How an A-Team is Built

How an A-Team is Built

While a manager should be focused on helping people develop at work, that role is so often lost in the day-to-day shuffle. Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, has thoughts on combating that challenge. In this episode, we’ll talk about how to build the right team, smart recruiting, and tactics that help employees navigate the S-curve of learning to accelerate growth and professional development at every stage of their career.


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Run Time: 38:36

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Brandon Laws: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Brandon Laws and I am so, so excited about today’s episode. Today’s episode, I interview Whitney Johnson. She is the author of the new book Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. This is published by Harvard Business Review Press. Whitney is also the author of Disrupt Yourself, and she is the host of a podcast with the same exact title.

Build an A Team comes out on May 1, 2018. So we’re getting a very first look at the book before it comes out and, as such, I would like to – this is the first time I’ve ever done this. I would like to give away five copies of Whitney’s book paid by us and you can get it a couple of different ways.

So I will give it to the first five people that do one of the following three options. You can write a review on Apple Podcast for our show, screenshot the review and email me and the email is in the show notes. But it’s and the Xenium is with an “X” not a “Z”. So that’s the first way.

The second way is to share this podcast or the episode on LinkedIn, give us a shout-out and then tag me, Brandon Laws, so I know how to reach out to you and I can direct message you that way.

The third option is to share the podcast or the episode on Facebook and also give us a shout-out and tag me somehow. So that way, I know how to reach you.

So again, the first five people that do this, I will take note of the timestamps and I will send you the book, either electronic or physical copy, whatever you prefer. Again, this comes out May 1st. So by the time this episode hits, it might be a week or so. But I will get you the book.

You’re going to enjoy this episode with Whitney. She talks all about how to develop talent within your organization and how to basically hire and recruit people at different stages of what she calls the “S-curve”. So again, just love this interview with Whitney. I think you’re going to really enjoy this.

Brandon: Hey, Whitney. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.

Whitney Johnson: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here, Brandon.

Brandon: You wrote a book Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve and I wanted to set the stage for this book for the listeners. So in the introduction, you mentioned that a lot of times as leaders, we don’t get to work on the important stuff, like clarity of purpose, on-the-job development and career shaping tends to get lost in the day-to-day shuffle of putting out fires. I imagine most managers don’t really set out to be like this. But why do they?

Whitney: Yeah. So it’s really interesting. The other day I had – one of my CEO clients called me fairly urgently and say – to tell me just one of his key people had decided to leave and he said, “You know, I get it. There’s some logic to this. She has been commuting for an hour. She has got five children. This new job is five minutes away from her house. But as she sat across the table from me, I had this feeling that she actually doesn’t like to work here and she doesn’t like working for me.”

I think that it’s interesting especially for a small and medium-sized business. Part of the reason you started a business was that you had in your mind an idea for a product. But you also wanted your people to bring their dreams to work. You wanted to be a boss where people loved to work for you and initially they did. Like you had this vision. They were mesmerized by it. So they hired you to be their boss and things were going to be fantastic.

Then what happens is that you’ve got product to ship and you’ve got deadlines and so after – maybe not a few months, but after nine months or a year or eighteen months, you find yourself under so much pressure, you need people right where they are, doing what they’ve always done and it just can’t be like that because people are on a learning curve and they move up to the top of the curve and then they get bored and they need to do something new.

So now you don’t want people to move and so that very boss that you never wanted to be, now you’re that person and then there’s this revolving door and it’s costing you time and it’s costing you money. So to answer your very simple question, why does it happen like that, one of the reasons that it happens is because you’ve got product to ship and you’re under a lot of pressure.

Then the other reason that it can happen, but probably less so in a smaller business, is that things are going really well and you want them to keep going exactly the way they’re going. So you don’t want people to move either. And yet, we all know that when that happens, people are going to leave.

So you’re going to – things won’t stay the same or they’re going to get complacent and kind of give up and bored and complacent people don’t innovate. They get disrupted.

Brandon: And I think the interesting thing about what you just brought up is that there’s – it seems to be a mismatch of that current reality with where people – what people really want from work. You had stated in the book that people on the job really want to go where they haven’t gone before. They want to venture into uncharted territory and to take their company and to be a part of that and take it to where it has never been before.

