Idea in Brief
The S Curve of Learning describes the typical trajectory individuals experience in a new job: a period of slow progress, followed by a rapid ascent as learning quickens, and then culminating with a sense of mastery at the peak.
People’s positions on the curve reveal whether they are ready to seek new challenges and what kind of development plan their managers should craft for them.
Understanding employees’ curves can help managers develop succession plans, recruit talent that may need stretch roles to stay engaged, and build a team of people with diverse but complementary strengths.
Nearly a decade ago I realized that the S Curve could be a powerful career-management tool. Popularized by Everett M. Rogers, who used it to show how new ideas and technologies spread, it also describes the trajectory that people move along as they develop competence in a new domain of expertise. I call it the S Curve of Learning. Growth is slow and effortful at the outset, known as the launch point. That phase is followed by rapid upward progress as people acquire new skills and overcome setbacks: a stretch I think of as the sweet spot. At the peak is mastery—when work becomes easier, but the curve flattens because there is little left to learn. When that happens it’s time to jump to the bottom of a new S Curve, put in the effort, and experience the thrill of climbing again.
The S Curve of Learning doesn’t just help people build their careers. It’s also valuable for managers—a simple visual they can use to start conversations with their reports and make decisions about their teams. Zoom in, and you can evaluate where an individual is on his or her curve—and then create a tailored talent-development plan that will maximize the strength of that single thread and its contribution to the whole cloth. Zoom out, and you can figure out how to weave your team’s S Curve threads together to create a harmonious tapestry.
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Once you understand the S Curve of Learning, you can apply it in a variety of ways in business. This article discusses three: talent development, succession planning, and team configuration.
Human development happens naturally. We do, after all, have growth as our default setting. But managers don’t want to be entirely at the mercy of nature; they want to proactively develop their people, and they can.
The S Curve of Learning offers managers and their teams a common language for discussions about personal growth and talent development—about people’s progress in their roles and their future with the organization. When one of your reports says, “I’m at the launch point,” you’ll know that person is struggling to gain traction. When someone says, “I’m in the sweet spot,” he or she has momentum and is feeling competent and confident. And when you hear an employee say, “I’m in mastery,” the message is clear—“I know I’m good at this, but I can’t keep doing it—I need a new challenge.”
Sumeet Shetty, a development manager in intelligent enterprise solutions at the software maker SAP, uses the S Curve of Learning adeptly. Based in Bangalore, India, Shetty is an exceptional leader and coach, recognized for his track record of building high-performance teams. How does he go about it? For starters, he has career conversations with every person on his team (currently 35 members). “I talk to my people about what they want to do now, their purpose in life, and the general direction that they want their career to go in,” Shetty says. After identifying where someone is on the learning curve, he says, “I then prepare a very customized personal development plan.” The plan lays out activities that the team member can do to get closer to his or her ideal career path. Often, Shetty assigns mentors from within SAP or outside the company, drawing on his personal network, to coach his team members. Each person’s plan also contains a minimum of two reading recommendations. “One is a technical reading—something to do with programming and computer science. The second one is completely different,” says Shetty (who also runs India’s largest professional book club). For example, he assigned one especially creative employee the Adam Grant book Originals.
Shetty meets with each team member every two weeks. All his reports are assigned to keep a reflection journal, in which they record what they’ve done, what they’ve learned, and what they see as the impact of their work on the team and the company. Half of each one-on-one meeting is spent reviewing the journal, and the other half is devoted to the personal development plan.
In these conversations, Shetty watches for leadership potential, and he’s always looking for open roles for the people who have it. A couple of years ago he put a technically focused employee—someone who’d never said he aspired to be a people manager—in charge of a small team. Shetty told the new manager: “I see that it’s possible. You can learn. And I’m happy to help you.” In a subsequent one-on-one, the employee reported that his transformation from technologist and individual contributor to leader was something Shetty had seen in him that he had not seen in himself.
Shetty views employees not just as occupants of roles the company needs but as dynamos of latent potential who can take on even bigger tasks in the future. That mindset is common among smart managers. They recruit candidates who with some investment in training and mentorship can help the company achieve its long-term goals.
Consider Brittanie Boyd. A former college athlete, Boyd worked in guest services at the stadium for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys before moving to Barclays Center, the arena for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. It wasn’t as if Boyd went unnoticed there. After a few years at the center she rose to senior manager in her department. But then Scott O’Neil, who at the time was the CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), which owns and manages the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, spotted Boyd and recognized that she was a potential star—not merely in guest services but in the sports-marketing industry. O’Neil could tell that Boyd was nearing the top of her guest services S Curve, if not perched there already. So he lured her away to HBSE with a promise: Join us, and I will give you new opportunities to grow.
“A major component driving my decision to leave Brooklyn and join HBSE was executive leadership here,” Boyd told me. O’Neil had a reputation for getting rookies off the bench and teaching them to play new positions.
