Back2Better: Building an A Team with Whitney Johnson

October 1, 2020

An Exclusive Collection of Resources for Navigating the Future of Organizations, Work and HR Post-COVID

Building an A Team: How to Structure and Build a High Growth Organization

We want everyone in our organizations to bring their A Game to work every day.  We recognize and celebrate those who have mastered their job but often our best people leave.  Why?  Recognizing that our team members are all at various stages in their careers, how do we create an organization where those who are at the top of their game feel challenged while those who are inexperienced have the right learning and engagement?

Whitney Johnson, CEO of WLJ Advisors and leading management thinker, says the secret to having an engaged and productive team is having a plan for developing all employees—no matter where they are on their personal learning curves. As leaders, we can thoughtfully design people’s jobs around the skills they have today as well as the skills they’ll need to be even more valuable tomorrow. And simultaneously, we can allow those who have mastered their job to disrupt themselves so they feel challenged and stay engaged. That’s how entire organizations stay competitive in an unpredictable, rapidly changing business environment.

To become a leader that people want to work for, you must manage momentum and do the following:

  • Identify what your employees already know.
  • Assess what they need to learn.
  • Design their jobs to maximize engagement and learning.

Johnson suggests that to do this successfully, managers must plot each team member on an S Curve that identifies inexperience, engagement, and mastery.

The Launch Point

When someone is new to your team or a role, things are a jumble. They have to learn the who, what, where, when, and how and may initially feel like they’ve taken on too much. This period in the S curve feels very slow: learning is slow, results are slow.  As a leader, you can support your team to move up the S curve by:

  • Giving Words of Encouragement: I see your potential. I want to know what this feels like for you.
  • Providing Support and Feedback: Give it quickly and tell them what is and isn’t working. Those who feel supported get better faster.
  • Valuing their Inexperience: Their inexperience is an opportunity. They are not blinded by familiarity and are capable of asking questions that can open the door to innovations.

For employees, being at the Launch Point feels incredibly insecure.  To move to the Sweet Spot quickly, ask for tight assignments and be relentless on getting feedback.  Find out who your stakeholders and influencers are.  Then ask what are the functional and emotional jobs these stakeholders need done and move your agenda to help you and them.

Back2Better: Has the disruption caused by the pandemic created new launch points for established teams and individuals?  Check in more frequently. Listen.

The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot is where the most learning happens. Things move fast. Tasks are hard but not too hard, easy but not too easy.  You feel like you are right where you are supposed to be. What help do your team members need now to continue to excel:

  • Pay Attention: Especially important right now. Once a week go through the list and tell them what is working and what isn’t. They’re not the problem child so don’t make them one by ignoring them.
  • Stretch Them: Don’t let them lose momentum. Teach them how to delegate and reconfigure the grunt work. Reduce the scope of their responsibility to what they are really good at so they can invent.
  • Say Thank You: Those who criticize may seem smarter, but the truly smart leader understands that enthusiasm is a form of courage.

Exhilaration brings more focus and can ultimately bring more innovation.

Back2Better: Frame assignments as experiments.  Make sure your team knows that whether or not a not an assignment works, they have your support.

The Challenge

The Top of the S Curve is when things slow down again and the joy of learning something new disappears. Team members at the top of the S Curve are at risk of leaving the organization if they do not find a challenge.

To disrupt the boredom and challenge their minds, people at the top of the S Curve can:

  • Jump in Place: Allow your leader to jump to a new assignment or create a new product. There is a cost but only short term and then it is an opportunity for sling shot growth.
  • Stretch Some More: Provide assignments that make them stretch further. Tell them: “Every time you get bored, come back to me and I’ll give you something to do.” Top leaders will always seek more stretch.
  • Think About Legacy and Expand Influence: Ask “What grows after you are gone?” Building the next generation of leaders can be very fulfilling.

Being at the top of the S Curve can get boring if we don’t continue to challenge those at the top.

Back2Better: Over the past several months, are there leaders at the top of the S Curve who have been there too long? How can you help them find assignments that stretch them and guide them to understand their legacy as a leader?


Evaluate your entire team and see where each member is on the S Curve.  Ideally, 70% should be in the Sweet Spot, 15% should be at the Launch Point and 15% at the Top of the S Curve. Use the tool at to help.  Using a common language to explain the S Curve will help your team understand where they are and how it relates to their assignments.  Remember that everyone is a collection of learning curves.

To learn more about the Back2Better 50 Webinars in 50 Weeks series please visit here

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

Back2Better: Building an A Team with Whitney Johnson

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