The concept of the S-curve envisions career progression and its associated learning as a curved (S-shaped) line with three distinct phases: inexperience, engagement, and mastery (Johnson, 2018). In the early stage of entering a new role, the learner may experience frustration, anxiety, and even concerns about competence and ability to rise to the new requirements. These common affective responses are characteristic in the inexperience phase, and it is also in this phase where steep learning is occurring with significant feedback on successes, failures, and progress.
As the learner progresses through this stage, racking up increased successes and confidence, it is common to see increased engagement as the fears and anxieties about competency begin to wain with the development of greater capability and acknowledgement by others of those improvements. With greater engagement comes greater learning capacity, so the curve actually becomes steeper but the learner is more empowered by prior successes so it may seem more effortless as competence and capability rise in parallel fashion.
The final stage of mastery is the phase in which confidence and competence are most often actualized through mentorship of others. The end phase is characterized by ease of function, but motivation can suffer if there isn't sufficient challenge. It is at this stage or even during the later part of the engagement stage where individuals may jump to a new S-curve, meaning they take on new responsibilities that engender new learning challenges and demands. In nursing, we describe this as traversing the novice to expert trajectory; however, the S-curve concept offers an interesting way to think about career development and progression.
S-Curve of a Team
Using the S-curve concept, one can think about the mapping or distribution of S-curves across a team and what that means for team learning, capability, capacity, and innovation. In her book Build an A Team, Johnson discusses the importance of knowing and using the distribution of team members across the S-curve to maximize team talent and ability. High-functioning teams have a higher percentage of team members in the middle phase of engagement. As mentioned above, this is a steep part of the curve, but it is fueled by high levels of learner engagement, so it is the combination of learning and engagement that contributes to greater contribution and functionality. Teams that are heavily weighted in the third phase, mastery, can be at risk of disruption because of the danger of complacency and lack of stimulation causing reduced motivation. Teams that are heavily weighted in the first phase lack the overall capability levels to move forward key initiatives.
Johnson posits the optimal mix for a team of S-curves is 15% in phase one, 70% in phase two (what she calls the “sweet spot” of engagement), and 15% in phase three. Considering a team's balance and distribution of learning phases is a tool leaders can use both in recruitment and talent development, but it does demand a strategic perspective on role development, promotion, and creating a culture where “jumping to a new S-curve” is valued and supported. This is an important point to consider. For organizations where the valued norm is climbing the ladder, choosing to jump to another curve or stepping back to leap ahead can be a difficult concept. This is a concept that promotes the value of learning and contribution rather than only promotion. It is reflective of how an organization can support optimization of talent in a more nuanced and mature way. Mentors who can articulate the value of stepping back to learn new skills or gain deeper insights can have a career slingshot effect.
What Is a Professional Development Leader to Do?
Helping leaders to understand the complexity of team development and distribution of skills and knowledge as the next step beyond individual professional development is a place where the professional development leader can add significant value. Building highly effective teams requires an understanding of skill sets, knowledge, and where within the S-curve each team member and the team in aggregate is. This becomes critically important for long-range talent management of teams, but organizations must provide the cultural support to allow team members to transition and traverse their own S-curves by providing promotional opportunities that are relevant and timely, professional counseling that brings insight for high performers who may benefit from considering a change to a new S-curve, and long-range talent planning that considers a distribution of skills and learner capabilities. This is called stepping back to move forward.
Stepping back to move forward can be a difficult concept to grasp, especially within a culture where progress is only seen as moving up the ladder. Individuals who can step back or even step down to acquire additional skills and knowledge that may enable them to make big leaps forward are super-learners, and the best way to find and keep them is to create a culture that honors and values different pathways.
Development of mentorship skills around this notion of “slingshotting” is an additional learning opportunity for leaders in the third phase. “A dynamic mentoring program can help low-end curve-surfers reach competency more quickly and increase the number of workers available to take the place of high-enders as they move on to new curves” (Johnson, p. 134). Building an “A” Team is an excellent resource for leaders and can be a strong foundation for leaders to develop the skills necessary to optimize their teams for the best results.
- Johnson, W. (2018). Build an A team: Play to their strengths and lead them up the learning curve. Harvard Business Review Press.