After a newly hired employee comes on board, everything may seem glorious. The new person is in active learning mode, guided by his or her boss. That superior will invariably be proud of the skills of the individual and what they are achieving together. Anything seems possible.

But over time, that shifts. Familiarity can breed both contempt and, more frequently, contentment. New challenges and learning are forgotten. Yes, there may be promotions and shifts in jobs. But usually those occur by happenstance, except for a few select high potentials whose soaring arcs we plot.

Otherwise, career development is like a hamster wheel, with lots of activity but no movement beyond the existing pathway.

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Managers want smooth production. So they essentially settle for the output the staff give them, perhaps grumbling, but not strategically planning to have existing staff perform at a higher level. If things are fairly smooth, why rock the boat, putting people in new positions? As psychologist Carol Dweck has highlighted, we adopt a fixed mindset of our subordinates’ possibilities rather than the more beneficial growth mindset.

Build an A Team, a book coming out next week by venture capitalist Whitney Johnson, challenges that system by trying to apply the ideas of disruptive innovation to careers. My original instinct was to upchuck. Have we not been overwhelmed enough with disruptive innovation spiels?

But Ms. Johnson, who co-founded a venture-capital firm with Mr. Disruptive Innovation, Clayton Christensen, does offer an important way to view your workplace charges and, indeed, your own careers.

Venture capitalists employ an S-curve model to gauge how quickly an innovation will be adopted and penetrate a market – and when it will fade out. She suggests there is also an S-curve of learning for people, with a rapid build-up that starts from inexperience, moves through deeper engagement and then levels off with mastery.

At that point, you need to make sure the person starts on a new S-curve, just like an entrepreneurial firm would ideally not drift along but try to find new bursts of growth.

That’s not easy, not just because contentment so easily settles in.

In my first managerial role, our unit consisted of three people, including me. The requirements of our work and thin staff limited the options for growth. But in some ways, I was more sensitive to the issue at that point – we were all young, thirsting for more scope – than when I was managing 45 people and obsessing over everything but growth potential.

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I have a millennial grandson, a chef, who stays at a restaurant until he stops learning. Then he moves on. That may just be him, but so much written about millennials indicates many or most in his generation have a similar thirst for learning. So managers must be alert to this, mapping their team’s S-curves along with staff and managing for individual growth.

Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth, studied successful people and found they saw themselves as serial achievers. He points to Venus Williams. What first comes to mind is that she is a tennis player. She certainly achieved mastery. But she is also an entrepreneur, designer and student.

Like her, we want to be good at what we do – but not specialists, hidebound and narrow. “No matter how successful they are in one pursuit, your employees have other skills they would enjoy developing and using. Regardless of how fulfilling a current business job may be, they all have other things they would enjoy doing too – especially if they got paid to do them. For your employees, that’s a genuine win-win,” he writes on the Change This site.

It can be a win-win for the boss as well. But too often managers are oblivious to the possibilities. Except for a glowing few whom they cultivate carefully, they write off most of the staff, either because they are dismissive of their abilities or they don’t want to grapple with the complications of helping them grow in a world of bottom-line pressures and continual deadlines. It’s simpler to let things be.

But that’s only beneficial for the very short term. So challenge yourself and then challenge the people you lead. Disrupt – improve – their careers.


  • What went wrong this week? What have you done to avoid it happening again?
  • What you don’t know can hurt you, says blogger Ron Edmondson. Another gem: The little things are often bigger deals and cause more problems in an organization than the big things.
  • The Fawcett Society, named after British suffragist Millicent Fawcett whose statue this week became the first of a woman in Parliament Square, called for quotas to get more women in key positions in politics, business and the arts. “Equality won’t happen on its own. We have to make it happen. That is why we are calling for time-limited use of quotas and making all jobs flexible by default,” said the organization’s chief executive, Sam Smethers.

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