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Disrupting Yourself With Whitney Johnson

Forget the traditional career ladder and embrace the concept of disrupting yourself. In this episode, J.R. Lowry chats with Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors, about her book, Disrupt Yourself. Whitney, leveraging her experience from working at Wall Street to building a firm focused on human potential, unpacks the concept of self-disruption. They delve into the S-Curve, a tool to understand your growth journey and explore how to leverage your strengths to navigate career transitions. This episode is packed with insights for anyone looking to push boundaries and unlock their potential for personal and professional growth.

Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit A full written transcript of this episode is also available at

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Disrupting Yourself With Whitney Johnson

CEO Of Disruption Advisors

In this episode, my guest is Whitney Johnson. She is the CEO of Disruption Advisors, a tech-enabled talent development company. She’s a multi-time Thinkers 50 member, a globally recognized thought leader, a keynote speaker, an executive coach, and a consultant. She’s also the bestselling author of four books and has been a LinkedIn Top Voice since 2019, with over 1.8 million followers.

On her popular podcast, Disrupt Yourself, she has interviewed world-renowned thinkers, including Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, and General Stanley McChrystal. Her major mentors include renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith, the legendary human potential pioneer Bob Proctor, and the late Clayton Christensen, with whom she cofounded the Disruptive Innovation Fund.

As a former award-winning Wall Street equity analyst, Whitney understands how companies work, how investors think, and how the best coaches coach, all of which she brings to her work. She’s married, has two children, and lives in Lexington, Virginia. Whitney, thanks for joining me on the show. I appreciate your time.

J.R., I’m happy to be here.

Tell us about your firm, Disruption Advisors, and the mix of things that you do and that keep you busy.

Our firm, Disruption Advisors, depending on the day, they describe it differently, but I will describe it to you as a firm that specializes in helping organizations and companies get the outcomes that they want by having a people-centric growth strategy. What do we spend our time doing day to day? Everybody in the company does slightly different things, but we do coaching.

We do offsites. We have assessments. We certify people in our work, but all are built on the premise that organizations do not disrupt. People do. Our focus is how we help people disrupt themselves so that they can make it possible for their organization to disrupt, meaning to make progress in the way that they want to.

You described the firm as tech-enabled on your website, and I’m curious what you mean by tech-enabled. How does that play out in practice?

We have an assessment. It’s called the S Curve Insight Tool, and it allows you to do three things. Number one is for an individual and a team to assess where they are in their growth. Are they ready to take on more? Are they at the point where they have plenty already on their plate and are not quite ready to take on more? It gives you that data on growth readiness, both individually and collectively. It also gives you some data about what accelerants or tools of personal disruption people are using that is going to allow them to make progress.

Importantly, it also helps you understand the ecosystem in which people are operating. Where are people on the mountain? What tools do they have in the backpack to make that progress up the mountain and what are the weather patterns? Is it sunny? Is it snowy, etc? With that data, it gives us insights. We have these data-driven insights that allow us then to go in and say, “Here’s where you are individually and collectively. Here’s what we can do, whether it’s coaching, workshops, or offsites, in a very bespoke sort of way for you to move forward getting the business outcomes you want by figuring out how to help people work better, either individually or collectively.”

Do you tend to contract with companies, or do you contract with individuals?

It’s primarily companies. Sometimes, individuals come to us when they are at a point in a career transition. They’re in a current role and they’re thinking, “I know it’s time for me to do something new,” or they’ve just lost their job. People will contract with us individually. I would say, in general, they don’t because our price points are reasonably high. It tends to be more of a corporate B2B service that we’re engaged in.

What types of companies do you typically work with?

There’s a wide range. We work with companies that are Fortune 10 companies like Amazon. We work with Fortune 200 companies like Kraft Heinz. We also work with private equity-backed companies that have a revenue of $300 million. Also, smaller fast growth venture-backed companies that are $50 million in revenue. The one thing that all of those entities have in common is they’re trying to figure out how we can grow faster and they want to focus on growing their people to grow faster. We tend to be fairly industry-agnostic and size-agnostic as long as you’ve got a management team committed to this particular growth strategy.

I know you’ve been doing this for a while now. You were a Wall Street analyst before this. What led to the transition into this space?

I love that question. In fact, at your day job, you were one of our clients when I was at Merrill Lynch. I think there are many things that led to this, but there’s one point in time that I recall that started this ball rolling, if you will. As you said, I was an equity analyst, and my manager asked me to put together training for all equity analysts. I was like, “How am I going to train them?”

At this point in time, American Idol is at its apex. We also have Tom Peters, who’s just come out with a Brand Called You. This idea of personal branding is very nascent. It’s interesting. You’re constantly looking on American Idol. Are they the comeback kid, are they the diva, etc.? I found myself starting to analyze, “What are all my colleagues? Are they the forensic analyst? Are they the industry expert? Are they the earnings estimate guru? What are they? What was their brand? How are we going to position them in the marketplace?