So it’s interesting that we kind of fall into this trap of the day-to-day firefighting and I get it from a small, mid-sized business. I mean I would imagine that this isn’t a surprise to you.

Whitney: No, it’s not a surprise and what’s interesting is – you know, talking from my own experience that I’m having right now, I’ve got about 10 people that work with me and I can think of one employee in particular where they came in at sort of the bottom of the curve. They’ve got some domain expertise, the bottom of the curve, in terms of what we’re doing.

But this person is really capable and so they’ve like roared up their learning curve and we probably should revisit what that is exactly. So we will come back to that. But they’ve moved up that really quickly and now they’re at the top of their learning curve. So one of the things that we’ve had is there’s this piece of me thinking – there’s a little bit of a tension. We’ve actually talked about this where she’s starting to be ready to expand to try other things, to either take on other clients. You know, see what that looks like and there’s a piece of me. It’s like I want you to do exactly what you’ve been doing.

So we had the actual conversation. Can you really just focus on what you’re doing, what you’re expert at right now for the next three months as we get through the launch of this next book Build an A Team? And from there, then I will help you jump to a new learning curve. So I think when as an employer, if we’re willing to have those conversations of understanding what the people’s dreams are and again, there’s this – there’s underlying assumption here that this person is doing a really good job.

So I’m making that as an a prior assumption. But assuming that they are, if you will have that conversation of, “OK, I understand. You’ve shared with me what you want to do long term.” Even though you’re – right now we’ve got the short term. So if you will work with me to deliver this in the short term, I will help you solve the long term problem that you are personally trying to solve and then everybody wins.

Brandon: You brought up a couple of times the learning curve. It’s the S-curve that you had brought up in the first chapter of your book. Can you define that for listeners? I think it’s so fascinating. That’s a great visual.

Whitney: I want everybody who’s listening to picture an S – and you’ve got from the left to the right is time and from the bottom to the top is expertise. So if you think the bottom – think of your base of your S and your learning. Whenever you start a new job, typically – or start a new project or start a business for probably six months up to a year, you’re going to be working hard and you’re moving along that base of that S and working hard, working hard, working hard and it looks like nothing is happening.

Like you’re just going along the base and you’re never moving up in terms of expertise. But as you put in the days and weeks and months of practice, you’re going to start to accelerate and move up the sleek, steep back of that S and that’s the hyper-growth area where you’re engaged, where you’re feeling competent and because you’re feeling competent, you’re feeling confident.

So that’s the sweet spot of that S-curve for you and that’s where – you’re typically there for two to three years and you want the majority of your employees to be in that sweet spot where things are – they’re hard but they’re not too hard. So they’re incredibly engaged, incredibly effective in moving your business forward.

So very little time passes and a lot happens in terms of expertise. You’ve moving up that Y-axis or from bottom to top in terms of expertise really, really quickly. Then after three or four years, you get to the top of your S and again that flattens out. Time passes, time passes, time passes and not much is happening. But what’s different about being at the top is this is where you are a master. You’ve reached the stage of mastery and that would seem like it’s fantastic except that the way our brains work when we’re not learning, we get bored. When we get bored, we disengage.

So once you get to that top, you’ve got some choices as an employee and certainly as an employer. You have to say to yourself, “OK. Probably going to get six months to a year of this person at the top of the curve,” and there’s a lot of value in terms of being able to have perspective. But I also know that because they’re bored, if I can’t give them more opportunities to learn, they will do one of two things. They will leave, which is bad for me, or they will get complacent and stop working and stop being effective, which is even worse for me.

So then you’ve basically got what I call the innovator’s dilemma with people. Do you allow them to jump inside of your company or do you have them basically disrupt you and leave? The whole book, the whole premise of the book is you manage those learning curves and you build an A-team by optimizing where your people are on those learning curves and that will allow them to be engaged all in and because they’re all in, you will ship even more product and in the process become a boss that people like to work for because they know that you’re always going to make sure that they have an opportunity to learn and to really feel like they’re contributing in a very meaningful way on the job.

