Career Q&A with Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors (#14)

The next Career Q&A is with Whitney Johnson, who is a CEO, author, investor, and executive coach. I’ve known Whitney for many years and she is one of the most gracious, intelligent people I’ve met. Whitney offers exceptional advice on the power of taking initiative, why everyone should get a coach, and how you can disrupt yourself to find career success. I hope you enjoy this Q&A as much as I did!

Whitney Johnson is the CEO of human capital consultancy Disruption Advisors, an Inc. 5000 2020 fastest-growing private company in America. Having worked at FORTUNE 100 companies, been an award-winning equity analyst on Wall Street, invested with Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, and coached alongside the renowned Marshall Goldsmith, Whitney understands how companies work, how investors think, and how the best coaches coach.

Whitney is an award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, and frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School. She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and the author of bestselling books Build an A Team and Disrupt Yourself. She also hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself podcast whose guests have included John Mackey, Brené Brown, Stephen M.R. Covey, and Zaza Pachulia. Whitney is married, has two children, and lives in Lexington, VA. (See full bio here.)

What’s a book that has influenced your career or life, and why?

The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. His theory of disruptive innovation––a Goliath-like legacy business could be overtaken by a silly little David––changed my thinking as a Wall Street equity analyst. It also revolutionized my thinking about growth. In 2004, I had been an award-winning equity analyst for nearly eight years. I loved it, but I felt like there was something more.

After an especially discouraging conversation with my manager, who wanted me to stay right where I was, I had a flash of insight. My current equity analyst self was the incumbent––Goliath. My future self was the upstart––David. To take up the giant, I had to disrupt myself. It was revelatory. Disruption wasn’t just about products, it was about people. As I write in the dedication to my latest book, Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company, “To Clayton Christensen, who made this S Curve possible.”

Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are?

When I was three years old, after seeing The Sound of Music, I picked out Do-Re-Mi on the piano. I studied music throughout my childhood, and eventually majored in music. Piano practice brought discipline, accompanying vocalists and/or instrumentalists taught me to be attuned to others which informs my coaching, and the general sense of musicality informs my writing and speaking. Once, after a speech, I had an audience member say, “I felt like I was listening to you play an instrument.” Best compliment ever.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?

A few years ago, I delivered a keynote. The audience didn’t like it, they hated it––I have the comment cards to prove it. Because of nerves, I was focused on myself, not attuned to the audience. I had become the hero (like the accompanist who thinks they are the star). And if I was the hero, then who was the audience? It was my job to be the guide so the audience could be the hero.  This was the wake-up call that made the ‘musical moment’ experience possible, the failure that led to a success. For more on failure, listen to our Disrupt Yourself podcast, Episode 200.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?

Take initiative. Take initiative. Take initiative. Look for what you think needs to be done. Tell your boss what you plan to do and ask for input. Ask Does that work for you? If you are competent, and take initiative, you will quickly be labeled a superstar.

Also, take advantage of the fact that you are straight out of college. When a twenty-something asks me a thoughtful question––I will try to say ‘yes’ simply to reward you for taking the initiative. In general, those over 40 feel the responsibility to feed our young. Being in your 20s has its privileges. Use them before they expire. 

If you could go back in time to when you were entering the workforce and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Get a coach. Straight out of college I was getting the training that I needed to do the functional job, but I had no idea how to navigate the emotional job that I was being hired to do. I read a lot of books, but a coach could have helped me move up my S Curve of Learning faster. 

What’s one of your proudest professional accomplishments? 

I am proud of the fact that I disrupted my mindset about what was possible for me. When I graduated from college, I had a music degree, no idea what I wanted to be or do, except some vague notion that I would have children (was already married), and not a lot of confidence. That I was able to change how I was thinking about myself and move from being an EA to an investment banker, which rarely happens in financial services (still!). I am proud of that. (And grateful that I had a boss who believed in me and made it possible.)

What’s something unexpected that has happened in your career, and how have you responded?

I didn’t expect that one of my superpowers would be to apply business theories or concepts to the individual, like I have with both disruption innovation and the diffusion curve. Nor did I expect that the S Curve of Learning would be such a useful model for helping people think about what growth looks like. My response––instead of this being in the background like it was in Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team, it is the hero of the story in Smart Growth.

Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed?

According to Jungian psychology, we have both masculine and feminine characteristics. The ability to get things done, to wield power is considered masculine, while to love and be connected are considered feminine traits.. To truly grow up, both men and women need to develop both. While home and family has been the vehicle for me to develop feminine characteristics, work has helped me develop masculine traits. It has been an important vehicle for helping me grow up.  Note: I write about this in detail in my first book Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream.

When have you felt stuck in your career? How did you break out of it or push forward?

When I was pregnant with my first child, my boss was fired. They probably would have given me the boot too, except that I had good performance reviews, and I was pregnant. I interviewed for a number of roles in investment banking, but there wasn’t a fit. Desperate, they pretty much shoved me into equity research. Once I got to research, there was a merger, and with it came a highly-rated analyst who covered the sector (cement and construction) that I was supposed to cover. I had now been disrupted twice. 

My only way out was a third round of disruption, but this time disrupting myself. There were a number of media companies going public and no one to cover them. So, rather than trying to knock on a cement door that was closed, I built my own door. I became a media analyst. By building a door for myself, I built a door for my company. My way through was personal disruption. 

Who is someone, dead or alive, who you admire? Why do you admire them?

Joan of Arc––I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s autobiography of her––she was so clear on her purpose and so courageous.

Diana Krall––I admire her musicianship and her voice––and how she didn’t start singing until she was in her late 20s because she thought she didn’t have a good voice.

What habit or practice helps you manage stress?

Exercise, running specifically, helps release the cortisol that builds up due to stress (whether good or bad stress).

Gratitude. Stress often comes because of a perceived danger––specifically that I won’t be able to get done what I need to do in the time that I have to do it. And ‘the wild bear will catch me and I will die.’ If, in that moment, I become hyper focused on what I am grateful for, my ‘upstairs’ thinking brain can signal to my ‘downstairs run away NOW brain’ that I’m not actually in danger. Which relieves the stress. And allows me to get done what I need to do in the time I have to do it.

Do the thing that I am avoiding which can lead to anxiety which leads to a stress response. If I am anxious about something (back to the wild bear), I might procrastinate, or avoid it, and then my brain will feel relief. Something I’ve learned from psychologist Emma McAdam is that in the moment my brain will reward me. Good job, you escaped the bear. But then when there’s another bear of a deadline, then my brain tells me to avoid it again. This creates an anxiety loop. So do the thing I think I can’t do––that’s making me anxious, that’s causing a stress response––now.

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