18 months. And so we have a lot of high performers and a lot of high potential people, but they may not have had the experience yet for the seats that they're being asked to be a part of. And so to your point, those are some really helpful insights for me, even just thinking through how do we manage that in a way in which it's caring for our people well, saying, we believe in you, but also providing that wrapper, as you're describing, to make sure that they effectively move into that next phase of the S-curve. So thank you for that. I'm sure our audience will enjoy it, but help me.

Whitney:  And yeah, you're welcome. And for the business too, I mean, sometimes you have to have that conversation of, Hey, I think this might not be the right S curve for you. And it's not that you're not terrific. It's just not the right fit and being willing to treat people with dignity and find either another role in the company or help them find another S curve elsewhere. They can then become ambassadors for your organization because you treated them with respect.

Brendan:  Well, Whitney, as we wrap up, I have two final lab questions for you. The first one, you mentioned Clay Christensen in reading Innovators Dilemma. And I know that you co-founded the Innovation Fund with him. One thing we did not cover is how the two of you got connected originally. So I'd love to hear that back story.

Whitney:  Oh, yeah. So the backstory is that I was actually in church and I heard him speak and he was riveting. And when I thought, oh, I want to learn more about this person. And so I bought his book, The Innovator's Dilemma. And as I said earlier, I studied it and applied it to the work that I was doing as an equity analyst. And then I went to hear him speak. And then I had that epiphany of like I need to disrupt myself and I reached out to him and I said, hey, here I'm an equity analyst. Here's my research. We had now moved up to Boston and I ended up working with him on a number of nonprofit projects for our church and he got familiar with my work. I obviously with him and so when he wanted to start the disruptive innovation fund with his oldest son, Matt, because I had this equity background, he asked me to join him as a co-founder. So it's a person that I met at church.

Brendan:  That's great. Well, I appreciate you, Sharon. I remember reading an innovative dilemma. Well, I say a long time ago, but it was probably, I don't know, 15 or 20 years ago. And then the article that he wrote around meaning of life, and I know his impact on me and impacted so many others around the world. So his impact goes beyond his life, and it's fun to hear how he has impacted you and really how you're continuing to carry a broader message. So thank you for all the hard work you're doing. And Whitney, the second final lab question is, how can our audience engage with you, whether it's to learn more about the S-curve or about your business?

Whitney:  Yeah, so I think one easy way to engage is we have a podcast as well. It's called the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, big surprise. And so that's one easy way to engage for those of you who are podcast listeners. And then the other very easy way to reach out is just if you are curious about the work that we're doing around the S-curve insight tool or what we do at Disruption Advisors in terms of helping your team scale and manage your change you can obviously just go to our website,

Brendan:  Well, Whitney, I'm sure our audience will take action on that. Um, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the podcast, uh, and to share with our listeners around, um, this model that really helps people understand growth and change, uh, cause I know it's gonna be a tremendous benefit, especially in this, um, uh, disruptive time that we're all, we're all living in. So, uh, thanks again. We really do appreciate it.

Whitney:  Oh, thank you, Brendan, for having me.

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