Brandon: Do you have a way of assessing or does a person have a way of assessing where they’re at on the S-curve?

Whitney: I do. I actually was so intrigued by this. I worked with a couple of organizational psychologists to build a diagnostic. It’s called the “S-curve locator” and for all your listeners, if you go to my website to, you can download this S-curve locator and take it. It takes like four, five minutes and what you can then do if you want – you know, we do work where we can do all the analysis. But if you want to do kind of some back of the envelope work on your own is you can have everybody on your team take that.

Then what you will want to do is look at all right, so ideally, you want to have 70 percent of your people in the sweet spot of that curve. Fifteen percent of your people, at the low end, and then 15 percent of your people at the high end. That’s how you know you’re optimizing for innovation and basically lowering your “We’re about to be disrupted” score.

Brandon: So you say having a mix of people at different levels of the S-curve is really important to building that A team as you really define in the book. I love the analogy that you made about the game of chess and how kind of building an A team is really the same thing where they have different pieces. Can you elaborate on that, just the entire point about having a mix of chess pieces so to speak?

Whitney: So here’s what happens. So just to explain the chess analogy, I think what’s great about it, we – historically people think of chess in terms of I am the grandmaster and I’m moving all the chess pieces, except that we all know that in real life, the chess pieces actually are agentic – they can move themselves and a chess – a pawn, once they move all the way across the board, can actually become a queen. So, then the question for you as a leader is, yes, you need to think about the strategy and the big picture. But also recognize that if you will create the right ecosystem, those chess pieces will move themselves across the board.

So in terms of managing that team, you want to say to yourself, “OK. What do I do with my people at the low end of the curve?” There are a couple of things. Number one, you give them lots of constraints, like lots of early projects, so that they have something to bump up against and get feedback and figure out how they’re doing, because the more feedback they get, the more quickly they’re going to develop and that can involve things like really short term projects, tight deadlines, so that they can iterate very, very quickly. And also things that are easy to do, relatively easy to do – I want you to go meet these 10 people inside of the organization. I know maybe if you’re small, maybe these 10 stakeholders, not just inside your organization but outside your organization because the more you have relationships with people, the more you’re able to get things done.

So you give people very concrete things to do with the low end of the curve, so they can move up that curve very quickly. The other thing you want to do with people at the low end of the curve is to recognize that part of the offset of their not knowing what they’re doing, of being in experiences, that they ask lots of questions. They’re not blind through familiarity.

So ask them the question two or three months in. OK. You’ve been here. What do you see? And recognizing that they’re going to question a lot of the way you’re doing things and it will feel kind of pesky and annoying, like it does when a three-year-old asks lots of questions and yet they’re super, super valuable questions because they’re basically saying to you, “I see a better way to do this. I see a way for you to innovate.” So if you will willingly listen to that, huge opportunity.

So those are your low-enders. In the middle of the curve, you’ve got people in the sweet spot and the challenge there is now – because they’re performing so well, you might even think of them as high potentials and we know that there’s a tendency for us to not challenge high potentials because we’re afraid that they’ll fail.

So you want to think of giving them friction. Give them stretch assignments. Make them – give them Goldilocks assignments where they’re hard, but not too hard because that’s where you’re going to get the most out of these people where they come to work every day and then go, “Wow, this is so exciting. We’ve got this – all these challenges. This is really hard and we can do it.”

Then at the top of the curve, again, about 15 percent of your people. You don’t want too many because then that means you’re at risk of being disrupted. But the way that they can contribute is they can set the pace for low-enders. Because they’re at the top, it’s like this vista, this view where they can see other things and have a perspective that’s also very valuable and then they can also facilitate collaboration amongst the low-enders and the middle before you, their boss, make it possible for them to jump to a new learning curve.

If they don’t want to jump, you encourage them to jump, telling them, “I need you to go down to the bottom of the curve, do something new, because I know that then your brain is going to question how we’re doing what we’re doing and we’re going to get the most out of you. You’re going to learn more and it’s actually going to help the company tremendously, if you’re willing to be a novice again.”

