The secret to having an engaged and productive workforce is to have a master plan for developing employees at all stages of the learning curve. That’s the key message from leading US author and consultant Whitney Johnson. On a recent speaking engagement in Dublin, she spoke to Decision Editor FRANK DILLON.

It is almost a given at management conferences these days that a slide will appear at some point in the proceeding showing the appalling state of employee engagement in the western world. A Gallup figure of 15% is often quoted representing the minority of employees who say they are truly engaged with their jobs. The impact on productivity is clearly devastating.

This is the backdrop to author Whitney Johnson’s latest book, called Build an A Team (Harvard Business Review Press). For Johnson, the secret to tackling this problem is to have a master plan for employees at the three key stages of their career journey. Her Eureka moment was the realisation that the ‘S’ curve model for disruptive innovation as it applies to product life cycles, also applies to careers.

Johnson is well used to disruption. Graduating with a music degree, she stumbled into financial services and has not looked back. “Wall Street in the late eighties was exciting but it didn’t have many opportunities for pianists so I started as secretary at a financial services firm and took business classes at night. After a few years my boss, Cesar Baez, helped bridge the gap for me to become an investment banker and it laid the groundwork for my entire career.” Moving into equity research and analysis, Johnson proved adept as a stock picker achieving a high ranking by the industry journal Institutional Investor.

Have a master plan for developing employees at all stages of the learning curve

By 2004, she was hankering for a new challenge and struck out on her own. She co-founded an early stage investment fund with legendary Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen called the Disruptive innovation Fund, that continues to enjoy success today. Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, famously proposed the theory of disruptive innovation by which start-ups can dislodge incumbent market leaders through leveraging new technology.

S Curve

It’s S curve model suggests growth is really slow at first, until a product or service reaches a tipping point of around 10-15% market penetration, the so called ‘knee of the curve’. This can be followed by rapid market growth where the product or service lies in a sweet spot. Finally, when market penetration reaches 90% or more, saturation is reached and growth tapers off.

Johnson was curious to see if the same principles could be applied to career lifespans and her research suggest that there was indeed a link. The three stages in this case are termed inexperience, engagement and mastery.

“The S curve model helps us understand the development and shifts in individual careers. S curve math tells us that the early days of a role, at the low end of the S, can feel like a slog. Cause and effect are seemingly disconnected. Huge effort yields little but understanding this helps avoid discouragement,” Johnson explains.

The S curve model helps us understand the development and shifts in individual careers

“As we put in days, weeks and months of practice, we will speed up and move up the S curve, roaring into competence and the confidence that accompanies it. This is the exhilarating part of the S curve, where all our neurons are firing, the sweet spot.
“As we approach mastery, tasks become easier and easier. This is satisfying for a while but because we are no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, we are likely to get bored. If we stay on top of the top of the curve for too long, our plateau becomes a precipice.”

Johnson says that to have a healthy organisation, you need a good mix of people at different ends of the curve and that if you don’t have enough people at the lower end of the curve, you are not going to get innovation. All three stages of the curve are normal and legitimate. The secret is recognising this and having a strategy to manage each stage.

This starts with hiring policy. Johnson says risk aversion is a problem in many hiring decisions, with managers playing safe for risk of failure. Hiring an ‘Ivy League’ star may seem like a great move and many organisations crave these so-called A-list hires, but in many ways these are not always the sure-bets that they might first seem, she says.

Whitney Johnson

“Firstly, if they know how to do the job, they are probably not going to be learning. Secondly, they are going to be really expensive to hire as they are considered premium talent, they have options to go elsewhere and thirdly, they are probably going to be bored very quickly so their shelf life is very short. The economic cost of hiring that person can actually be very high.”
As in the principle of nobody ever getting fired for buying from IBM, if that hire doesn’t work out the consequences for the one who has recruited them are limited. Hire someone with a so-called ‘second tier’ qualification, however, and the risk profile for the recruiter is greater.

“Managers will typically feel a greater sense of responsibility for the failure if that person doesn’t work out. We need to consider how do we make it safer as a manager to risk failure as we don’t deal with failure very well.”
She adds: “We need to hire people for potential not for proficiency. Yes you have to have people with the right credential to do the job but it is about more than that. Motivation is hugely important. Over time you will have a group of people who are much happier and the organisation will benefit.
The lower end of the curve is where the challenge is most obvious. Johnson has this advice:

“Discouragement is a real danger at the early stage and one that needs to guarded against. You need people to understand the ‘why’ of the organisation – why are we doing the work we are doing. You also you need to understand their own motivation. There’s a risk in doing that. What they are doing is showing you their hopes and dreams which is giving you a lot of power. You have to respect that. If you can see what they are trying to get out of the job, you can better manage them. You also need to be honest and tell them that they are at the lower end of the curve, how long they are going to be and what will happen when they move to the next part of the curve.”