I spent an inordinate amount of time doing this training for which I wasn’t getting paid. It was at that moment that I had this thought, this realization, and recognition. I think I’m more interested in the momentum of people than I am in stocks. This was many years ago, but I do think that was the kernel of the tree that was planted, and that is where I am now.

Whitney’s Books

Among all the other things that you’ve done over the years, I know you’ve written a bunch of books. Can you give us a quick fly-by on each of them? We’ll cover a few of them now, but we won’t have time to cover them all.

The very first book I wrote was a book called Dare, Dream, Do. It came out in 2012. As often happens with a person’s first book, you feel like you have something to say, but you’re also trying to figure out what you have to say. It’s a little bit of an autobiographical sketch, if you will and this is no different. I was trying to find my voice and who I was. As an equity analyst, yes, I could do technical writing, but I was trying to find out who Whitney is. How does Whitney process the world?

This book, in part, came about because I had gone to Wall Street. It was unusual for me. I had studied music in college. It wasn’t a natural progression for me to be on Wall Street and I had been quite successful. I was institutional investor ranked for eight straight years, and I felt pretty excited and happy with what I had accomplished and where I was. I remember having a number of conversations with other individuals, mostly women, and saying, “What’s your dream?”

I have a dream. What’s your dream? What are you trying to get done in the world? Frequently, they would come back to me and say, “I don’t know what my dream is,” but oftentimes, there was an underlying, “I’m not sure it’s my privilege to dream.” In many ways, that book really became this manifesto of, “You need to dare because sometimes the dare comes first, to dream, and then go out and do it.

You need to DARE because sometimes the dare comes first to dream, and then go out and do it. Share on X

I was writing this book at the same time that I was working with Clayton Christensen. This idea of disruption was bubbling up. It was almost like daring to dream, do, and disrupt, but this was still very personal and primarily geared toward women. That was my very first book, and it was not a business book in any form or fashion. My next book was taking these germinating ideas and building on an article I had written in Harvard Business Review called Disrupt Yourself, not surprisingly.

Also, I took these ideas from what I had learned from Clayton and recognized that “Building on this stock idea, I’m more interested in the momentum of people than I’m in stocks.” I’m now working with Clayton, saying, “Disruption’s interesting products, services, companies, and countries. I got it but isn’t it the people that disrupt?” That was the genesis of the book, Disrupt Yourself. What does that look like? How do you drive forward innovation in an organization? You do it by people disrupting themselves.Career Sessions, Career Lessons | Whitney Johnson | Disrupting Yourself

That was the first book in what I would consider my trilogy of books around this topic. I initially introduced the S Curve. That was personal disruption, but then I had a lot of people, and I remember going to a speaking event and someone saying to me, “I am now at this company because I disrupted myself and I left the last company.” I thought, “That is a problem because I want corporations to hire me to come in and work with them.”

If people only see me as the person who read your book and they quit their job, it was not a good business model for me. At the same time, I thought, “This is important to understand that if you’re going to make progress, you’re disrupting yourself while you’re in the role.” From that came the book Build an A-Team. How do you use these ideas of personal disruption to build a team that’s robust and can take your organization forward? That was the second book in the series.

The third book came about because as I was marketing Build an A-Team, I remember having a conversation with Dan Pink and we all know who he is. He is an eight-time The New York Times bestseller. He said to me, “Whitney, I’ll have you come do this Pinkcast, but what’s your big idea?” I said, “There’s this and there’s this.” He goes, “What about that S Curve?” I’m like, “What? The S-curve in this book is a supporting actor. It’s not the main character,” but Dan’s a smart guy.

Dan’s written a lot of bestsellers. If Dan says to me, “What about that S Curve?” I thought, “What about that S Curve?” The most recent book Smart Growth, was me saying, “This S Curve is a way for us to think about what growth looks and feels like.” Also, giving people a map to navigate the emotional terrain of doing something new. That’s basically now. The S Curve is where you are in your growth, and Disrupt Yourself is the tools you put in your backpack with those little disruptions that allow you to progress along the S Curve.

The third component is the ecosystem that makes it possible for you to be on an S Curve at all. That’s the progression of the books. You disrupt yourself and build a great team by being willing to disrupt yourself. The map for all of this of what it looks like is the S Curve, which is what I wrote about in Smart Growth.

S-Curve Concept

You covered even going back to Disrupt Yourself, which is probably why Dan Pink brought it up. Maybe let’s get into that book a little bit. You’ve given us a bit of an intro to it. Help provide a little bit more color on what you mean by S Curve and people surfing these S Curves over the course of their careers.

