The growth ecosystem

Whitney Johnson

As the weeks went by during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most countries were shutdown to at least some degree – industry shuttered, entertainment canceled, citizens mostly confined to home – the absence of human activity had one beneficial effect. The ecosystems we live in started to repair themselves. Water was cleaner, fish and aquatic mammals more readily seen, air pollution declined, and light pollution as well; there were more stars visible in the night sky. Wildlife reinhabited parks and natural places where sightseers usually push animals to the margins.

Ecosystems are fragile, but when at their healthy best they nurture life and growth in amazing, almost miraculous ways. Workplace ecosystems are similar. Healthy ones foster growth, both individual and organizational. Toxic ones, polluted by poor strategy and leadership, or no strategy and leadership, are growth stranglers. High growth organizations require high growth individuals and demand an ecosystem that fosters proactive people development.

Businesses can’t be disruptive unless the individuals within them are. Workplace ecosystems are an example of this; a single leader or two providing learning opportunities for their team members, coupled with contributors who want to learn, can be enough to disrupt a stagnant situation, stir it up and create growth possibilities. There can be a healthy micro-ecosystem within a larger one that isn’t as productive. Each of us can initiate an ecosystem overhaul with the potential to change the organization. Our contributors do want to learn; one of the critical data points gathered by Gallup’s annual survey demonstrates that pathways to learning and growth are at least as important as compensation in job decision-making for a majority of respondents. My own research sustains this data. Here are a few examples:

Erik Bursch was good at his job and his team was delivering, but he was ready to learn something new. He was running a cloud platform within the Technology division of Gannett and he believed that if he could put himself in a new environment, the organization could learn and grow along with him. Bursch could have looked outside Gannett for a new opportunity – many people do – but he liked Gannett, had been with them for over a decade, and had relationships throughout the company. He decided to reach out to Jason Jedlinski, SVP Consumer Products, and proposed combining their engineering teams.

Jedlinski was receptive and helped facilitate Bursch’s shift to a new role as one of his direct reports. Bursch was able to bring his deep domain expertise in the full software development cycle and learned how to freshly apply it in Product. As Bursch said, “I was really seeking the challenge of aligning technology advancement to support a product vision. Being able to have a larger impact on our business gave me and my team the thrill and excitement that comes with a brand new job, without losing momentum and expertise.”

The organization benefited too. As Jedlinski told me, “The skills and innovative mindset Erik brought to our product team have resulted in better architecture, cost management, operational discipline, incident response, quality control, and career paths for developers.”

Bursch’s experience exemplifies the symbiotic learning relationship between an employee and an organization. High-growth individuals who embrace new learning make the organization smarter and contribute to its growth, but they can’t do it alone. They need their managers to have a reciprocal interest in individual growth and create a learning ecosystem to foster it. Jedlinski was key in opening doors to both Bursch’s learning and his own. He drew on an interesting and disparate educational and career background to be open-minded to change and growth. “I always loved being in environments where I was not the smartest person in the room. I did not have all the answers and I could pick up and soak up as much as I could like a sponge,” he told me.

Like a biological ecosystem, organizations are either growing or they’re dying. And organizations grow when their employees are learning. If you want a high-growth organization, you need to create a learning ecosystem to support high-growth individuals – to expose them to new and challenging opportunities before their roles become stale.

People may stay in one place indefinitely, but, in most cases, they can’t keep growing there forever. When they’re no longer stimulated and engaged by their work, their benefit to the organization is diminished. At that point, an employee may be left to languish in place or forced to leave. Their accumulated expertise and institutional memory are lost in the process. Worse, they may take their learning to a competitor – a potentially exponential loss.

Companies need to see that a high-growth employee who loves to learn is a very valuable asset and a resource worthy of investment. Redeploying them on a new learning curve within the organization keeps their expertise in-house and allows them to share and build on it – a potentially exponential gain.

This doesn’t mean every employee has to stay, and of course, not everyone will. But it’s worth trying to retain promising, curious people by allowing them to move to a new role when they start becoming disengaged – just like Bursch’s manager did when he was agitating for a new opportunity.

