Thinker. Disruptor. Innovator. Builder of A Class Teams. Award Winning Author. Top 15 Coach. Leading LinkedIn Influencer. Award winning Stock Analyst. Phew! That is a power packed summary of Whitney Johnson, a true champion on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. Here in this freewheeling conversation with BrandKnew, Whitney distills insights and articulates her thoughts on disruption, innovation and more.
BK: Could you pl tell us a bit about your growing up years?
WJ: I was born in Madrid, Spain while my father was working there—briefly. I grew up in California, what is now Silicon Valley. I’m the oldest of four children. I played piano, sewed, and did cheerleading. When I was seventeen my parents divorced. In retrospect, it’s not so much the divorce that was painful, but what it meant. They weren’t happy. Maybe they had never really loved each other (my mom was pregnant when they married). As the oldest child I wondered if perhaps things might have been different if I’d be smart or attractive enough? Would they have even married had I not been born?
What’s interesting is that some of my greatest strengths have been born of that sadness: my desire to have a happy marriage and family life is resolute. We aren’t perfect, but we are happy: we have two children (David, 23 and Miranda, 18). When someone I know is affected by divorce, I understand. Regardless of why the marriage is dissolving, it is wrenching. My drive, my intense focus on improvement, is likely a means of trying of measuring up, and I’m quite certain that my laser-like focus on encouraging and mentoring is an attempt to be the encouraging voice I wanted to hear.
BK: What/who were your childhood aspirations & inspirations?
WJ: As a young girl, I wanted to be a concert pianist, but that ended by the time I was about eight years old. Beyond that I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to be, other than some vague notion that I would marry and have children. What I do know is that I was watching my mother closely, as all children watch their parents. She always worked, and then was a single mother with four children. I was somewhat aware of how hard it was for her to get a fair shake in the workplace. For example, when she told her principal she was pregnant with her fourth child, she was fired. She lost her seniority as a teacher in the California system. It made it not worth it for her to return to teaching when she returned to work. She was forced to disrupt herself. I was always determined to be the mistress of my own fate. Right out of college, my plan was to be a flight attendant. But they didn’t hire me. I think I’m happy now that they didn’t.
BK: Disruption and Innovation has been your calling card over the years- tell us how this mastery started and why your continued love for the subjects?
WJ: I actually started my career on Wall Street—and spent a lot of years there. Wall Street was an unlikely place for me; my education is in music. Braving the tough entrance into the world of high finance was my first big disruption. It was only in hindsight that I recognized myself as someone who disrupts themselves pretty regularly. I didn’t have that language to describe my career leaps, both up and laterally, and yes, sometimes down. After leaving Wall Street, and trying my hand at a variety of things, I connected with Clayton Christensen, who has been the master modeler of Disruptive Innovation. While working with him I began to see the wider application of disruption and I believe I continue that discovery. As long as I’m learning I don’t lose interest and the appeal of the subject is undiminished.
BK: In an era of ‘ Conformity, compliance, adherence, standardisation ‘ and all of that, do modern day organisations really see Innovation & Disruption as assets ? Or you see this more the exception than the rule?
WJ: There’s definitely tension between how business is conducted and how it should be conducted, how leaders manage employees and how they should instead coach and develop them. It’s hard to generalize how modern day organisations view Innovation and Disruption. Some see them as assets, and I think that is the majority. I would argue that all believe it is important, but they don’t believe it enough to upend their status quo–––of doing it how they’ve always done it, or how other people are doing it. Either because it’s too scary, or just plain comfortable.
BK: In our practice at ISD Global with brands and organisations, we have been espousing the value and impact of ‘ intrapreneurship ‘ – do you see a culture of intrapreneurship driving disruption and innovation in organisations?
WJ: Certainly, intrapreneurship is one of the developing trends in work that is producing disruption and innovation in organisations. It is one culture—not the only one—but a powerful one that will be fueling change for the foreseeable future.
BK: Did you always want to be a writer? When did the writing bug bite you? And do you see this as a natural dovetailing into your coaching, consulting, speaking practice?
WJ: I always wanted to publish a book—for as long as I can remember. That’s not quite the same thing as wanting to be a writer. And I don’t, even now, really view myself as a writer. (Which is good because then I don’t get caught in perfectionism that can come were I to self-identify as a writer). I’m an advisor, coach, consultant and speaker, as you mention, and I write books and articles to help share the thinking I do in relation to those other roles. The writing supports my other work, my primary work, and not the other way around.
BK: What were the learnings from your first book Disrupt Yourself ? And how did the brand get extended into the Disrupt Yourself Podcast?
WJ: I think the first important take away from Disrupt Yourself is that disruption can be successfully applied to the way people work and manage their careers, not just to innovations in product and services. The second is being able to visualize individual growth in a job role by using the S curve to model learning. And then, recognizing that the framework offers managers a methodology to maximize the engagement and learning of their team members was an additional learning that helped lead to my next book, Build an A Team. Personal Disruption is an effective coaching tool for individuals and leaders. How did I that get extended to the podcast? My sense was that if people could hear stories of personal disruption (hearing them is different than reading about them) they would be more inspired to change. Plus I’ve always loved to interview people and learn about their stories.
