How to grow your team: book review of Smart Growth by Whitney Johnson

Smart Growth by Whitney Johnson

book review Aug 20, 2023


How to grow yourself, your team and your business.


This is a fascinating book with a fresh take on the learning curve, offering an insightful way to chart your own growth as well as the growth of your team across a "portfolio of talent".  I wanted to share the top three insights that really added value for me and how I perceive personal growth within the context of your career and being able to develop others too.


Insight 1 // Self Disruption

The understanding that we owe it to ourselves and our futures to disrupt our lives.

Challenge yourself to make thoughtful, intentional disruptions (7 point questions - see below). I appreciated the explicit concept of asking yourself value-based questions and weighing up cost v return for opportunities. Clearly linked to 'why' - and I think this also stops us from doing things for other people and building other peoples dreams. I remember clearly trying to be persuaded to take a role with the justification from the recruiter at the time being: "think about what it could mean for your career, do this, then come back and you could get any eCom role in any business, you'd be a sought after talent etc etc". On face value - sounds great, deeper inspection? that's not the future career I wanted. It certainly suited the business for me to consider that opportunity but ultimately I chose my own future rather than what the business wanted for me.

This set of questions to ask yourself in the Explorer stage are a great way to inspire future possibilities and help refine the path forward:

  • Is it achievable?
  • Is it easy to test?
  • Is it familiar yet novel?
  • Does it fit my identity?
  • Is the reward worth the cost?
  • Does it align with my values?
  • Is this my why?

I don't think there's wrong or right answers for each question, the point is more about exploring your answers and deciding if it's what you want for yourself based on the responses.


Insight 2 // Manage Effectively Through Growth

Managing yourself

  • Checking in and asking questions to make sure that this growth journey is what you thought it would be, and that it's leading where you want it to go. 
  • Being realistic with yourself too - sure it's hard, but is it right? Don't let the "this is hard" pull you off track if it's still taking you in the right direction. 

Managing others

  • Quick feedback loops with honest, kind feedback about what' working and what's not so that your people can course correct. It's tempting to say what you think feels ok in the moment, but for most of us that means we can avoid being crystal clear. 
  • I love this concept of supporting growth by focusing less on the performance and more on the process and insights e.g. "what did you learn?" rather than "when you do xyz, it should give you these results and that's what I'll be looking for". This approach allows more space to experiment rather than just looking for outcomes which may cause the team to bypass the actual learning.
  • When your people (or you) hit the sweet spot, don't ease off the support yet, they still need reassurance, feedback and guidance. but just less direct and "training" style and more "coaching" style [see Head Coach course for support].


Insight 3 // Manage your team's growth as a portfolio

The key premise of the book is that all growth processes can be charted on an S curve, with 7 specific points across three stages based on time in the growth process and actual growth shown/created from being in the growth process.

Image © Whitney Johnson

When you're looking across your team as a whole, I found it really insightful to think about each persons current position of growth within their role. 

Here's a rough overview of each point:

  • LAUNCH POINT: you want about 15% of your team (but no more) around this launch point, ensuring there is enough newness and growth but without creating too much instability. This phase brings innovation and fresh perspectives. People in this phase help to push your business to the Sweet Spot as their ambition and excitement drive the team forward.
    • 1. Explorer: exploring a new opportunity, looking at what new skills and possibilities lie in front of you.
    • 2. Collector: this phase feels slow as you learn and amass (or collecting) new skills and also new data about what's working, what's not and constantly checking that the future steps of this growth align with your expectations.
  • SWEET SPOT: you want 70% of your team in the sweet spot, displaying clear skills with juuuuuust enough room to grow so that the team feels challenged and inspired. People in this stage are transitioning from "doing the learning of the new role" to "being the new role". 
    • 3. Accelerator: you know what you've learned and you have a clear understanding of the remaining knowledge gaps. You feel like you're growing fast (hence the name!).
    • 4. Metamorph: at this stage you feel like everything is working, you can predict what will happen when you make certain decisions based on your experience and learning through the growth phase. It's exciting and the stress of learning is replaced with dopamine and pride in how far you've come. I also LOVE LOVE this little learning tip and why learning before you go to bed can be chefs kiss 💋👌  "You can also sleep your way to smart. “Focusing attention on learning something, followed by sleep, is a magic combination allowing for new synaptic connections,” says researcher Barbara Oakley, author of the hit book and online course Learning How to Learn... Neurons activated while we are awake are reactivated during subsequent sleep. That’s why you review your action board before going to bed. You are priming your brain to grow while you are sleeping."
  • MASTERY: you want 15% of your team in the mastery stage. I'd liken this to the "Rock Stars" from Kim Scott's Radical Candor framework. They provide a stable foundation for those around them, delivering solid, epic work.  
    • 5. Anchor: this is when you've completed your learning phase, the new skills and behaviours are a part of you now. It's a time to reflect and celebrate and think about what S curve is next for you.
    • 6. Mountaineer: this is when you are an intrepid adventurer, taking yourself on S curve learning phases one after the other. "Learning is the oxygen of human growth. When learning diminishes, so do we."


🪩 Reflections for you, ambitious leader

  • Where are you right now in your role growth?
  • Where is your team or your business in their growth curve?
  • What do you see as the most important skills you'll need to learn


Ready to read? Smart Growth by Whitney Johnson





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