Boyd advanced quickly in the HBSE organization, rising from director of guest experience to vice president of business operations—a serious vertical leap. O’Neil had prepared her for it by setting her up with another experienced mentor. “Go talk to Donna Daniels,” O’Neil told her. “Do a few projects for her.” At that time, Daniels was EVP of business operations. Characteristically, Boyd caught on fast. She began helping Daniels manage key arena partners like suppliers of food and beverages and merchandise. This took place long before business operations became her de facto job. But O’Neil’s philosophy was always something along the lines of “Go do the job you want to have, and someday it will be yours.”
Keeping people who’ve reached the mastery stage in a role for too long carries risks. An employee can become complacent or a flight risk.
Managers like Shetty and O’Neil sometimes spot the right new S Curves for their reports before those people themselves do. Then it’s time for a push. For Boyd, the push came when O’Neil made her his chief marketing officer. Boyd felt some entirely understandable trepidation. She knew the role would come with a steep learning curve of its own, and she’d be starting from the launch point. But O’Neil saw that even if Boyd didn’t know the specific job terrain, she knew how to grow. His approach is to give employees the courage to see themselves not as a different job title but as a different person—someone with mastery in a new domain. Learn, leap, repeat.
Of course, not everyone in an organization will have the same vision for an employee. Some might not automatically support a role change or a neophyte trainee from another department. O’Neil acknowledges that Boyd’s most recent promotion was met with questions: “She’s the senior vice president of marketing? How much marketing experience does she have?” His response was “Does it really matter? She’s smart, and she hires extraordinary people and builds great teams.”
It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about the importance of succession planning. We generally think of it as preparing a person to step into a role when its current occupant moves on to something new. It’s a critical task for any organization.
But that view of succession planning is incomplete. In addition to thinking about “Who next for the organization?” great managers are always considering “What next for the individual?” Doing this well involves anticipating which people might move on and when, identifying team members who might assume this role, and then thinking about those who could backfill that role.
Shetty says, “I look at my team as a portfolio of S Curves. If your people are on the right S Curve and you give them the support, the portfolio will neatly organize itself.”
Managing this portfolio is similar to playing a chess game. Unlike checkers, which are all the same and move the same way, chess pieces are different and serve unique purposes. A good chess player, like a good leader, understands the individual moves of the various pieces and can deploy them in complementary roles. A great leader (or chess player) can coordinate those roles while thinking several moves ahead.
But S Curve gurus know that people aren’t as predictable as pawns. People are not objects to be acted on but free agents, capable of acting for themselves. They can leave our chessboard and go play for someone else. They don’t have a set of prescribed moves, and they can’t fill the same role forever. If their managers can’t find a way to steepen their learning curves, they will eventually move to new organizations and new managers who can.
Retaining talent demands not only reading the signals but understanding how your employees are interpreting your reactions. Do they know that you recognize when they’re getting restless and looking for a new challenge? Is it clear from your conversations that you have the same perception of their position on their S Curve of Learning and have a growth plan for them? Where a manager thinks people are on the curve is less relevant than where the employees think they are.
The S Curve of Learning Framework helps you anticipate these moments, rather than having them sneak up on you. You can see when the high-contribution sweet spot is about to yield to mastery, and shortly thereafter, boredom and stagnation. Keeping people who’ve reached the mastery stage in a role for too long carries risks. An employee can become complacent or a flight risk. And if, as an organization or team, most of your people are in the sweet spot, humming along, you may be courting the danger that your entire team could suddenly be in mastery, setting off a wave of departures. Counter these risks with succession planning for each individual.
Kara Goldin is the founder and CEO of Hint, which makes an all-natural fruit-infused water. In a little more than a dozen years, Hint reached $150 million in revenue—the kind of fast-paced growth that requires a leader to think ahead. One day Goldin asked one of her top employees, “Do you like what you’re doing?” He replied, “I love what I’m doing.” Goldin’s surprising response? “You should really hire someone to replace you.” Her reasoning: Despite his happiness, the employee would soon reach the mastery point and become bored. Finding and training his successor would provide a fresh challenge—and allow him to look for another opportunity within the company while he did it.
The best time for both types of succession planning—individual and organizational—is when things are going well. If you haven’t prepared someone to assume a role when the person currently in it moves on, your team will suffer a decline in productivity while you recruit, hire, and onboard a successor. Goldin advises her employees not to wait for annual reviews but to say constantly to senior management: “Listen, I love my job; I really enjoy what I’m doing. I feel I’m performing really well, but what else can I be doing?” In other words they should ask, What is the succession plan for me? What can I add to my role? What is my next role?
When Eric Schmidt was the CEO of Google, he hired Patrick Pichette to be its chief financial officer. (Pichette is now a partner at Inovia Capital and the chairman of the board of Twitter.) Before arriving at Google, Pichette had already served as the president of operations at Bell Canada and before that as the vice president and CFO of another Canadian telecom company. At first, Pichette had little interest in a third tour in operations. “The job was not what I wanted at all,” he told me.