A little background, and again, I’m sure you’ve noticed the theme momentum of people you disrupt yourself. Now, the background is that the S Curve has been around for decades. Everett Rogers popularized it to understand how groups change over time. We sometimes refer to it as the adoption curve. At the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton, we used it to understand how quickly an innovation would be adopted.

As we were applying this, I had this a-ha that maybe we could use the S Curve to understand how individuals change. What does that experience look and feel like of growing? What it does is there are three major parts. You can picture the launch point of the curve, which is the flat bottom part, and then there’s the sweet spot of the curve, which is a steep, sleek back. Also, there’s the mastery part of the curve, which is that plateau at the top.

Basically, what’s happening in your brain, and I think this is especially applicable to your audience, is that you start something new and your brain runs a predictive model. Most of its predictions are accurate. Also, dopamine, the chemical messenger of delight, is dropping. The experience you have is, “I’m glad I did this new thing. I’m thrilled that I did, but right now, I’m feeling pretty bad. In fact, I thought it was a good idea, but now I don’t think so because I’m feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and impatient like an imposter.”

What’s interesting is that at this launch point of the curve, growth is very fast. Mathematically, it’s very fast, but because it’s not apparent, the experience that you have is, it feels like a slog, which is why you start something and it’s hard to persist. That’s that launch point. Also, the sweet spot is the tipping point that Malcolm Gladwell popularized. Here, the growth is not only fast. It feels fast. You’re running that predictive model. It’s increasingly accurate.

With dopamine spikes, you have these emotional upside surprises just like you do with stocks. You beat those estimates and the stock goes up. The same thing’s happening for you emotionally. In mastery, you’ve figured it out. The predictive model is now accurate, but you’re not learning very fast anymore. You’ve plateaued. You have the experience of, “I know that I like being on top of this curve. I am the master of all. I’ve got my job figured out, but I’m also not learning. I’m also not getting dopamine.”

Now, you understand why you can like your company, you can like your manager, and you can have that feeling of, “I’m bored and I’m not motivated,” because you can feel deep inside of you that there’s more for you to do on this planet. This is why you feel like you have to change jobs. There’s the launch point, sweet spot, and mastery. It allows you to understand the experience that you’re having when you take on something new, whether it’s a new job, a new project, becoming a parent, moving to a new city, or whatever. It follows this pattern of an S Curve.

Some people describe this as Goldilock’s point of being kind of in that sweet spot. To your point, in between being at the early stage of an S Curve, you’re completely out of your comfort zone. You’ve thrown yourself into the deep end of some new pool, metaphorically and on the other end, where you’re getting bored and fidgety when you’re ready for something new.

Certainly, I’ve hit those points and in the course of my career, people who’ve worked for me have hit those points. When somebody comes to you and says, “I’m ready for my next challenge,” it’s going to be hard to convince them to stay because, at the end of the day, you can’t offer them unless you can put them into some new role in the company. You can’t offer them the next S Curve that they’re seeking.

Also, some of us, I’m curious to get your view. There’s always this question about people who are later in their career, do they run out of gas? They’re happy being on the top end of that S Curve, the masters of all they surveyed and all of that. I haven’t hit that point yet, but people do. I’m curious about your research if you feel like there is a point at which people stop the S Curve chase.

I do, and I think that’s when people start to get old. I remember having a conversation with one of my mentors. His name is Bob Proctor. He passed away a couple of years ago. The human potential or the generation before Tony Robbins. I remember him saying to calm down but don’t slow down. At that point, if we get into mastery and say, “I’ve done it. I’ve paid my dues,” we start to get old.

That’s when we start to lose our zest for life and living, especially because I believe strongly, and we could have a whole philosophical discussion around this, but we’re wired to grow. Growth is our default setting. Our brains and our bodies were wired to grow. If we stop growing and choose to do that because it’s gotten too hard, we die inside. I also believe that sometimes we stop growing because we’re afraid to keep growing.

I think that one of the challenges of being mid-career, in particular, is that the older we get and the more established we get in our careers, the more we can insulate ourselves from ever doing anything new. When we’re in our 10s, 20s, or even our 30s, we are doing new things all the time, but you start to get more established in your career and you get out of the habit of doing new things. I think that was one of the gifts of the pandemic; it forced everybody to reset that muscle to do new things.

One of my guests was a guy named John Tarnoff. He was a Hollywood producer for a number of years and then he had this epiphany. I think he was asked to do some training stuff and decided that he liked that part better. There’s a parallel to what you’re describing. We talked about the idea of the 60-year career and it’s not like you work until you’re 60. You get the gold watch and the pension.

I’m seeing this play out. Some of my peers are retiring. They can afford to. They’re in their late 50s. I wonder, “If I did that tomorrow, what the heck would I do with myself?” I’m not at that point. The whole idea of what retirement means? When does retirement happen? How long should careers be? To me, it just feels like there’s a shift going on.

