4 Ways To Achieve Smart Growth In Your Leadership And Career

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by

We all want to be better leaders—to not just achieve things for ourselves, but to help lift up others and give them the tools they need to achieve their goals. But often the first step to helping others is to help ourselves, to make sure that we’re safeguarding our own progress and well-being on our own path. How can we know what’s next in our growth, how to move forward or recognize when it’s time to stay put for a little while?

Whitney Johnson was named #8 on the Thinkers50 list in 2021 and recently authored Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. There are few people out there more qualified to provide tips on how to grow personally and professionally, so I sat down with her to ask some questions about her new book.

Johnson believes that employees want to grow, and leaders want to help make that happen—but the way forward is to recognize that they must first grow themselves. She has a few tips on how leaders can grow in a way that will help those around them:

Use Loss Aversion Theory

Whenever it comes time to motivate yourself to do something new, Johnson suggests employing loss aversion theory, as popularized by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The theory suggests we’re twice as motivated by what we might lose by what we might gain. While it’s never a good thing to only focus on the negatives in life and work, if you need a hand in pushing yourself onto the next big thing, it can be helpful to focus on what you might lose from not pushing forward.

“Our minds do all this calculus when we’re thinking of doing something new,” Johnson said. “But if you flip the normal thinking on its head and ask what will happen if you stay put, that could be something like stagnating in your role or simply getting pushed out or disrupted. You could become complacent and start to self-sabotage.” While there’s plenty to be gained by taking a new personal or career step, sometimes we need to look at the inverse—what we stand to lose by not taking that opportunity—to light a fire under us.

Identify Where You Are In Your Journey

In Johnson’s work, she often refers to the “S-Curve” of learning, as developed by the sociologist Everett Rogers, which can be used to understand the patterns by which we learn and grow. There are three major parts of an S-Curve:

  • The launch phase, during which growth is happening but can feel slow. You’re still getting used to the task you set out for yourself.
  • The main back of the S, which is a phase Johnson calls the “sweet spot,” where things are not too hard or too easy. This phase can often feel exhilarating, like it’s exactly where you’re supposed to be and where you’re getting the most done.
  • Finally, there is the mastery phase, where you’ve figured out what you’ve set out to do, and you’ve mastered it. After the initial sense of accomplishment, staying here can lead to ennui, a sense that you need a new challenge.

Using this curve to plot out where you are and where you need to go next can be very beneficial, says Johnson.

“Sometimes, when you’re in transition and you’re looking for the next step, you don’t know where you’re going.” But knowing where you are on the map—maybe you’re still in that initial launch phase, where you’re exploring and feeling uncertain or uncomfortable about what’s next—can help normalize the experience. Those emotions at that stage are normal, and by acknowledging them, you can give yourself permission to be patient and see it through.

Check In With Yourself if You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when you’re on the path to growth, especially in the early part of your journey on the S-Curve (Johnson also likened the curve to climbing a mountain; a hard initial phase, an exhilarating peak, and then a phase of lesser stress and exertion). At times like this, it can be important to step back and reflect. Ask yourself questions that affirm if you’re at the right point of the climb.

“Questions like ‘Do I believe I can achieve this?’ and ‘Is this familiar enough that it’s navigable territory for me?’ are helpful ones to start with,” she said.

Making sure that what you’re doing is aligning with your identity and your values are also important things to reflect on. If all these check questions come back positive, you’re probably on the right path, Johnson said—just stick with it.

Decide If It’s Time to Move On – Or If You Just Need To Rest

When we move to the mastery phase, we sometimes find ourselves with excess mental and emotional processing power—and not a lot of opportunity to use it to the utmost of its potential. That leads to us feeling either bored or exhausted, with the sense that we can’t keep doing it for much longer. I asked Johnson why that happens and what to do when it does.

“At this point, you figured out how to do everything. There’s nothing new happening because you’ve gone down this road it a million times, and now you’re underwhelmed. Sometimes people self-sabotage at this point because they’re at the top of the curve, and it might be time for them to jump—but they lack the gumption to do so.”

But for some, that exhaustion might just mean they need to slow down and take a moment to catch their breath. “Do you need to move on to a new S-Curve or do you just need to rest a little bit? Go back to your checklist, the questions you asked yourself. Yes, I like being here. Yes, I enjoy doing it, but I’m exhausted. If that’s the case, don’t start the process over with a new S-Curve, with a new mountain to climb. Just rest where you are on the mountain before moving on.”

Smart Growth provides a powerful tool to chart a course for your own development and for those people that you lead.



360 Assessment


5 Strategies To Get Unstuck In Your Job Search

Subscribe for
Leadership Updates

"*" indicates required fields