Schmidt understood the challenge of hiring an employee who was already in mastery on the S Curve of the CFO role—and that it would mean offering a continuing stream of new learning opportunities. In selling Pichette on the role, Schmidt acknowledged that Pichette’s previous experience as a CFO was both a positive and a negative. “After 18 months you’ll be completely bored. I’ll tell you what. I’ll hire you as CFO, and every time it looks like you are about to lose interest, I’m going to add stuff onto your plate,” Schmidt promised. Over the next seven years, Pichette’s duties expanded beyond his CFO role to include people operations, real estate, employee services, Google Fiber (which offers broadband access), and Google.org (the tech giant’s nonprofit arm).
Building an A Team
It’s important to support all your team members, regardless of where each person is on the journey to mastery. Ask yourself, Would a wise investor put all her money into just one or two companies? The answer is a hard no. Likewise, a wise leader wouldn’t stake a team’s success on just a few employees in the sweet spot. You want people who have a variety of aptitudes and ambitions, and you want a balanced portfolio of people at different stages of growth. People in mastery have deep experience, people at the launch point bring fresh perspectives, and those in the sweet spot have both the enthusiasm and competence to breathe life into a project. Although every team is different, many look like a bell curve, with most members in the sweet spot at any given time and a small percentage of people at the launch point and in mastery. When putting together a team, smart leaders make sure they have people on all major phases of the curve—what I call a matched team.
Dan Miller, who has been a manager on the supply chain side of the business at Under Armour for nearly a decade, believes that a team comprising people at different stages of the curve is better equipped not only to put out today’s fires but also to fight the new kinds of fires that may develop tomorrow. He explains: “If I think a process is broken—or there’s an opportunity—I typically bring in field experts, people who would, on that specific topic or project, be at the mastery level. But then I also bring in people who are aware of the process but are in the entry-level phase of the project. I do that to inspire creativity.”
One of the best ways to generate new ideas and thinking is to give people in mastery a nudge. Miller says, “When I feel somebody is in that complacency stage or nearing it, that’s when I really start to push into hyper gear to get them leaping to something.” Challenging an employee in mastery to take on a new role can have a high ROI. The employee becomes a novice again and commits to an unfamiliar learning area. And rapid growth is in the offing when that person traverses the slow phase of the curve and tips into the sweet spot, unlocking latent innovative capacity.
When you throw people into challenging jobs that they’re not completely prepared for, you need to make sure they have a great support team.
Many leaders I speak with—and perhaps you—sometimes worry that pushing employees at the top of their S Curves back to the launch point is a risk they can ill afford. People who are excelling in their roles are by definition valuable in those roles. So how do you help them grow without losing that value?
It can be done—as Kraft Heinz demonstrates. The global food giant thinks about the S Curve of Learning when considering who might be given a stretch role. “We usually like to promote people to roles that they are not ready for,” says global chief people officer Melissa Werneck. “It cannot be zero experience, but if you wait for someone to be 100% ready for that specific job, I think the curiosity in them, the daring to do better every day, won’t necessarily be there.”
Take Yang Xu. As senior vice president for global treasury, “Yang was at the top of the S Curve with treasury,” Werneck recalls. “We needed her experience there. I said, ‘Look, we cannot afford not having Yang in here. But we need to offer Yang a new experience in order for her to have some butterflies in the stomach.’” Treasury is an external-facing role, and Werneck wanted Xu to move into global business, taking on a COO-type role where she would need to understand the internal workings of the vast company—and functions like pricing and manufacturing. And that meant moving, in the literal sense, to Amsterdam. Xu recalls feeling “tons of butterflies” in her stomach, just as Werneck intended. But Xu also recognizes these types of reassignments are part of Kraft Heinz’s distinctive culture. “It’s this unique combination of putting people in before they’re ready and giving them ownership,” she says.
When you throw people into challenging jobs that they’re not completely prepared for, you need to make sure they have a great support team. Werneck says she approached that task by asking, “What portfolio of S Curves do I need to put in place around Yang so that she is successful in this new role?” Werneck’s approach became the model for the matched portfolio. “My first conversation with Yang about M&A was, ‘You need to really build your team. You are very strong on this, this, this, and this. You need to bring someone that complements you on X, Y, and Z.’” Since Xu was new to the role, that meant bringing in a few people near the top of their curves to complement her position at the launch point.
Pamay Bassey, Kraft Heinz’s chief learning and diversity officer, says building the matched portfolio is like the game Tetris. Every block—every person—can play a crucial role. But leaders have to be at the ready to fit these unique individuals into the organizational structure, where they can both find support and give support to others.
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In our work at Disruption Advisors we increasingly meet with leaders who find the S Curve of Learning to be a helpful management concept. Great managers use it to facilitate conversations about personal growth and talent development. It helps them identify where employees are in their progress in various roles and prepare effective succession plans for both the organization and individuals. And by visualizing their team as a portfolio of S Curves, they can make sure its members complement and balance one another—and are prepared to win, whatever the future may bring.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company, by Whitney Johnson (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022).