Some of it’s for people who must continue to work because they haven’t saved enough and need to continue to have at least some income. More and more, I feel like my contemporaries, who are generally in a position to retire, are trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. If you want to live to be 85, 90 years old, or maybe even 100, you should be so lucky. Thirty-four years is a long time to be retired.

I had Arthur Brooks on the podcast and maybe you have as well. What’s exciting about that idea of a second curve is that once you get into your 50s, 60s, and 70s, you can do so much good in the world because you’ve got all of this experience and wisdom. If we can turn our attention to, “What do I want to do to contribute? What do I want to do to help raise this next generation?”

Once you get into your 50s, 60s, and 70s, you are in a position to do so much good in the world. Share on X

We’re a lot calmer than we were when we were twenty, but if we can sprint to the end, there’s so much good we can do. Part of the reason I love the S Curve and I’m talking about my own book is that it gives us this way of thinking. The growth never has to end. You just go to one curve and then you go to the next. As I said, sprint to the end.

Taking The Right Risks

Also, go out with your boots on is the way some people would say. Let’s talk a little bit more about the idea of disrupting yourself. There are seven tenets you cover in the book. We will probably not have time to go through them all one by one, but it starts right off with the idea of taking the right risks. I think this is a hard thing. We were talking about this. People who are fearful of taking that risk. What does taking the right risk look like relative to not taking enough risk or to being maybe a little bit too reckless with risk?

The way I frame it is that there is competitive risk and there’s market risk. This is very much rooted in Clayton Christensen’s work in The Innovator’s Dilemma, but I’m not talking about a product. I’m talking about you. Competitive risk is when you are thinking about doing something new, getting a new job, and taking on a new project. You know that there’s a job because there’s a LinkedIn posting or an internal job posting.

Also, you have to figure out, “Of the 50 people who want this role, can I compete and win?” Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. You make that assessment. Market risk is that there is not a job posting, but there is a problem that you can see needs to be solved. You look at your unique set of skills and you say, “I think I can solve that problem. In fact, I’m quite confident I can.” You start to build the case, you get the buy-in, you go to your various stakeholders and say, “There’s a problem. I can solve it.”

If you can get the buy-in from the people around you, there are not 50 applicants. There is one applicant and it is you. Your odds of getting that job go up significantly. Why is it rooted in the Innovation Theory or the Disruptive Innovation Theory? Clayton found when he was studying the disk drives that when you take on market risk, your odds of success are six times higher and your revenue opportunity is twenty times greater.

That was with a product, but if you extrapolate there, you want to take on competitive risks. However, the more you can skew toward market risk, the more successful you’ll be. I encapsulated it just to remember it and frame it because amateurs compete and professionals create. What are you creating? How are you going out and building a career that only you can build? That’s one of the tenets or tools that you can put in your toolbox. It’s a little D disruption. It’s not a big D disruption, but that little D disruption makes the big D disruptions possible.

Career Sessions, Career Lessons | Whitney Johnson | Disrupting Yourself

Whitney Johnson: Amateurs compete; professionals create.


It could be little D leads to big D. It could be lots of little Ds that add up to big D, right?

Yes. Absolutely.

Playing To Your Strengths

Related to that is the next one, which is about planning[Ma4]  to your strengths instead of worrying so much about your weaknesses. We all go through this thing. Everybody focuses in their reviews on, “What do I need to do better? Also, 360 feedback. It talks about what you need to do better. This is a little bit of a contrarian point that you’re making in terms of playing to strengths as opposed to focusing so much on weaknesses.

It’s interesting because, from an evolutionary perspective, we focus on our weaknesses, which is what makes us vulnerable, and we don’t want to get killed by the bear. We also know that from a neuroscience perspective, wherever you have a lot of neural pathways, you can have a lot more neural pathways. It just makes sense. Wherever you have a lot of seeds, you want to have a lot more trees.

The more we are willing to play to our strengths, and this builds on some of the work of Marcus Buckingham, is that you can make an idiosyncratic contribution. The challenge around this is that you can listen to me and go, “Yeah, Whitney. Play to your strengths. I got it,” but the challenge is there are several of them. Number one is that our strengths are so reflexive that we oftentimes are not aware of them. That’s one of the challenges.

Another challenge is that because it is so easy for us, we don’t value it. Let me give you an example. I remember when I was working on Wall Street as an equity analyst, I had someone say to me, “Whitney, you’re good at going out and building relationships with management teams. You can have these meetings and the investors like that. That’s good.” I remember being offended by that because they weren’t telling me that I was a forensic analyst or forensic accountant because it was so easy for me. I thought, “This isn’t valuable.”

