CxO, disrupt yourself: How to prepare for a better future in the next normal

Whitney Johnson, one of the world's top innovation and disruption theorists, helps us to better understand how individuals and organizations can navigate through these uncertain times, by applying disruption theory to the way we work and grow.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Whitney Johnson is the CEO of WLJ Advisors and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. She is an expert on helping high-growth organizations develop high-growth individuals. Whitney is an award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School's Corporate Learning and an executive coach and advisor to CEOs. She is a popular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, has 1.7 million followers on LinkedIn, where she was selected as a Top Voice in 2018, and her course on Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship has been viewed more than 1 million times.


Whitney Johnson, CEO of WLJ Advisors

An innovation and disruption theorist, Johnson is the author of the bestselling Build an "A" Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, and the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.  In these books, she codifies her frameworks for developing high-growth individuals and organizations – the Personal Disruption and the S Curve of Learning frameworks. As a former award-winning Wall Street stock analyst, Whitney understands momentum and growth.

Johnson was the co-founder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen, through which they invested in and led the $8 million seed round for South Korea's Coupang, currently valued at more than $9 billion. She was involved in fund formation, capital raising, and the development of the fund's strategy.

To help us better understand how individuals and organizations can navigate through these uncertain times, by apply disruption theory to we work and grow, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Whitney Johnson to join our weekly show DisrupTV. Johnson was our first guest when Wang and I launched our weekly video podcast in 2016, and now she appeared on episode 201 as our 616th interview in four years. Here are my main takeaways of our conversation with Whitney Johnson: 

  1. Defining and honoring your boundaries. Johnson shared a story about a deer eating all of the tomatoes in her backyard vegetable farm. Initially Johnson was upset and offended about the deer crossing the line. But upon reflection, she asked, "had the deer really crossed the boundary, or simply playing inside of her boundary?" The deer had an objective; the deer needed to eat or feed her young. When we were kids we had bumper cars with clear boundaries. But today as adults, we do not have clarity on our boundaries. We are all going after our own sustenance objectives but we only become aware of our boundaries when they are crossed. If we do not know where our boundaries are, how can others know if they are crossing our boundaries. Once the boundaries are crossed, we stop viewing the person as the one who crossed our boundary. We may also be crossing other people's boundaries if we are not mindful of the bumps and boundaries that we experience as adults. "When someone crosses one of our boundaries, we take it as a personal affront. We think she or he did whatever it was to us. We tend to think the action was deliberate when the truth is, there is often no malicious intent involved," said Johnson. 

  2. You have to be willing to disrupt ourselves. When you are in the middle of disruptive times, it may feel like you are drowning in it. - a place where you feel like you are caught in a swell, rocking back and forth. The key is to position yourself to ride the waves of disruption. You have to ask yourself: What can I do differently right now to ride the wave? A crisis is an opportunity to reset yourself and to become even stronger and better. Use the situation to evaluate your routines, tackle projects that were delayed in the past. Johnson advises CEOs to disrupt themselves. When leaders demonstrate a pivot, they are also showing others, and giving others permission, to disrupt themselves. Focus is not about doing less. Focus is about doing more of what matters most. In her book, "Disrupt Yourself", Johnson talks about winners quitting all the time - they quit the right stuff at the right time. 

3. Learn to declare victory. When you reach your daily goals, it is okay to pause, slow down or simply stop and declare victory. Johnson talked about the challenge of making to-do lists in order to stay focused and productive. Johnson said it is okay to be done. If you had a list of 10 things to do, and you finished the 10 things, and then declare victory instead of adding to the list. 

4. Soft skills are even more important in a work-from-anywhere culture. Johnson talked about the importance of soft skills in a distributed and digital only work environments. Hiring for potential is key but collaboration technologies are leveraged to better understand engagement models and effective teamwork. The soft skills are more important because of the added stress and mental depletion during these uncertain times. 

5. Bring your whole self to everything that you do. Johnson worked with Clayton Christensen for eight years. Johnson shared an important life and leadership lesson that she learned from Professor Christensen. Johnson said that  Christensen was a person who did not compartmentalize his spiritual life and secular work arena. He also brought his academic training into his spiritual life. He brought all of himself to the workplace and when engaged with others.

In our interview, Johnson talked about several ways she is disrupting herself during the pandemic, including developing new skills and reflecting even more on health and racial crisis. I highly encourage you to watch the entire video conversation with Whitney Johnson. 

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