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E203 | Smart Growth Leadership and Personal Disruption with Whitney Johnson

The fundamental unit of growth in any organisation is the individual. 

The more you understand about how to respond to your own deep longing to grow, the greater your capacity to grow your people, to grow your organisation, says Whitney Johnson, co-founder of tech-enabled talent development company, Disruption Advisors.

Disruption Advisors supports people and organisations through coaching, training, and technology, empowering innovation through disruption. Whitney’s latest book, Smart Growth, explains if you grow your people, you grow your company. 

In this episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, Whitney talks about the S curve model and what it means to you as an individual, how to start one, how to envisage it, how to get up when you might get stuck. 

And by way of an example, we use Whitney’s personal journey along her own S curve of public speaking. So, if you’re looking to grow your organisation, your team, or individually, download and listen to Whitney today.

On today’s podcast:

  • The S curve
  • What drives motivation
  • The S curve – the launch point, the sweet spot and mastery
  • Moving beyond mastery
  • Grow your people to grow your company


The S curve: the launch point, the sweet spot and mastery with Whitney Johnson

A former Wall Street equity analyst, Whitney Johnson is now the CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company, Disruption Advisors.

Whitney is a highly sought after executive advisor and coach. She has almost 2 million followers on LinkedIn. She’s the bestselling author of several books, including Disrupt Yourself, Build an A Team and most recently, Smart Growth. She also hosts the weekly podcast Disrupt Yourself.

What do Disruption Advisors do? Well, says Whitney, they advise you on disruption. 


The actual answer is they use an assessment diagnostic called the S curve of learning, which assesses where you are in your growth, allowing you to see where you, your people and your company are along your growth path. You could be at the beginning, the middle or the high end. It doesn’t matter. We should never stop learning, says Whitney.

But what is the S curve? 

The S curve

The S curve as a concept has been around for decades, says Whitney. It was popularised by Everett Rogers, a sociologist back in the 1960s. He used it to figure out how quickly innovations were going to be adopted. In particular, why there was such a slow uptake to use a new drought resistant type of corn that was easier to harvest and had a 20% higher yield. 

He assumed farmers would jump at the chance to improve their crop yield, but actually, it took five years to get to 10% penetration. And then over the next three years, penetration climbed from 10% to 40%. He wanted to know why people were so slow to adopt it. And he found that new ideas are adopted along the shape of an S. Hence the S curve of growth. 

This gave Whitney a big idea. 

She realised that the S curve could help her understand how people learn, and how they grow, and whenever you start something new, you start a brand new S curve. 

And just as with the corn, you may feel like initial growth is very slow, until you reach a tipping point or the knee of the curve – aka the sweet spot, where growth not only feels fast, but it’s exciting, exhiilitaring. But then you reach the top of the curve which is the saturation point. You’re no longer learning, growth is slow, and so you get bored, and it’s time for you to do something new. 

“The S curve was originally popularised by Everett Rogers, and I reimagined it as something that you could use to understand what individual growth looks like.”

What drives motivation

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work talks about loss aversion theory. They found that we’re 2.2 times more motivated by what we lose than by what we gain. 

Which means, if you’re thinking about doing something new, says Whitney, you’re not going to be motivated by what you are going to achieve, you’re more likely to do it because of what you stand to lose. 

“We also know from neuroscience that whatever you focus on, you get more of and so if you focus on, ‘I want to lose weight’, or ‘I want to get out of debt’, guess what, you’re not going to lose weight, and you’re going to stay in debt, as opposed to ‘I want to be fit’, ‘I want to be strong’, ‘I want to build wealth’.”

Your brain, says Whitney, focuses on those things, and what happens is the filtering mechanism then finds things that will allow you to build wealth, that will allow you to get fit and strong. 

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie. It simply focuses on getting you where you want to go. So if you have to scare yourself into starting something, then use it as a catalyst to say I am: I am fit, I am wealthy, to get your brain to select for data that will actually allow those things to happen for you, and you will move up your S curve.

Whitney’s watershed moment

Five years ago Whitney gave a talk on personal disruption. The audience hated it. It wasn’t good, she says. But rather than walking away and saying that public speaking wasn’t for her, she took the feedback and made a choice to figure out how to get better at it. 

She began studying great public speakers. She got a coach. She practised speaking. She got a vocal coach. She learned how to make the audience the hero of the story. 

“I’m in this sweet spot of public speaking. If you’re really determined to be great at something, you actually never get to mastery, because you should find ways to continually challenge yourself so that you stay in the sweet spot in perpetuity.”

The S curve – the launch point, the sweet spot and mastery

Most people get stuck at the beginning because they have impetus to start something, then their dopamine drops and they don’t feel like they’re making progress – they’re not getting rewarded, and they stop. 

But that doesn’t have to be the end of the road, says Whitney. You just have to learn how to get unstuck at the launch point. You have to figure out if you’re on the right S curve for what you want to achieve. Is the reward worth chasing? 

The next spot people get stuck is when they’re in the sweet spot of growth. It’s fast, it’s exhilarating and then suddenly it slows down. That’s because you’re competent at what you’re doing. This, says Whitney, is where your high performers are probably stuck right now. 

“The stuck can happen when you’re in the sweet spot if you don’t focus. Focus in the sense of learning to prioritise and focusing on three to four things at most, so that you can continue through that curve and move up into mastery.”

For managers, if you see people on your team who are killing it, don’t leave them be, focus on them and thank them for their work. Show them you see them, that you acknowledge what they’re doing. 

“They’re not the problem child, your launch pointers and your mastery people are the problem child, but don’t make the sweet spot a problem child by ignoring them.”

Moving beyond mastery

How do you move beyond mastery? Simple, says Whitney. You jump off the top of the curve and do something new. 

“Sometimes you need a little bit of a push. And I actually have this hypothesis that sometimes people lose their jobs. Sometimes people get fired because they’re on the top of a curve and they know it’s time to move, [but] they won’t move. And so the universe gives them a nudge, and so they get unstuck.”

The pandemic for some people was a blessing in disguise. It didn’t lead to a great resignation, says Whitney, it resulted in a great aspiration. 

Pre pandemic we were all on our S curves, and then the pandemic hit, which shifted every single one of us onto a new S curve. And we had to make a decision about what we were going to do. 

“That’s part of why I believe over the next few years we’re going to see so much growth, because psychologists have said that any period of severe stress, like a pandemic, there’s often tremendous growth, I call it post traumatic growth.”

We’ve all learned how resilient we are and how much more capable we are, and for some of us, it’s made us realise we want a different life, and now we have to figure out how to achieve it. 

Grow your people to grow your company

If you want to grow your company you need to grow your people, says Whitney. And to grow your people, you need to start with growing yourself as an individual. 

You need to demystify the process of personal growth: what does growth look like, because once you understand what growth looks like, then you increase your capacity to grow, and in turn you increase your team’s capacity and your organisation’s capacity to grow. 

“If you understand where everybody is in their growth, then you can help them grow. And we believe that you want to at any given time have about 60% of your people in the sweet spot of their growth. 20% at the launch point, and 20% mastery.”

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