Build An A Team | Book Review

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 impact on the world.” 
(p. 172)

Whitney Johnson reintroduces the S-Curve and shares what Academy Leadership Excellence Course attendees uncover during Aligning and Accomplishing Goals workshops: Good leaders learn the goals and dreams of those in their charge. This may sound weird, especially if we were trained not to learn what we were told was “personal information,” and therefore off-limits.

The result: Persistent, lousy engagement. Nationally, only 33 percent of employees are engaged in their work, according to Gallup (p. 3). Even worse, Johnson cites one survey revealing that 84 percent of employees said they felt “trapped” in their jobs (p. 4).

In Johnson’s prior work, Disrupt Yourself, she asks us to focus on, or disrupt, ourselves. In her new work, she instructs us how the S-Curve may be employed to develop others, or how to apply it from a developmental point of view. By adopting a developmental mindset, and utilizing the S-Curve, we may make lasting improvements, since change, not stasis, is the natural mode of human life (p. 5). Johnson persuades us that personal disruption in the workplace – the movement of people from one learning curve to the next, one challenge to another – can drive learning, engagement, and even innovation (p. 7).

Poorly developed delegation skills repeatedly surface in Setting Leadership Priorities workshop self-evaluations. Johnson notes the same:

“It’s not uncommon to hear a manager complain that they
have no one who can pick up the slack when they’re on
vacation but in almost the same breath say they’re
just too busy to teach employees what to do or dismiss
hands-on coaching as hand-holding or babysitting.” 
(p. 8)

Hence this review’s emphasis on adopting the S-Curve, or a developmental mentality, and application to the hiring process presented in chapters three and four, which may begin improving decades of static engagement survey scores.

S-Curve | Developmental Mindset

Johnson recommends aiming for an optimal mix of low-, middle-, and high-end-of-the-curve employees; roughly 15 percent at the low end, around 70 percent of the team in the sweet spot middle, and 15 percent at the high end of the curve (p. 18).

How we think about the inexperience, or low end, is critical. Johnson cites Saul Kaplan (see the Business Innovation Factory): 


“My life has been about searching for the steep learning curve
because that’s where I do my best work.” (p. 18)

Can you recall overcoming the initial fear and subsequent energizing period in a past job when you rapidly climbed a learning curve? That’s the sweet spot. A leader who prioritizes using a developmental-based decision-making process seeks to continuously place people where they may learn. How do we promote use of the S-Curve, or developmental framework? A simple start is to create metrics that reward talent spotters and developers (p. 24). Mark Crowley (see ChoinqueCast Episode 2) emphatically believes organizations should not promote anyone to a supervisory role unless they have been an advocate for others, or embrace a developmental leader role. Great idea.

Or put more simply, when you facilitate personal disruption, you build an A-Team and become a boss people want to work for (p. 28).

S-Curve-Based Hiring | Motivation

Johnson recounts the typical new hiring environment: We’re shorthanded and overwhelmed. Desperate, we hire the person we perceive to be the most qualified to fill the void, and for a time, they do (pp. 58-59). Take a look at any ordinary job description, and notice the daunting breadth and depth of skills, usually with no assigned priority. Sound familiar? This leads to unintended consequences, since (p. 60) some studies suggest that women especially are less likely to apply for jobs they’re not 100 percent qualified for, under the mistaken impression that job requirements are actually, well, “requirements.”

What to do differently? Hiring for potential rather than proficiency is the foundation for building an A-Team (p. 59). Use the S-Curve. Rather than requiring the ideal candidate to possess mastery of the entire skill set for the job, hire people for their low-end-of-the-curve capacity to fill many roles, not just the top-shelf, high-end-of-the-curve qualifications for one role (p. 65).

Hogan’s Assessments (p. 68) offers a constructive way to rethink the hiring process, especially with regard to team building:

“A useful way to think about teams … is to consider
the two roles every person plays in a working group:
a functional role, based on their formal position and
technical skill, and a psychological role, based
on the kind of person they are.”

Johnson cautions us, sharing some of the subconscious emotional motivations that we rarely address head on but that we would do well to consider (pp. 70-74):

• If only I could clone myself.
• If only I could find someone to do all the annoying stuff I don’t want to do.
• If only I knew how to do that.

Consider this: Each of these attitudes – or self-created obstacles – seem to have roots in a scarcity mindset. It’s limiting, and usually impedes growth.

Johnson also challenges us to rethink hiring: The goal of a job posting should be to attract talented people who are qualified to onboard at the low end of the job’s learning curve (p. 75). Think about the energy and enthusiasm, and creativity that would spark. Chances are this would open up internal opportunities. Proven employees who jump at something different, despite the disadvantages, are a hugely overlooked resource (p. 79).

Our Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) can be of great help. Often, we include a vision, which is a great start. Timothy Pychyl (p. 89): “Until we have a vision of who we want to become, we can’t do much.” How about a commitment to learning about each other? Why do this? Johnson mentions Kathleen Warner

“In my experience of corporate America, personal information
wasn’t valued or exalted but used as a sledgehammer or other
object of destruction or discrimination.” (p. 92)

Knowing others, and what fundamentally motivates them, is a big deal. Recall how important expectations (of each other) are when composing our PLP. None of us is as comprehensible or knowable as we like to think we are (p. 94). We learned via the Tom Peters Group in our leadership classes that 87 percent of leaders believe they are good communicators but only 17 percent of leader’s subordinates agree.

Engagement and Mastery

In our Coaching to Develop People workshop, we advise not ignoring top performers (or at mastery level on the S-Curve). Johnson encourages the same: This can come in the form of stretch assignments, since, when challenged, 67 percent of people will demonstrate above-average creativity. Only 33 percent of people show above-average creativity in nonchallenging roles (p. 111).

One of the more interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive developmental tools Johnson advocates for, is intentional restrictions. In the case of your sweet-spot employees, consider imposing constraints that fall into the following categories (p. 115-119):

• Time
• Money
• Expertise
• Buy-In

A developmental leader envisions constraints as growth opportunities, or the creation of a motivational environment. Johnson: Your job is to provide the soil, to impose the constraints, that allow your employees to bloom (p. 122). 

The best coaches create new coaches. Johnson recommends three important roles high-end-of-the-curve employees can play (p. 131):

• Pacesetters: pushing low-enders to excel
• Trainers: conveying corporate memory
• Mentors: facilitating collaboration

These are perfect tasks to both delegate and develop, keeping steady movement on the S-Curve. Over time, this will create a learning organization. Will individuals make mistakes along the way? Of course. Johnson wisely calls out Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who has studied failure extensively. Her analysis is that responding wisely to failure is exactly how companies become “learning organizations” and avoid future catastrophes (p. 144). 


Embracing a developmental philosophy requires courage. Putting employee development first will almost never benefit you in the short term, but over the long term, it will (p. 152).

“Taking charge around the who, what, when,
where and how of these leaps is critical.” (p. 149)

Note: Whitney Johnson generously provided a copy of her book for review.

JE | August 2018