I had this towering strength that I did not own and that I didn’t value. Also, because I didn’t value it, I wasn’t working on it. I was working on those things that I was okay at but not brilliant at. One of the challenges for us as human beings is to be willing to not only identify what we do well but to own it and value it. It’s because we’re going to be much more valuable when we value what we do best, and we’ll feel strong. When we feel strong, we’re willing to play where no one else is playing. As you’re thinking about your career, if you are stalled at some level, it may be because you are not yet willing to own your strengths.

One of the challenges for us as human beings is to be willing not only to identify what we do well but to own and value it. We're going to be much more valuable when we value what we do best. Share on X

Often, as you pointed out in your own example, you don’t recognize them. Sometimes, you need to go out and ask people, “What are my strengths? What do you think of when you think of me?” Here, how you come across to other people could come in your personal brand and like, “You’re good at this,” and that you didn’t even realize it or maybe you knew it, but you take it for granted. You don’t see it as a strength, that is. I think that’s something a lot of people probably underappreciate, at least in terms of the kinds of conversations I have with people about how they see themselves.

Building on what you said some strengths are more valued by society than other strengths. If you’ve got a strength that society values, then that’s going to be easier, but if you’ve got a strength that society doesn’t put the same stock in as the other strength, then you’ve got to do some internal work of valuing yourself. It gets into psychology very quickly.

Constraints And Entitlement

Maybe talk about the next two together. One is around embracing constraints. It is a little bit counterintuitive because people generally think of constraints as negative, but they also battle entitlements. Those two are opposite sides of the same coin in some ways.

I like how you put those two together. Constraints, if you think about it, it’s a Law of Physics that you need something to bump up against in order to move forward. If you think about school, would you have ever finished any course in college if you didn’t have an end of a semester or if you didn’t have tests? No, you would not.

When you’re thinking about progressing along an S Curve, the reframe is that whatever you think you don’t have enough of may very well be the tool of your creation. How do you take that thing like, “I wish I had more time or money or whatever it is.” How do you take the fact that you don’t have the expertise that you wanted and think about things differently than you might have?

Career Sessions, Career Lessons | Whitney Johnson | Disrupting Yourself

Whitney Johnson: Whatever you think you don’t have enough of may very well be the tool of your creation.


The battling entitlement is that place where we say to ourselves, things should be different, or at the launch point of the curve, “I should be able to figure this out faster. My boss should have promoted me already. I should be able to get buy-in from my brilliant ideas.” The challenge with that, and those constraints as you just described, is that we become victims when we start to go to that place of should. When we become victims, we’re not agents, and when we’re not agents, we can’t make progress. We want to battle that sense of entitlement because we want to make progress. The only way we can do it is when we’re willing to be agents in our own lives and act instead of being acted upon.

My friend Danny Warshay, who teaches entrepreneurship at Brown, talks a lot about constraints and the value of constraints for startups, saying that when you do have constraints, you have to be very focused. Whether it’s time, money, resources, or whatever the case may be, you’re dialed in about how you should use those. When there’s an abundance, you get a lot sloppier. You see this with startups all the time.

They get the big funding round and blow it on a fancy office, video games, and all sorts of stuff that feels cool but doesn’t necessarily advance the business directly. In some ways, it’s the garage era of startups where they may be making the most progress. I think, in some ways, you’re arguing the same thing as it relates to thinking about your career.

You reminded me of a study that came out a few years ago where they looked at several hundred failed startups, and they found that the number one reason they put them into two buckets was the funded and the unfunded startups. The unfunded startups are all the ones that had to bootstrap, etc., and running out of cash was only the number ten reason that they failed. The number one reason why the funded startups failed is they ran out of cash because they didn’t have a constraint. They were not making decisions about how they were going to allocate their capital, their resources, etc.

Stepping Back To Grow

The last one may be to focus on, and I know there’s more, but this one’s probably the hardest for people, which is the idea of stepping back to grow. Everybody thinks their career should be a set of progressions, maybe not up a ladder. I think we’ve probably gotten a little bit more accustomed to the idea of squiggly careers or whatever you want to call it, but even in my squiggly career here, it’s going up to the right. How do you get people to appreciate when the right time to step back or step sideways to grow is?

The way I think about this is that it is at the heart of disrupting yourself. If you think about your life on the graph paper of existence, you’ve got a Y axis of success and let’s say you’re a twelve on this Y axis of success. You’re going over one up one and over one up one. The slope of the line is up and to the right. When you choose to disrupt yourself, when you choose to potentially make a lateral move in your career, to maybe even step back in a role, you see this frequently happen where you’ve got a senior executive in a company and they want to be a CEO. They’re at a hundred-million-dollar company and they go to be a CEO of a $10 million company.

That’s a great example of stepping back in order to grow. Why did they do that? It’s because they believe that by stepping back from being the Chief Marketing Officer of a $100 million company and becoming the CEO of a $10 million company, the opportunity will be available to them first of all. People will take a shot at them, but they believe that in the future, their line will be over one up three over one up five.