Brandon: What I love about your book is that you spend some time talking about the theory of how to build the A team, having people at different levels of the curve. But you spend the majority of the book after that really giving people or the readers action items for how to build this team, how to grow them, and what I love about it is you dive right into the seven accelerants of growth and learning.

We could unpack all seven. But I want people to go get your book. So I’m hoping you can elaborate on a couple of points. Fight entitlement at every turn is one of your points. Talk about that.

Whitney: If you think again of that S, put that in your mind. I’ve got those seven steps or levers of change that you can pull in order to move up a learning curve quickly. The entitlement is actually number four and if you plot it along that – though you don’t have to do it in sequence, but you can. It’s right when you’re in the sweet spot. So when you’re in that sweet spot of learning, you know a lot and so it’s easy – you’re feeling really good about the work that you’re doing and so it’s easy to say this is the way things will and should always be. And yet, it’s at that moment when you are feeling really good about your work that you have actually the luxury of saying and questioning, “Why are we doing it the way we’re doing it?” and so that’s one of the ways that you can fight entitlement as a worker or contributor.

As a boss, if things are working really well and you’ve got everybody in the right place, you can tend to become a hoarder of talent. So you don’t want anything to change. And yet if you’re going – if you’re really playing the long game as an organization, you are going to battle your own sense of, “I built this team. I deserve a fiefdom.” sort of attitude and say, “OK, this person is at the top of the curve. I need to be willing to let them go do something new, even though it’s going to come at a cost to me temporarily.”

That is how you become a talent magnet. In fact when people say to me, “How do I know if this is a person that’s great to work for? How do I know if they’re a boss that’s going to let me jump to new learning curves?” and my question is to always find out when you’re interviewing who has worked for you in the past and where are they now.

You’ve got a lot of people who are gone and they’re not doing really interesting things and it looks like they’re sort of littered with dead bodies. Then that’s a pretty good sign.

But if they say, “Well, so and so worked for me and now they’re doing X inside of the company and they’re super excited about it,” you hear that two or three times, you can bet that that’s going to be similar for you as well, especially if they’re the same gender as you are. If they’re not the same gender, you’ve got to be aware. But if they’re the same gender, as well as everything else I just said, then that’s a very, very good sign.

Brandon: Another point you make is give failure its due and I love when people really put failure as a growth opportunity whereas a lot of people think it’s just – let’s be perfect. Let’s not fail. Why should we give failure its due?

Whitney: Well, so from a theoretical standpoint, if you think about it – so personal disruption involves – there’s an up and a down. Whenever your disrupt yourself, you move back in order to slingshot forward and it’s – and you crouch before you jump and you bring oars back in order to glide forward. You bring a fist back before you punch.

There’s always that back before you go forward or down before you go up. So failure is part of that and I think the reason that we struggle with it so much is that we tend to – if we’re driven and ambitious and even moderately bright, in school we’re rewarded for getting As on tests. So that getting an A on a test starts to become part of our identity. So if I get an A, I’m smart. I’m of value. If I get a B, I’m dumb and therefore worthless.

So what ends up happening in the workplace is when something doesn’t work, we tend to think, “Oh, I’m worthless,” as opposed to separating ourselves from that and saying, “OK. This didn’t work. This has nothing to do with me. I mean my sort of inherent sense of worth. It’s not a referendum on my identity and my sense of self. It’s just this thing that I did and it didn’t work.”

So if we can give it its due – you know. But it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Like just yesterday, I had submitted a piece to a publication. They decided that they didn’t want it. There were some other reasons that they didn’t want it and the first thought that I had was I’m a failure and I feel angry and I feel rejected. Like that was the first initial thought. I’m like, “OK. Wait a second, wait a second. Like remember what you’re preaching here, people, Whitney.”

So this has nothing to do with me. I publish this piece and it doesn’t work – or I wrote this piece. It doesn’t work for them. So what can I learn from this? What do I need to change and how do I move forward? And just completely separating that product from my identity. Then your ROI on those mistakes starts to get really, really high because you can iterate quickly because there’s none of the – nothing gets triggered, no projections, no nothing. You just move forward.