BK: Take us through how the ” Disruptive Innovation Fund ‘ with Clayton Christensen came about and what has been your enrichment from this?
WJ: While I was working at Merrill Lynch in New York, I read the Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. This book helped me understand not only what was happening with wireless v. wireline stocks which I was covering as a stock analyst. But I also started to have the insight that disruption wasn’t just about products, but about people. Including myself. Which is in part why I disrupted my Wall Street career trajectory and became an entrepreneur. Around that time, I was also doing volunteer work with Clayton Christensen for our church in the greater Boston area. When he wanted to launch the Disruptive Innovation Fund, because he hadn’t invested before, other than his personal portfolio, and his son Matt was just graduating from business school, Clayton asked me to cofound the Fund with him. What did I learn? One of the biggest and most important things was that I got to work with a man who is deeply good. I also was able to take the ideas around momentum for the individual that I’d been noodling on while still on Wall Street, and further expand them by applying disruption to the individual which I’ve since codified in Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team.
BK: Is Innovation & Disruption over used words and under implemented practice in organisations? Talk but no torque- If so, why do you think that is the case?
WJ: Well, those words are used a lot. But “overuse” suggests that they aren’t relevant, which is not the case. Innovation and disruption are not the only drivers, but they are the most forceful drivers of business and career advancement in the world today. I don’t share at all the opinion that this is “talk but not torque.”
BK: We are seeing a definite shift in consumption behaviour patterns from ‘ ownership ‘ to ‘ experiences ‘- in your understanding, are brands and organisations seeing and adapting to this tectonic shift?
WJ: Again, it’s hard to talk about organisations in generalities. I think there is an important distinction to be made between the actions of brands and organisations that do see shifting trends in consumption, in markets, etc. And those brands and organisations that don’t. Or that see the trends and don’t adapt to them, versus those that do. What we see is the adaptive behavior that allows businesses to survive and evolve to meet changing needs and demands, and conversely, we see the intransigent actions of those who won’t adapt and won’t survive to evolve—or evolve to survive.
BK: What triggered you to write ‘ Build an A Team ‘ ? When you look around organisations, do you see a deficit of ‘ creative leadership ‘?
WJ: It’s wonderful how new learning grows out of old thinking! I was actually beginning to research a different topic for my next book when a conversation with my HBR editor led to the decision to explore the implications of the Disrupt Yourself framework for managers, and management technique. How could leaders encourage and help their employees gain the growth and momentum associated with personal disruption? Equally important, how could leaders be motivated to take the risk associated with making disruption a priority? This leads to your second question—the deficit of creative leadership. Yes, I think this is a problem. It’s a new and changing work environment; leading in the same old ways isn’t going to get the job done. But it’s risky to strike off in new directions, the leaders who want to try something different, something creative, often don’t have the support of their own bosses. Creative leadership has to be de-risked as much as possible.
BK: Don’t mean to put you in a spot here but what role do you enjoy most: Coaching, Speaking, Writing?
WJ: I like them all for different reasons. I like the coaching because it is an opportunity for me to work one-on-one with a C-Suite executive who is serious about becoming a high growth (or higher growth) individual. It’s a thrilling responsibility to be a thought and accountability partner to a person who is in the midst of personal disruption.
I like the writing piece in that it forces me to codify what I am thinking. And to give people something to react to and learn from––the ideas then live independent and people can make them their own.
When done well, a speaker and the audience have a magical moment. People are not only instructed, they are inspired. What they learn is the how, but what they feel is what gives them the momentum need to change, to disrupt themselves.
BK: The coveted Top 15 Coach endorsement by Dr Marshall Goldsmith– would have brought in more responsibility, more accountability, more expectations? Apart from yourself, did you have an A Team to cope with this?
WJ: I have a team and it has expanded a lot to accommodate the growth that my business has experienced thanks to the doors that Marshall’s mentorship has provided. My team—they were an A Team when they were smaller and are an A Team now that we’re bigger, and it is the constant challenge as the leader to keep us growing and building so that we’re an A Team in the future.
BK: Could you tell us about the books and people who have inspired your life and career?
WJ: The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.
People who have inspired my life and career are Clayton Christensen, Marshall Goldsmith, Brene Brown, and Bob Proctor.
BK: What makes Whitney Johnson go ‘ Wow, another day at work ‘ ?
WJ: I LOVE the work that I do. High growth organizations need high growth individuals. I am building a business that helps people become high growth individuals. If we are willing to give up who we are today for who we can be, we will be happier. But that can be scary. When I get to teach, or coach, or interview, or write about the frameworks of Personal Disruption and the S Curve of Learning, with the outcome that people do change, and they are happier….What a gift!
BK: What do you do in your spare time? Your leisure time pursuits?
WJ: Mostly I work. Because I love my work. But I very much like to read books, mostly Young Adult fiction and fantasy, and to take walks with my family. Occasionally, watch home improvement shows like Fixer Upper. I also have this ambition to start playing tennis again!
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