An interview with leading author, thinker and advisor, Whitney Johnson, on her latest book, Build an A-Team.
Learning, curiosity, engagement are lifelong skills that help us no matter the title. Building efficient teams used to be par for the course, but to scale you need outstanding teams. I had the privilege of being in Whitney’s first workshop in 2012 when I was contemplating my big leap. I have followed her since and witnessed her experience, passion and expertise on what it takes to embark on personal disruption. Whitney Johnson’s previous books, Dream Dare Do and Disrupt Yourself provide robust and practical guidelines on how to confront and befriend change and understand the benefits of personal disruption. Her new book, Build an A team is invaluable for employees, managers and the C Suite. It starts with a challenge: Being the boss people love to work for and a fascinating story behind the WD 40 brand. She then takes you through seven lucid chapters on why great teams constantly and consistently change the game. From why you should hire self starters to practicing patience, from fighting entitlement and learning how to assess your employees’ strengths, from managing the hungry new hire or challenging the one who is already a master, her book is peppered with insightful nuggets.
Build an A-Team is full of great wisdom. What prompted you to write this book, when did you start and how does building an A team intersect with personal disruption?
WJ: Not long after my previous book, Disrupt Yourself, was published, it was suggested to me that a follow-up would be a good idea. A lot of readers were excited about the possibility of disrupting themselves, but it quickly became apparent that managers and leaders of people can be hesitant to even allow—much less facilitate–the kind of constant internal reorganization that personal disruption of employees initially appears to require. Disrupt Yourself was published in October, 2015 and by the following spring I was at work on Build an A Team. So it’s been in process for about two years. It intersects with personal disruption at the employee-manager level; it continues to encourage individuals to disrupt themselves while emphasizing that managers need to be part of that process by facilitating the learning and development of their employees and creating company cultures that are disruption-friendly. Management itself needs to be disrupted to focus on employee learning, engagement and the increased productivity that will result from individuals and teams being managed with personal disruption as a goal.
“Just as an investor’s portfolio has diversified holdings (e.g. you don’t put all your money into a single company), your team should include employees who are at different phases of development. Visualize your team as a collection of people at different points on their own personal S curves. Aim for an optimal mix of low-, middle-, and high-end-of-the-curve employees: roughly 15% at the low end of the curve, around 70% of the team in the sweet spot middle of the curve, and 15% at the high end of the curve.”
The entire book is peppered with practical advice. What the minefields that people managers typically trigger?
WJ: A couple of potential pitfalls come to mind. First, one of the earliest mistakes managers make is recruiting and hiring new employees with the idea that they will start in a job and then be happy there forever. This isn’t going to happen in most cases, and the problem is aggravated by the fact that hiring the most qualified applicant often means hiring someone who is overqualified for the position and likely to be bored and looking for a new challenge relatively quickly. A lot of resources are expended on recruiting and hiring, only to lose new employees after a brief tenure. No return on investment in that method. Second, leaders hesitate to manage with a disruption mindset because they aren’t rewarded for doing so. They fear that their own superiors won’t buy in to the process and that the short term loss for long term gain that disruption requires won’t satisfy others within their organization. Focusing on the short term makes any kind of change more difficult to implement. But new ideas need to be championed within organizations if they are going to have a chance to gain a foothold; the real problem may not be a manager’s superior, but rather the manager’s fear of failure.
In an increasingly distracted, demanding and diverse world, how do managers find the time to pay attention to their teams?
WJ: Really, I think we have to ask ourselves how we can NOT find time. Teams need a coach; there are few that will perform at their best, or even perform satisfactorily without leadership. But time is a premium. Many managers have domain expertise responsibilities as well as team management ones. One of the ideas that Build an A Team puts forward is that a proactive talent development strategy focused on maximizing human resources results in improved engagement and productivity outcomes. It helps employees become increasingly self-managed as they are fully involved in their work. In the long run—and even in the short one—a proactive strategy can be executed with less time-intensive involvement than will be required by avoiding the demands that are made of a manager to lead and develop the team. Having to be reactive, putting out fires, dealing with the revolving door of lost personnel, and trying to motivate stagnate, bored, disgruntled and disengaged employees will take more time than the strategies I espouse will.
What is your advice to managers who are working with interns and digital natives?
WJ: First, play to their strengths. Find ways to put people to work that allow them to use their greatest native abilities as well as their acquired expertise. These are not necessarily the same thing, and they’re not necessarily the things people put on their resume. Sometimes it’s up to the manager to pinpoint what their employees’ greatest abilities are; many people don’t recognize or lead with the things they could do best. Second, be willing to hire where other managers hesitate to hire. Interns are usually young, eager, and have fresh eyes to put on our business. They may have creative solutions to problems that we have gone blind to. They can be a relative bargain compensation-wise. As people mature in their role they can become a little complacent, but the hungry new hire, or hungry would-be hire will bring their best to the table if we will give them a seat to do so.
How does one battle popularity versus performance?
WJ: In any kind of leadership role there is accountability to get the best results from the people we lead. This requires creating a culture and providing opportunities that facilitate development of their abilities. It requires clear and challenging expectations. We can be a good boss—courteous, respectful, kind, nurturing and even a hand holder, so to speak, if the situation warrants it. But we can do those things while still requiring accountability, best efforts, and having direct, honest communication on hard issues. We’re rarely doing anyone a favor in the long term when we accept a ho hum performance rather than pushing people to excel.
“People want to dream, and then they want to realize their dreams by learning new things, developing new competencies, and having an opportunity to make an imprint on the world. Managers can be makers, generating opportunities for their team members to create and recreate themselves through personal disruption.”
Shaku Selvakumar is the Founder & CEO, ActivaTeen™ an edtech venture for teenagers that builds learning programs which integrate new tech with critical soft skills. She is also the Community Impact Advisor @CognitiveScale, an enterprise AI company.