How to be the kind of boss people remember: An interview with Whitney Johnson

Bosses get a bad rep, but let’s pause for a moment to empathize. Managing people is difficult. You’re trying to use whatever tools you have in your tool box to get a motley group of people to achieve great things together.

Managers do their jobs when they make their numbers. Great bosses do more. They develop talent. They help people learn and grow and figure out how they can best contribute. By always keeping people in this sweet spot of their development, they keep their teams engaged.

Whitney Johnson’s new book, Build an A-Team, published by Harvard Business Review Press, describes how to become that kind of boss. She agreed to answer a few questions. In the comments, I’d love to hear from other people about some of their best bosses, and what made them stand out!

LV: You talk about the “S curve” for learning — what does this mean, and why is the middle of the curve the sweet spot for engagement?

Whitney Johnson: The S curve is essentially a model of a learning curve. The low end of the curve is our entry level: a new company, a new role within the same company, learning a new domain, taking on a management position. Ideally, we should not be over qualified for our new position; it should be a little uncomfortable with a lot of new information and skills to learn.

As we settle in, and become competent in this new position, we are poised to rapidly scale the back of the S through a span of high engagement and productivity. At the top of the curve, when full mastery has been achieved, our growth slows, and we can become stagnant, complacent and bored. Productivity can decline gradually or even precipitously, as the top-of-the-curve plateau becomes a precipice.

At the low end we encounter stress and discouragement, trying to get up to speed. We are engaged in learning, but also insecure and a little uncertain if we and the new curve are a good fit. At the top we are unsettled and casting around for a new challenge. The middle is the sweet spot for engagement because we have put the pieces in place for maximum productivity, but don’t yet feel that we’ve maxed out our potential and need to move on.

LV: You tell managers to hire for potential, not proficiency. As you note, this is a big ask of managers who are already overwhelmed. Why should good managers adopt this bit of HR heresy?

WJ: There are at least a couple of issues to consider here. First, there is a demonstrated tendency for hiring managers and HR professionals to overstate the qualifications required for candidates to successfully fill a position. Couple this inclination with the fact that a preponderance of job-seekers, especially women, won’t apply for a position unless they meet all the stated qualifications, 100 percent.

Then we hire the absolutely most qualified candidate in the resulting pool and the end result of this process is a new employee who is going to be bored in their position in six months to a year. There just isn’t going to be sufficient challenge to engage them for long. We’ve all remarked on the workplace’s revolving door, and the youngest—and largest—generations of employees’ job-hopping practices. Recruiting, hiring and training are too expensive for us to be constantly engaged in replacing employees after very short tenures. A staggering number of workers change jobs in less than a year.

We refer to people as human resources, but then we don’t treat them like resources. Resources are raw materials that we develop into finished products; they don’t come ready-made. I’m not advocating that employers hire people who are incapable of filling a position, rather, that they hire an able person who will be stretched by the position. People thrive—they are most engaged and productive—when they are learning. Hire candidates to begin at the low end with potential to learn and grow, rather than for top-of-the-curve proficiency, and they will reward you with a longer tenure of happily engaged productivity.

LV: The reality of building an A-team is that people will wind up in the top (flat) part of the curve — and may need to leave you to get more challenge. How, as a boss, can you learn to be OK with that?

WJ: This is true, but I actually argue that if you are managing people with an eye on the S curve—the learning curve—and anticipating their need for new challenges on different curves, such as a new role, a new assignment, a team reconfiguration, a stretch project, you are more likely to retain your high potential talent in-house. The real question, I believe, is how are you going to keep people who want more challenge? What’s the strategy?

Engaged employees tend to stay; disengaged ones are looking for new jobs. This isn’t absolute, but it is certainly the trend. Employees who have reached the top of their learning curve, or who have been unwisely hired to enter a role at the top of the curve, are likely to be disengaged and less productive and have an eye out for a new opportunity. It doesn’t really matter whether we, as managers, are okay with that; it’s simply reality.

LV: When people recount their most remarkable bosses, what are the common themes? What can a manager do today to help nudge herself into that category?

WJ: People’s favorite bosses are those who are consciously engaged in helping them develop their abilities. People love bosses who challenge them. Bosses who celebrate their successes. As for bosses who want employees to stay in place because it’s easier for them, as the managers? These are not the bosses who are most appreciated. Surveys in recent years make it clear that learning, personal satisfaction, growth, and the ability to add to a portfolio of valuable skills and domain knowledge are more important to the majority of workers than compensation alone.

I can’t help but recommend Build an A Team to managers who want to become the type of manager that people love to work for. That’s why I wrote it! The strategies in Build an A Team, when implemented, will help to evolve team and company cultures into learning laboratories that maximize employee engagement and significantly improve employee retention. It requires flexibility and a willingness to challenge a lot of traditional management strategies. But workers today rarely pass their entire career in a single company, much less a single role. Most will eventually move on to another employer. But they will stay longer, provide a greater return on investment, and become an ambassador for you as a great boss, if you’ve invested in their development and helped to make the time they worked for you a springboard to the fulfillment of their dreams.


Ok readers, this is Laura again. What did you like about your great bosses? And for managers reading this, what do you do to make sure your employees aren’t getting bored?

2 thoughts on “How to be the kind of boss people remember: An interview with Whitney Johnson

  1. No previous comments display when I follow the email link here on my phone, just this box to add one. Did no one have anything to say about such an interesting topic, or is this some kind of glitch?

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