Diane Dietz, CEO of Rodan + Fields, has been creating learning ecosystems throughout her career. She says, “I do think it’s important to balance your desire to keep someone versus what their desire is and if you do have someone that wants to go do something else, I’ve always tried to be really supportive, but also ask, ‘Is there anything I can do personally to keep you? A different job? A different role?’” Dietz herself had evolved from sales to marketing in her early roles at Proctor & Gamble and was running the Oral Care Division, a multibillion-dollar business, while still quite young. She credits Susan Arnold to whom she reported, and P&G CEO at the time, John Pepper, with being great leaders who created a lively, vital ecosystem for employee progress within the organization. She aspired to become that kind of leader.

As a leader Dietz says she tries “not to look at cookie cutter backgrounds.” She famously arranged for Jocelyn Wong, educated as an engineer and working in R&D at P&G, to move to marketing, as unconventional a leap from one learning curve to another as I can imagine. Wong didn’t enjoy engineering – it was more a parental dream than her own – and, unhappy in her role, was considering leaving the organization. Dietz saw latent creative talent that was not being tapped and helped broker Wong’s move to her own team. Wong later followed Dietz to Safeway and has since been the chief marketing officer at Family Dollar (now Dollar General) and is currently CMO at Lowes. What a loss to Dietz, Wong, P&G, Safeway, Family Dollar, and Lowes if Wong had been forever trapped in an environment that didn’t promote her growth and nourish her personal ambitions.

Wong pays the benefits of positive management ecosystems forward. She mentored Matt Martin at P&G when he made an unusual career move and later brought him over to her team when she was with Family Dollar. When she eventually moved on to Lowes, Martin replaced her as the CMO of Dollar General. A heathy ecosystem is regenerative.

Biological ecosystems have the concept of carrying capacity, which refers to the number of people, other living organisms, and/or crops that an area can support without environmental degradation. Growth occurs until the limit of resources is reached.

People can also grow in a workplace until they reach the limit on their resources for new learning. At the beginning, or the low-end of what I call the S-Curve of Learning, there’s a lot of room for growth; but as we master our role and ultimately reach the top of that learning curve, we begin to flatline. There’s less “food and water” for our brain as we reach the carrying capacity of that curve. Growth slows then stops and we get bored. And if this is common in the organization, it will begin to flatline too.

Managers can also orchestrate new learning by pushing employees – even reluctant ones – onto new curves. During her tenure at Rovi, a 2,500-employee digital media software company, Chief Human Resources Officer Eileen Schloss realized that two of her HR teams were locked in conflict. “The HR business partners tended to complain that jobs weren’t getting filled fast enough for their client managers,” said Schloss. “The talent people felt the HR business partners didn’t adequately convey what it took to fill a role.”

She asked the heads of each team to trade places. “This forced switch in perspective made a huge difference. Neither of them had the experience initially to perform the new job, but they had enough knowledge of the business generally, and they had people working for them who understood the specifics,” she said. “This purposeful shakeup improved understanding within each function, as well as capabilities.”

Deliberate disruption of employees who had mastered their own role, but knew little about their colleague’s responsibilities, developed a more robust understanding of the holistic functioning of HR, and how to improve it.

Job swapping is only one strategy to put employees on new learning curves, help break down silos, and maximize shared organizational learning. Ongoing training and educational opportunities, job sharing, mentoring, and outreach programmes are a few other examples. You can get creative in how you mix things up, move people around, and offer employees new opportunities.

By creating an ecosystem that fuels continued learning, an organization builds capacity ahead of the competition. And research indicates that the companies that survive are those that develop capacity – new technical skills and domain expertise, greater adaptability, and ways of leveraging institutional memory – before they need it.1 This capacity weakens when too many good people leave for greener pastures.

A lively ecosystem – where different parts interact with one another – helps people grow, generates capacity, and keeps the ecosystem flourishing. An early 20th-century scholar, Thomas Troward, wrote, “Life ultimately consists in circulation, whether within the physical body of the individual or on the scale of the entire solar system; and circulation means a continual flowing around, and the spirit of opulence is no different … If we choke the outlet the current must slacken, and a full and free flow can be obtained only by keeping it open.”