It’s because if they’re a good CEO of a $10 million company, then your next role will be a $50 million, $100 million, and $1 billion. You’re basically zooming out and you are letting go of status, prestige, and financial gains in the short term. You’re sub-optimizing the short term to optimize the long term. That’s what it looks like, but it requires a willingness in the short-term to let go of your ego, and that’s sometimes the hardest part of it.

It sometimes is hard and I think it’s against this expectations treadmill to come back to the earnings thing that you were certainly well accustomed to in your investment analyst days of feeling that you need to kind of keep cranking the intensity of the treadmill up a little bit more and a little bit more. It doesn’t always work that way.

Here’s what I would say, J.R. This is part of what’s so great about frameworks because they’re all wrong, but they’re useful to some extent. It’s like CapEx. You make an investment in a piece of equipment because you believe that you’re going to get an ROI in that equipment. If you have this framework, then you can talk people through and say, “I know this looks odd, but let me talk you through why I’m making this decision to do it because I believe that in the future, this is my goal, this is where I’m going, and I’m willing to take a step back in order to get there.

We won’t cover the last two, which are about embracing failure and also about being discovery-driven. As we’ve gone through the ones we covered, there’s a counterintuitive nature to some of this, and some of these things are quite hard to internalize. You’re working with people within these companies that you support. How do you get them to see that this is a better way to think about their growth trajectories? It’s a different way to think about growth.

I think that there’s a priori assumption when you’re asking that question, which is when you’re having that conversation, most of the time, you’re talking to a person who wants to grow and change. They want to, but they also recognize that they have very thick neural pathways, super high ways of habit, and ways of thinking about the world. When you can give them these frameworks and these counterintuitive ways of thinking about it, it helps them talk themselves through it.

It helps them say, “Right now, I’m having this experience and feel awkward and uncomfortable. Everything about me is saying, ‘Don’t do this.’” I can ask myself, “Is it because this is not a good decision or is it just because I’m doing something new and I’m scared? Of course, I feel scared. It gives you a way to, once you’ve decided this is important to you and you’ve understood that you’re going to have ways of doing this to talk yourself through it intellectually and rationally to be able to manage that fear or discomfort that you feel.

Disrupting Yourself

You mentioned that discussion with the woman who had said, “I disrupted myself. I’m now at this new company.” That led to your shifting into more of a corporate focus and then you wrote a book that was more from the perspective of the company on this topic. We’ve talked about disrupting yourself from the perspective of the individual, but how are companies and managers going about getting their employees to disrupt themselves? What does that process look like, and why is it important from a corporate or leadership perspective?

Let me give you an example. Given your particular audience, let me give you this example that I think is probably the most relevant. There was a company named after the largest river in South America, and you can buy pretty much anything you want from them online. One of the managers there was looking for a way to develop his people and he came across our work.

He reaches out and has a team of nine people. He administers this S Curve Insight Tool. What he discovers when he administers this tool is that seven out of his nine people are at the top of that S Curve. We generally recommend that you use a standard bell curve distribution in order to configure a team. You want about 60% of your people in the sweet spot, 20% at the launch, and 20% in mastery.

That’s 77% mastery, so you’re distributed at the high end of the curve, but now he has this data-driven insight and a language. He has a visual. He can have a conversation that allows him to deal with potential retention problems and also succession planning problems. He has three conversations. Conversation number one is with a person who’s a very high performer who’s saying, “I want something new,” as you referenced.

He says, “I got it. I understand what’s going on in your brain. It’s not that you don’t like me or the company, you just need something new, a high performer. He brokers a move for him somewhere inside the organization because it’s not personal. It’s not that he doesn’t like him. He just needs something new. He brokers a move that goes to the launch point of the curve in another part of the organization. Six months later he comes back and says, “I’ve learned a lot of new things that I think that I could apply to your org. I’d like to boomerang back.”

He boomerangs back, but when he boomerangs back, he’s not in mastery anymore. He’s now in the sweet spot. Why? It’s because he is able to see his role from a different perspective because of what he learned at the launch point of another curve. That’s conversation number one. Conversation number two is, “I know I’m in mastery. I’m a little bit bored, but I’ve got a lot going on at home.” If you think about your portfolio of curves, he’s got a lot of launch points at home. He says, “I need to stay in the role because I need to manage this.” How about if you do S Curve loops? You stay in the role, but you help other people move up. You help mentor people. You help train people, which is his own kind of S Curve because teaching people is very different than actually doing. That’s the second conversation.