Specifically, she advises giving new hires short-term tightly defined projects that provide feedback as in your first few weeks in the job, feedback is important.

The second or middle stage of the curve is where employees tend to have maximum engagement. They may be still making mistakes but learning and innovation are at their peak. It is vital for organisations to have lost of people at this stage of the curve. One of the dangers here is maintaining the growth mindset of this cohort so pushing and challenging this group is vital.

“The danger at the third or high end of the learning curve is that your people can get complacent and settled. Bored and complacent people don’t innovate. They are just dialling it in. They get disrupted. If you have too many people are at that stage of the curve you are in a dangerous position as an organisation,” Johnson cautions.

It is not always possible, or advisable, to hold on to people, Johnson acknowledges. “Sometimes people need to go elsewhere. You need to have conversation about what they want to do. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to help people jump to the new curve, ideally in your organisation but if not in a trading partner or a client. That’s how you build valuable networks.”

Skills Mix

Another interesting observation Johnson makes is that it is easy to assume that people know what their strengths are, when often they don’t. Usually, she notes, we have a tough time spotting our own superpowers because these are things we do instinctively well, so our strengths are often invisible and easily dismissed. “We sometimes hire people into the wrong roles because they include on their resume what they worked hard to do not what they do without thinking. You need to identify your reports’ strengths – their superpowers, their genius – and play to them.”

Diversity in skill sets is equally important and Johnson cautions against hiring too many people in your image. In the book, she cites an example of the entrepreneur Walter O’Brien, founder of Scorpion Computer Services. A child prodigy, who started programming computers at the age of nine, O’Brien initial hires were all like him, technology geniuses with high IQs. He soon discovered that when he puts two geniuses on the same project, they ‘tried to kill each other, all the while insulting the customer’.

Recognising that he needed to hire people who were strong in ways that he wasn’t, O’Brien started hiring single moms, elementary school teachers and psychologists – people with skills such as self-awareness, empathy and the ability to manage conflict. These high EQ (emotional intelligence) liaise between Scorpion’s high IQ technology specialists and its clients and are nicknamed ‘Super Nannies’.

Seven accelerants of growth

According to Johnson, managers need to know about seven accelerants of growth and learning

The right risks
Managers need to become talent developers

Distinctive strengths
Pinpoint employees’ talents and utilise them

Embrace constraints
Use time limits to motivate and hone focus

Battle against entitlements
Celebrate success and be generous in helping employees fulfil their potential

Step back to grow
Sacrifice short-term productivity to encourage curve jumping

Give failure its due
Let employees take on uncomfortable challenges and support them through failure

Be discovery driven
Shift players on your team as their skills and talents emerge

“Nearly every human being is looking for growth opportunities. If a person cannot grow with a company they will grow away from it. As with any rules, Johnson acknowledges that there are exceptions: “There are people who won’t grow no matter how you try to help them. Then there’s the issue of past high performers who are currently underperforming. If it is time to jump and they wont, you may need to give them a nudge.”

She likens the process to the leaven bread; a little bit is all that it takes for the whole mass of dough to rise but let it rise too long and it will collapse. The energy of the chemical reaction will have spent itself. The key is to capture the leavening at the right time, bake our loaves and reserve some ‘starter’ for the next batch.

The prize in getting performance management right is enormous and she feels that organisations need to incentivise their managers to

“If people are engaged operating margins go up and if they are disengaged margins go down. Let’s make sure that when we do performance reviews that people are developing talent and if they are it is linked to their bonus. If we really believe talent is important, then we need to put metrics around that.”

Creative disruption lies at the heart of Johnson’s message. “Managing people so that they can disrupt themselves honours the biology of change that is in our human nature. We each have a life cycle, made up of myriad smaller life cycles, beginnings and endings, growth and decline; we cannot stay the same.”

As Johnson concludes: “We can only rummage through the same rocks for so long and find diamonds. Eventually, its time to swing our picks into the solid wall of the unknown and begin the work of discovery anew.”