Whitney Johnson was using the S shaped learning curve theory for identifying investment opportunities when she hypothesized that applying the same method to hiring might help business owners find and retain top talent.

The S shaped "diffusion of innovation"  theory, popularized by sociologist E. M. Rogers in the 1960s, is used by business owners to describe and predict the performance of a company or product over time. Johnson believes the theory can be utilized to create a strong staff. It's the basis for her most recent book, Build An A Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, released on Tuesday.

"Every single person on your team will love coming to work because they are learning and they are engaged," says Johnson, who is also a speaker and contributor for the Harvard Business Review. "As a boss, you become a top talent magnet and have more people who want to work for you." 

Johnson found that employees at the low end of the S shape, who are typically new or inexperienced, face challenging environments as they navigate the curve. In the middle of the S, or on the upswing, workers gain competence and confidence as they perfect skills and acquire more experience. Employees on the high end of the curve have mastered the work and may feel bored or disengaged. Johnson outlines the ways employers can strategically hire talent to better suit the needs of the company and at the same time accelerate workers' careers. Here are three ways Johnson recruits and keeps top talent.

1. Stretch them out

Johnson says the sweet spot for most employees is the middle of the S, where they are feeling confident with their work but not yet bored. To keep those people challenged and engaged, she insists leaders should both push them and vocalize that they are doing well. For instance, Johnson recommends issuing "stretch assignments," or projects that have a real risk of failure."It's about trying things that may not work, but the purpose of doing that is allowing them the space to make mistakes," Johnson says. "This way they can stretch, like rubber, and bounce back because they know you have their back."

2.  Balance failure

Challenging employees is vital, but leaders should make sure they aren't sending them on suicide missions. "Balance is key," says Johnson, who also recommends what she calls "Goldilocks assignments," projects that are difficult but not impossible (read: just right). 

If that person fails, leaders should make sure the cause wasn't a lack of effort. What's more, employers should measure the return on investment to see if the staffer learned anything from the experience, but move on if it's in the employee's best interest. "You can take the lead and identify the difference between someone who is spiraling into the shame loop or just moving on and learning from it," Johnson says. 

3. Keep them engaged and look outside the box

As an employer, it's important to recognize that new workers will be on their own learning curve. To build a strong staff, leaders must determine where a person is positioned on the  curve, keep that individual from getting bored and make sure the employee is meeting goals. Johnson calls it "learning, meeting and repeating."

Additionally, you need to keep the curve balanced. You don't want too many people on the top--and ready to move on--or at the bottom and struggling. Johnson recommends having about 70 percent of staff in the middle, sweet spot, 15 percent at the top and 15 percent on the bottom. What's more, don't discount temporary employees when maintaining that balance--that's where Johnson says the gig economy and contract workers can be useful.

Published on: May 2, 2018