So that’s what I mean by giving failure its due – it’s shame that limits disruption. It’s not failure. When you can pull shame out of the equation, then you can start to move up learning curves really, really quickly.

Brandon: So moving on to the recruiting chapter of your book, so we – as we discussed previously with the S-curve – let’s say you have a gap to fill. So you need to hire and recruit for a position and to build that – to keep maintaining that A-team. So when it comes to recruiting, how do you go about making that a reality where you’re actually filling in the proper hole within the S-curve?

Whitney: Yeah. So great question. I think the first step is to figure out what it is you need and I think – again, there are lots of functional things you know. Like you know you need a marketing person for example. So this – what I’m about to prescribe does not replace that. It’s another frame for you to consider as you’re trying to optimize for innovation on your team.

So the first step would be to figure out where everybody is on their respective learning curves. Do you have, for example, a lot of people in the sweet spot and a lot of people at the high end and no one at the low end?

So you don’t have anybody who is brand new to your business and knows nothing about it, so that they’re not going to ask any questions. So that’s the first place to start. And then once you’ve done that, you can say, “All right. We need to find – we need at least one person on our team who is brand new to all of this, so that they’re going to ask those questions that we need.”

It could also be that you’ve got a lot of people who are brand new, who are brand new to the workforce or brand new to the industry or brand new to the domain, whatever it is. Then what you may want and need to do is to synthetically create an optimized curve. And the way you would do that is maybe you hire a consultant for three months who can come in, who’s an expert and is basically at the top of the curve, while your low-enders or sweet spotters are moving up sufficiently, so that when that consultant goes away, you’ve got your curve optimized the way you need it to be.

Brandon: I love football, so naturally, I gravitated towards an example of the NFL. So you had an example of – where the NFL, they had a VP of IT. The person had left. Naturally as most businesses do, they post for that exact same job and what they ended up with was a CIO and I don’t know exactly what happened during the middle to get to that CIO. But obviously, they were looking at the current landscape and probably realized that actually we need somebody who has mastered the IT space and that could probably innovate their technology. Can you talk about that example and unpack that?

“…oftentimes when someone leaves, we pull this job description off the shelf and say, “OK, let’s hire another one of those.” Not recognizing that, because organizations are always evolving, that job description has changed…”

Whitney: So what you’re alluding to for our listeners or for your listeners, I should say, is that oftentimes when someone leaves, we pull this job description off the shelf and say, “OK, let’s hire another one of those.” Not recognizing that, because organizations are always evolving, that job description has changed and we know that many of the jobs that are going to exist in 10 years don’t exist.

So what that person was doing has actually evolved significantly. So what happened here is Michelle McKenna Doyle, she was looking for a new job and she’s a CIO by training and was picking her fantasy football team and she went off on the NFL website and saw that they needed a new VP of IT.

She starts reading the job description. She shows it to her husband and they’re like – actually, they don’t need a VP of IT. What they need is a CIO. So she applies for the job. But as she’s interviewing, she explained to them, “Here’s what you actually need.” So she was able to talk them through what it was they needed, what job they needed to hire based on what they said they needed done.

But she needed to be able to talk them through that, get buy-in, which also goes to your question about battling entitlement. Some of us, we think, “I’ve got a brilliant idea.” Therefore – or I have an idea therefore it’s brilliant. Therefore you should buy in. She had to be able to say, “Here’s what you need. Here’s what I can do for you. Here’s what the job title should be.”

She had to persuade Roger Goodell, the NFL – commissioner of the NFL and then he said to her, “You persuaded me. You now need to persuade the rest of the team.” So part of sometimes I think in recruiting for you as a small business or medium-sized business owner is to recognize that jobs are going to morph. They’re going to continually be in flux and whenever you hire someone new, ask yourself, “What do I really need this person to do?” Sometimes it’s going to be two or three different jobs, but to be willing and flexible to hire for the job that you need done, not for the job that was being done.

