Don’t ignore your job’s expiration date (Review of Whitney Johnson’s Build an ‘A’ Team

a teamThis review first ran in the April 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Build An “A” Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve

By Whitney JohnsonWhitney Johnson

Harvard Business Review Press


Every job has an expiration date.

We ignore it at our peril. Yes, the living is easy once we’ve scaled our learning curves and we’ve settled into our comfort zone.

We’re fully competent but at risk of becoming bored out of our minds and completely disengaged.

We can convince ourselves that mailing it in and coasting to retirement is doable. But the people we work with and for aren’t so easily fooled.

So if you’re wondering whether a change would do you good, the answer is an empathetic yes (and I speak from experience).

We need to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

According to Whitney Johnson, a CEO advisor and author of Build An ‘A’ Team, we should start looking for a new challenge around the four-year mark in our jobs.

For the first six months in a new role, we’re learning the ropes. It can be a steep, frustrating, exhausting and disorienting climb.

But then we hit a tipping point around the six-month mark. We reach peak productivity in what Johnson calls the sweet spot middle.

After four years in most jobs, we’ve reached the peak of our learning curves. We’ve mastered pretty much every task. We’re competent and confident. We can work on autopilot.

As a leader, it’s tempting to ignore expiration dates with highly skilled and experienced veterans who are well into their mastery phase. They require minimal adult supervision and there are few if any surprises.

You may also prefer to hire only new recruits who’ve already done whatever job you need doing and who’ll bring years or decades of experience to your team.

But your high performers will eventually turn into bored and restless low performers.  Some will be self-aware enough to pull themselves out of their comfort zones and look for new challenges.

“Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it.”

Losing institutional memory when a veteran employee leaves an organization hurts. This is why it’s critical for managers to preemptively offer up new challenges or move high performers into new roles and onto new teams, where there’ll be new responsibilities and new learning curves.

Johnson says the most productive and innovative teams have an optimal mix of employees, with 15 per cent starting out on their learning curves, 70 per cent in the sweet spot middle and the remaining 15 per cent in the mastery phase and willing to take on a mentorship role.

“One of the most powerful ways that managers can foster innovation in their teams and engagement in their people is to keep them moving to new learning curves before they get bored,” says Johnson.

She recommends a three-step process for leaders who need a new game plan for anyone at the top of their learning curve. Applaud their achievements. Identify a new learning curve. And then deliver on helping them make a successful jump.

“Taking charge around the who, what, when, where and how of these leaps is critical. Should your people proactively lobby for a jump to a new curve when they reach the top? Yes. But remember, it’s a lot harder for them to come to you and say ‘I’m at the top of my curve, I need to try something new’ than you think it is. The boss holds most of the cards in this situation, and an employee may feel that asking to jump is tantamount to asking for a push into unemployment.”

As a leader, you hold the power and have a choice to make. “Is the top of the curve a place where people decide to leave because they know there’s nothing more? Is it a spot where they outlive their usefulness and become organizational deadweight? Or, is it the launching pad for even greater effectiveness?”

Don’t put off having conversations about what’s next for team members who’ve maxed out on their current learning curves. Pretending there isn’t an expiration date with their jobs is a failure of leadership. They’ll either start mailing it in or start sending out resumes.

“You can leave them in place and watch them suffer a gradual, even precipitous decline in productivity; you can watch them abruptly depart for a warmer professional climate. Or you can find a new learning curve for them to climb.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


Review: Smarter Faster Better – The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

smarter faster betterThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada


Your dream team gives you nightmares.

You recruited your best and brightest employees to work on a mission critical project.

You assumed the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

But the parts aren’t fitting together and you’re running out of runway.

Google searched and found the key to building better teams. The company spent two years surveying employees, studying 180 teams, collecting tens of thousands of pieces of data and building dozens of software programs to run the numbers and analyze trends.

“The biggest thing you should take away from this work is that how teams work matters, in a lot of ways, more than who is on them,” says Laszlo Bock, head of Google’s People Operations department. “We think we need superstars. But that’s not what our research found. You can take a team of average performers, and if you teach them to interact the right way, they’ll do things no superstar could ever accomplish.”

Teams interact the right way when they feel psychologically safe. When they feel safe, teams don’t shy away from having the honest conversations and tough debates that lead to better decisions. There’s no fear of reprisals or retribution and team members can be counted on to look out for one another.

“Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels,” says Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times and author of Smarter Faster Better.