In the third conversation, they said, “You are at the top of the curve. There isn’t something new for you to do. It’s time for you to go to a new organization.” You now have this data and these conversations. It allows you to deal with retention. It allows you to deal with succession planning. Also, it allows you to configure your team so that everybody’s growing, and if everybody’s growing on your team, then your team is in a place to grow and contribute to the organization because they’re all engaged. That’s a practical application of how you can use these ideas. Conversations that the people reading this podcast might want to have as you’re trying to navigate this mid-career place that you’re in.

For the companies, those are great stories from the perspective of a manager. How do the companies that you work with make this idea of personal disruption ultimately part of the corporate culture?

I think there are two ways. There doesn’t have to be buy-in from senior leaders. It helps, but it also can happen one team at a time where you’ve got one team and they administer this tool. They get this data and they start building an ecosystem within their team where everybody can grow. That means that their results start to be outsized and engagement scores go up. People say, “What’s Fernando over there doing? Maybe we want to try this in our team.”

You start to build these proof points that would suggest that a people-centric growth strategy works so it can start to bubble up across the org. It can then again come from the top down but it helps if it comes from the top down. We were having a conversation, and an HR person asked the CEO where we were doing some work.

He said, “What do you do when you want to stand up new teams?” He said, “I call Whitney and Disruption Advisors because I know they’re going to be able to help us put all these high-performing individuals and help us figure out how we’re going to work together in order to get this work done. Also, we’re all here to achieve the business outcomes because we are a business, after all.

A lot of companies happily keep people in their comfort zones because they’ve got people enrolled. They’re good at their job and they know what they need to do day to day. It’s easier to manage them but you do run the risk that those people are going to get bored and leave. You run the risk that they get bored and sloppy.

J.R., bored and bitter.

Any of those could happen but on the flip side, you get the minority of companies that are out there that think aggressively about how to develop people and it’s such a stark contrast. I’ve seen a range of those in the course of my consulting time and the different companies that I’ve worked for. It’s a very different feeling to be in a company where there is an active discussion or push for growth. You feel that there’s a bit of a hand at your back pushing you out of your comfort zone and pushing you to think about something different as opposed to the hand at your front, which is holding you back because it’s expedient. It’s a very different corporate culture to work in one versus the other.

As you’re describing that, it’s interesting because most people want to make a difference in the world when you talk to people. One of the best ways to do that is at home, but certainly at work. You and I both have Clayton Christensen in common for different reasons. One of the things he would say is that management is the most noble of professions if done well. As managers really truly have an opportunity to make a difference in lives and generations, if we are willing to do the work of developing the people who work for us, it’s great business, but on a higher plane, we can make a difference for individuals and their families.

Career Sessions, Career Lessons | Whitney Johnson | Disrupting Yourself

Whitney Johnson: If we are willing to do the work of developing the people who work for us, it’s great business, but on a higher plane, we can make a difference for individuals.


In some ways, that’s part of the difference between being a manager and being a leader. I want to spend at least a few minutes talking about your broader background. You mentioned that you majored in music. I would suspect you did not envision yourself being a Wall Street analyst when you were majoring in music. What did you see yourself doing and how did you end up becoming a Wall Street analyst?

I am one of those people and I think there’s a lot of women my age who didn’t know what we were going to be when we grew up. For me, anyway, I had this vague notion that I was going to grow up and maybe get married. I don’t know. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was doing that classic 19th century go get a liberal arts education kind of thing.

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to be a flight attendant and they didn’t hire me. I was deeply disappointed, but I got married while I was in college. We moved to New York. My husband’s getting his PhD at Columbia. We need food, and I got a job, but because I’m a music major, I got a job as a secretary. Music majors and females never set foot in a business course. I’m going to be a secretary.

However, something happened to me. I’m going to work every day, and I’m having this exciting experience of being in New York. It’s the late ’80s, early ’90s. It’s the liar’s poker era, and I see these stockbrokers. They are opening up these business accounts. My mom had always worked, so that was unusual. She was the typical teacher, but she had worked, so it wasn’t that unusual for me.

I remember them saying things like, “Throw down your pom-poms and get in the game.” I was super offended because I was a cheerleader in high school, but at one point, I was like, “I need to get in the game.” There was something inside of me that was like, “I have to do this.” I took business courses at night, accounting, finance, and economics. A boss who believed in me, which is the ecosystem piece that we talked about, and I got to move from being a secretary to a banker.

If you’ve worked on Wall Street, which you have, that does not happen, but that was my shot. I think the important piece too that happened here is that I’ve talked about disruption. I was disrupting myself because, on some level, I hadn’t thought this was possible. I didn’t go to New York thinking this was possible. There was a vague notion of what I was going to be, but I disrupted what I thought was possible for me and that was the beginning of my career. At times, it’s very difficult but also very wonderful.

There’s a key point you described there. People were encouraging you to step up. In a lot of environments, they would’ve said, “Whitney’s a secretary. She’s a secretary and will be a secretary. She’s a good secretary, but she’s a secretary.” You had people saying, “You should aspire for something more. Go do it,” and that doesn’t always happen.