Most people live in multiple ecosystems, sometimes, but not always consecutively and in their personal lives as well as at work. One of my podcast guests was Dr. Gregory Haile, president of Broward College in Florida, one of the 10 largest community colleges in the United States. He has moved through radically different ecosystems with tremendous growth entailed. He grew up in Queens, New York in the historically troubled neighbourhood of South Jamaica. His childhood was in the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, and the area was drug- and crime-riddled and extremely dangerous. His home was made more secure by barred windows. Neighbours were victims of sometimes fatal violent crimes and on one occasion a bullet came through his living room window, following a shooting right in front of his house.

To him, this was normal but to his mother it was not. She wanted her son in a different ecosystem and that required becoming a change agent herself and enlisting him in the effort at an early age. They couldn’t move, so, he recounts, “My mother made what I thought was a really powerful decision and that was to essentially lie about my address, to send me to school in a better neighbourhood.” This was about third grade. “She decided to send me to a school in an area called Kew Gardens in Queens … and as I continue to reflect on the change that she created, just by frankly lying about my address, it really did have a significant impact on the rest of my life.”

It was in the environment of this more prosperous school that Haile was first introduced to the concept of higher education. He heard the word college from a classmate in sixth grade, a “conversation that would prove to be incredibly potent.” It needed to be potent, to have staying power, because by high school, the address fiction couldn’t be sustained. Haile was forced to attend the high school in his home neighbourhood, an institution with some of the highest rates of HIV and teen pregnancy in New York and one of the first to have metal detectors installed at its entrance. “My mother told me: ‘You’re going to go to this high school and you’re going to make it, and I promise you that if you can make it there, there won’t be any place where you can’t make it’ … she spoke with nothing but confidence about that.”

Haile comes from a very large extended family – well over 100 cousins – but it was a loving family, much of it located in South Carolina where his mother and her 12 siblings were raised. The neighbourhood ecosystem was one factor in his life, but the family ecosystem was a different, redeeming element. Haile was the first in his extended family to graduate from college, Arizona State University, his college choice because it was geographically distant from Queens. “I had a tremendous sense of discomfort as soon as I arrived. And the reason for that discomfort was because I realized immediately that there were no metal detectors to get into the building … How could this possibly be safe?” He also discovered he wasn’t college ready. He was mentored by professors, one of whom told Haile he might be the best student he’d ever had. A game and life changer. Ultimately the ASU Dean of Students steered him toward pursuing a JD, and college was followed by law school at Columbia University.

Haile shared an insight gained when he returned to his high school alma mater, “Think about all the kids who went through my high school or the many high schools in America where there are multiple layers of metal detection between the inside of the school and the outside, and the need for people to come back and say, ‘On the other side of these metals detectors is success, is the potential for opportunity.’”

He practiced law in Florida for a time, but education is his calling and the students at Broward are his passion.

They are, he says, like he was. The majority are first generation college students, many require remedial education, and most are financially deprived. They represent over 150 countries of origin. Some are homeless. There are transportation challenges and single parents working full time who do their homework in the middle of the night. “When those are the folks who are serving themselves and you get the pleasure and gift of serving, how do you not want to do that for as long as you possibly can?” he asks.

Regenerating the ecosystem

If individuals aren’t learning, neither is the organization, neither is society. It becomes like stagnant water with the outlet choked off: unmoving, increasingly algae ridden, and surfaced with scum. It’s the opposite of a flowing river or the power of the ocean tides. The good news is that an ecosystem can be disrupted by a handful of people who want to learn and foster learning. Change doesn’t have to be imposed from the top or include a whole organization to start. When individuals disrupt themselves, institutions become disruptive. When we facilitate learning, even require it of individuals, we create new carrying capacity for growth throughout our ecosystem. If we don’t … well, we live or die by the growth of people.

Whitney Johnson is CEO and founder of boutique consultancy WLJ Advisors. Formerly a cofounder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, and a double-ranked Institutional Investor- ranked equity analyst on Wall Street, Johnson wrote the award-winning Disrupt Yourself (Harvard Business Press) and is a LinkedIn Top Voice with 1.8 million followers. She is a Thinkers50-ranked thinker.


1 Paul Nunes and Tim Breene, “Jumping the S-curve,” Accenture;