Brandon: Let’s say we found our people for the A-team. You’ve got some really interesting ideas about what to do with new hires and there’s a big chapter, a lot of action items here. But that first week I think is really crucial because I think a lot of people get the onboarding piece wrong. What kind of conversations could be had during that first week that would really set up a new hire?

Whitney: Starting point I would say is to help – make sure that, if they don’t know already, what’s the why of your organization.

I think it’s really important for people to know what this organization is trying to do and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a why in the cosmic sort of sense. It just means what are we trying to get done here and how are we trying to make people’s lives better in some way. Make sure that that’s really clear that they know what it is.

The second thing is to help people know what’s the why of your team. What is your team trying to get done? How does it fit within the broader context of the organization? And be really explicit about that. It seems so obvious but we tend not to do it.

In fact I remember when I was writing this, I was like, “Have I talked my team through what my why is for this organization?” So it’s one of those things that seem super evident but we don’t necessarily do it.

The third thing is to sit down with them and understand what their dreams are. Like why did that person hire you as a boss? Why did they come to work here? What are they hoping to get done?

And also to be aware that we subconsciously hire people indefinitely. Like I hired them and they’re going to be there forever. That’s not the case and it’s certainly not the case that they will be in that same role. At least you hope that won’t be because they will get very, very stale.

So have a plan and say, “OK. What is it that you want to accomplish over the next three to four years, when you’re in this role?” Do you have some ideas of what you want to do after that? So that there’s this very clear contract, if you will,of what they want to get done and what you want to get done.

Then the fourth suggestion I would say is to give them some very concrete things that you want them to do. Like I want you to go meet these 10 people, as I mentioned earlier.

Brandon: Those things jumped out to me because as you said, you’re building that contract upfront. You’re saying this is what the organization believes. This is the why. This is the why for your team and then you’re having this two-way dialogue about, “Hey, what do you want? What do you want out of work? What are you trying to accomplish professionally?” and then back to the manager.

Now you’re laying expectations. Here’s what I hope you will do and how I think you’re going to contribute on the team. That would make people energized, wouldn’t it?

Whitney: Absolutely. Because then – I mean there’s so much that’s implicit and when you know the start date and there’s an end date, it just makes it a lot easier to be able to work together and a lot of times, people don’t know how to manage up. Like we just – we don’t know how to do it and for some people, they’re very actually quite allergic to it. So if you’re able to lay out very specifically – you know, help me get my job done so that I can help you and advocate for you when it’s time to do something new and being very explicit and very clear. It makes it just so much easier for all parties involved to work together and be productive and to be motivated to work.

Brandon: I’m going to skip ahead in the book. You talk about mastery. This is an interesting point because there’s people who are very high performers, but there’s a risk, right? There’s a risk they get bored. They get complacent and entitled. They could be entitled, that they’re so good at their job and they sort of know their place on the team but there’s no growth. How do we fight that?

Whitney: When you said that, one signal to any of – you or me or anybody listening, that people are being entitled is when they say, “I’ve paid my dues.”

Brandon: Yeah, yeah.

Whitney: Whenever someone says that, that is a dangerous signal. I’ve paid my dues and we’ve all said it at one time or another because the implication is I don’t need to work as hard as I worked.

Brandon: Yeah.

Whitney: First of all, there are going to be times when people can be in a role for longer than three or four years and people say to me, “Well, does that mean that they’re at the top of their curve and we need to have them jump to a new curve?” and my answer is not necessarily.

If they are continuing to produce at a very, very high level and seem to be quite engaged and tedium has not set in, then that means they’re still in the sweet spot.

So this is meant to be a rule of thumb, not a steadfast rule or a hard and – well, I don’t know what the word is. Steadfast. So once you get to the top, you’re going to have a couple of different things happen. Some people will be proactive and come to you and say, “You know, I think I’ve peaked and I’m starting to get bored. What else can I do?”

So some people will do that and then it’s your responsibility to not say, “We like you right where you are.” But to say, “OK, I hear you. You’ve been a fantastic performer. We need to come up with a plan and I would like to start by you coming up with a plan. Find somewhere else inside of our organization where you think you might like to play and help me understand how that will contribute to the organization and in the process, I need you to figure out who’s going to replace you, so that I as your boss am not left in a lurch.”