I think back to this idea of a good manager. If you and I and anybody within the sounds of our voices can do that for even one person in our lives by saying, “I see you. You can be more. Go get that.” What a gift to give to someone else. That’s why you have this show. That’s what you’re aspiring to do.

That’s it, and it comes back to your quote from Clay Christiansen about management being the noblest of professions if done well. With that spirit of generosity, of growing the next generation and encouraging people to do more. It’s tapping into that hidden potential that you need managers to do for their people every now and then. How did you and Clay Christensen come to be working together?

Our family was living in Boston. He lived in Boston. I heard him speak in church. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I then go and buy The Innovator’s Dilemma. This is 2003-ish. I’m still working on Wall Street. I read his book The Innovator’s Dilemma and I’m like, “This is exactly what’s happening in the emerging markets.” I was covering Telmex and América Móvil at the time. It’s wireless and a wireline because América Móvil kept beating my estimates every quarter, and I was being aggressive.

I then realized, “Wireless is disrupting. With wireline, I had this explanatory mechanism for what is happening. This is so exciting”. I was giving his book to everybody I could find. I was absolutely enthralled. This was like on the business side, but then I started thinking, “Does this also apply to me?” When I had gone to a manager and said, “I’d like to do something else.” They said, “We like you right where you are.”

I now had an innovator’s dilemma in my head, and I realized that if I was going to get what I wanted to get done in life, I would have to disrupt myself. That was my first introduction to Clayton. You will appreciate this. I remember reaching out to him and I sent him my report on América Móvil. He didn’t know who I was and I was setting an intention. I wanted to work with him because when I left Wall Street and I quit my job, I did not take my financial models with me. I was done. I was disrupting myself.

I started having a connection with him. I ended up working with him in church on public affairs and then when he wanted to start a fund because he knew me and he knew what kind of work I did in a volunteer capacity, he asked me and his son Matt to help them start that fund. That’s how I connected with them.

What’s Ahead

What’s ahead at this point for you and for your firm?

What’s exciting is that we’ve talked about this tool. We’ve talked about all these services. I have a cofounder. Her name is Amy Humble. She was Chief of Staff for Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great. We get to put a mashup of these different ideas together. I would say we are still at the launch point and moving into the sweet spot of building a business, the Disruption Advisors, that allows people to have these tools.

Also, they are codified in a way that we can help lots and lots of businesses get the outcomes that they want through growing their people. However, as I’m sure you have surmised by now, yes, we want to make money because we’re in business to make money, but what we want is to help people grow. That’s my why. My motivation is I want people to be able to make progress in their lives as people.

I think you and I are probably kindred spirits in that because that’s certainly one of the reasons I started this years ago. Thank you for doing this. I appreciate the opportunity to get to know you a little bit and hear about the work that you do and your thoughts on disruption at the personal level as opposed to at the corporate level.

Likewise. This is very fun and it is fun to be able to talk Wall Street shop a little bit.

Certainly, having worked in telecom and tech when I was at McKinsey back in the time when you were having your streak of institutional investor-ranked analyst years, it was a fascinating space to watch play out. I can remember conversations. I did a lot of work for the big bell companies and most of them had wireless arms.

I’m not even sure they realized initially that they needed a computer analyst. It was a nice thing on the side, but they were still fighting the wireline game. It was a great example. I saw it in boom and bust. Those years were certainly informative, if not always easy. I will let you get off to your evening. Thank you for doing this and have a good day.

Thank you.

I want to thank Whitney for joining me in covering the idea of disruption and how it can apply not just to companies but to us as individuals as well. Ultimately, it’s about prioritizing growth even when it’s uncomfortable. If this resonates and you’d like to step outside of your comfort zone and be more deliberate about your career growth, visit and become a member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up for our newsletter on the website and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks.


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About Whitney Johnson

Career Sessions, Career Lessons | Whitney Johnson | Disrupting YourselfWhitney Johnson is the CEO of Disruption Advisors, a tech-enabled talent development company. She is a multi-time Thinkers50 member a globally recognized thought-leader, keynote speaker, executive coach, and consultant.

Whitney is the bestselling author of 4 books and has been a LinkedIn Top Voice since 2019, with 1.8 million followers. On her popular podcast, Disrupt Yourself, she has interviewed world-renowned thinkers, including Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, and General Stanley McChrystal.

Her major mentors and influences include renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith, the legendary human potential pioneer Bob Proctor, and the late Clayton Christensen, with whom she co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund.

As a former award-winning Wall Street equity analyst, Whitney understands how companies work, how investors think, and how the best coaches coach, all of which she brings to her work. She is married, has two children, and lives in Lexington, VA.


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