Team leaders set the tone. If you want a productive team, resist the urge to interrupt and interject. Summarize what’s being said to prove you’re listening.  Be good at reading emotions and knowing when someone feels frustrated, upset or left out. Be quick to resolve team conflicts. And make sure everyone speaks at least once before bringing a meeting to a close.

“There are always good reasons for choosing behaviors that undermine psychological safety,” says Duhigg. “It is often more efficient to cut off debate, to make a quick decision, to listen to whoever knows the most and ask others to hold their tongues. But a team will become an amplification of its internal culture, for better or worse. Study after study shows that while psychological safety might be less efficient in the short run, it’s more productive over time.”

Along with showing how to build better teams, Duhigg looks at how we can be smarter and more productive when it comes to motivation, innovation, focus, goal setting, managing others, making decisions and absorbing data.

“Connecting these eight ideas is a powerful underlying principle,” says Duhigg, who tells dozens of stories that explain the latest in neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics. “Productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder. It’s not simply a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices.

“Productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves, and the easy goals we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders. These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

If you’re bringing people together to work on a project, save yourself some nightmares. Have everyone read and discuss Duhigg’s chapter on teamwork as their first assignment.

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton and serves as the Director of Communications for Mohawk College.


Review: You First – Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along & Get Stuff Done by Liane Davey

you firstThis review first ran in the Feb. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done

By Liane Davey



My all-time favourite team-building exercise featured a metal trash can, flames and paper.

Our team-building facilitator handed us slips of paper.  We were headed on a journey. We needed the courage to lose sight of the shore.  We were told to write down what we were prepared to leave behind as we set sail and moved forward together into the future.

I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m not a fan of corporate reindeer games so I likely left my slip of paper blank or wrote “ice breakers and team building exercises”.

We went outside and stood in a circle in the parking lot  holding our slips of paper. We dropped our slips into the trash car. The facilitator doused the paper with lighter fluid and lit a match.

It was a windy. Flaming paper flew out of the trash can. What we wanted to leave behind came back to haunt us. One of our teammates got singed on the side of her head before the lid was slammed on the trash can and the fire was snuffed out. We then went back inside to reflect on what we’d learned.

Ice breakers and retreats may put the fun in dysfunctional teams. But at the end of the day, the team’s still broken and causing grief for its members and the entire organization.  This is especially true if the toxic team’s at the top of your org chart.

“The problems facing teams are serious, but instead of fixing serious teamwork problems with serious solutions, most team-building sessions focus on fun or frivolous activities like cooking classes or white-water rafting,” says Liane Davey, author of You First and VP for Global Solutions and Team Effectiveness at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. “I guess the idea is that if you can have fun outside the office, maybe you can recapture the fun back in the office. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.”

Davey says there are five types of toxic teams.

There’s the crisis junkie team that only pulls together when there’s an urgent and immediate threat.

There’s the homogenized bobble head team.

The apathetic spectator team with members who show up for meetings, sit down and immediately check out.

The bleeding back team takes conflict underground and makes decisions through back channels.

And the ego-clashing royal rumble team is rife with personal agendas, shouting matches and vicious vendettas.

Maybe you think you can get your job done by sidestepping a toxic team and going it alone. Think again.

“Teams are the way we get work done,” says Davey. “Organizations need teams to live up to their promise instead of getting mired in dysfunction. Getting teams healthy will pay off richly in terms of productivity, innovation and risk management.”

You don’t fix a toxic team by playing games. You flush out the toxin by living up to five responsibilities. It’s a short list that Davey says is simple in theory yet difficult in practice.

Start with a positive assumption. Value what your teammates bring to the table.

Add your full value. Don’t be a spectator.

Amplify other voices. “Loan your credibility and your airtime to teammates whose minority perspectives are usually shut out of the discussion.”

Know when to say no. A team that tries to do everything invariably gets nothing done. Lose your own fear of missing out.

Embrace productive conflict and fight the good fight.

Everyone  needs to put these responsibilities into practice. The good news is a toxic team can be cured even if the leader’s clueless, a bully or bobblehead.

“Each and every team I’ve seen recover from dysfunction has been led by one brave soul who looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he or she saw. And instead of waiting for everyone else to change, that person decided to go first. Each and every team that got healthy had one member who would trust without being trusted. One person who would respond to hostility with curiousity. One person who would stand up for the teammate who others were shutting down.”

And that person can be you. Starting today.