So I think that’s one route. There are going to be other times where you as the boss are going to need to approach them and say – and I talk in the book about an employee who hit water where the boss went to the person and said, “You’re about to get to the top of your curve and I know you’re really loving what you’re doing. But we want to continue to have you be super, super valuable. So figure out who’s going to replace you, so that you can jump to a new learning curve.”

So there’s a sort of mutual accountability and responsibility. The employee needs to do it. Sometimes it’s really hard to do because if you – in some situations, if you raise that, it might mean that you’re basically going to get pushed off the island because the person is like, “Oh, they’re not engaged anymore.”

As a manager, you can be proactive. Encourage them to look for something new and then the third sometimes happens where people are like, “I really like the top of the curve. This is pretty fantastic. I’ve paid my dues.” They don’t want to do something different.

Then the calculus becomes different. You as a boss can say to them, “I need you to find something that’s going to reengage you because it has just gotten easy for you and I know that I am only getting about 50 percent of your horsepower. So we need to find something that’s going to push you hard, so that we can get the benefit of your brain and your expertise.”

Sometimes, they will be amenable to it. Sometimes they won’t. If they’re not, then that’s OK. But it means that it’s time for them to jump to a new learning curve and it may not be the curve inside of your company. But again, you’re being really explicit and it may be that you can then – they jump to a curve somewhere else and you help them jump to that curve and then they become an ambassador for your organization.

It requires a lot of – a willingness to be very explicit with people, to be very clear. But those are the suggestions I would have once people get to the top of the curve.

Brandon: So what about people at the literally very top, like a CEO, a president, an owner, where there’s nowhere to go for them? How do they make sure they continually reinvent themselves and stay engaged and keep growing and learning?

Whitney: Great question and it is possible. One of the people that I interviewed for the book, Garry Ridge, he’s the CEO of WD-40. He has been there for 20 years. The market cap of the company has gone from 250 million to 1.5 billion or so.

One of the ways – what he has done to continue to reinvent himself is number one, they’ve gone into new markets. So they’ve gone in really – really substantially into China, which has forced him to think very differently and very strategically. So as the strategy evolves, he is jumping to new curves. And then the other way he does it, which is kind of counterintuitive but it’s not, is by continually looking for ways to allow the people on his team to disrupt themselves.

It’s requiring him to disrupt himself and to reconfigure and to interact and work with different people. So that allows him to stay fresh and engaged on the job. I just was with him this last weekend and he loves and is as engaged in his job today as I suspect he was 10 years ago. He just loves his work.

Brandon: Whitney, I really love your book honestly and I don’t say that about every book, obviously. But I read this cover to cover, as I tried to with most podcast guests, and honestly, I’m going to give it to my entire leadership team. I think you’re on to something and I hope you have a lot of success with this. What do you hope people – if there’s one main point that people take from the book, what do you want people to learn from this?

Whitney: The importance of learn, leap and repeat. When you will allow the people on your team to do that, to learn, leap and repeat, to periodically disrupt themselves, you as an organization will not only be able to ship more product. You will be more innovative and in the process, you will be – like I said earlier, you will become a talent magnet. You won’t be able to hire people fast enough because they will be so desperate to work for a boss that gives them opportunity to learn. Because, as we said earlier, you alluded to, when you give people an opportunity to boldly go where they have never gone, in the words of Star Trek, they will stay.

Brandon: Your book comes out May 1st.

Whitney: Correct.

Brandon: All right. So Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. Go get this book. It comes out May 1st. Where can people get it?

Whitney: Anywhere books are sold. So if you’ve got a local bookstore, I love being able to support local booksellers. You can order on Amazon. You can order at Barnes and Noble. If you want to do bulk buys, you can do it through CEO Read. But again, anywhere books are sold.

Brandon: And then where could people find you online?

Whitney: You can find me at If you would like to download the diagnostic for your team and start to analyze where you are, it’s backslash “diagnostic”. If you would like to reach out to me directly, you can email me at

Brandon: Whitney, it was a pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you.

Whitney: Thank you, Brandon.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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