Whitney Johnson
Disrupt Yourself


I was an award-winning sell-side analyst, something I scarcely could have imagined when I graduated from college, and now I was thinking about walking away.
Fifteen years earlier, my husband and I had arrived in New York so he could pursue his PhD at Columbia University.  I had been terrified. I would never have gone to New York on my own.  I was told all sorts of horror stories before we'd arrived, like people will cut off your finger to get your wedding ring.  For the first week, I wouldn't go anywhere without my husband.
Eventually I had to go out and look for a job so we could put food on the table.  Because we were in New York, I wanted to work on Wall Street.  But it wasn't easy.  As a music major, I'd never set foot in an accounting, finance or economics course, I was shy on confidence, had zero connections and women who went to Wall Street started as secretaries.  So that's what I did.
Across from my Working Girl-ish type desk was a bullpen which was essentially a locker room for twenty-something guys aspiring to become masters of the universe.  Because the pressure was so intense in this testosterone-filled room, they inevitably went for the hard sell in opening new accounts, saying things like "Throw down your pom-poms and get in the game."  Initially I was offended, because I was a cheerleader in high school.
But about six months in, after hearing throw down your pom-poms yet one more time, I realized I needed to throw down my pom-poms and get in my game, and figure out how to move up the food chain.  My husband's degree was going to take 5-7 years to complete.  Would I really be happy without a bigger challenge?  And why I thought would I be content to earn x if 10x were a possibility?
I remember thinking -- I may not have an Ivy League degree, and I'm not a man, and no I don't know anyone, but hadn't I faced a similar situation in college?  Prior to college I'd only studied classical piano, never jazz.  No women had ever played piano in the university jazz band Synthesis.  I wanted in. I remember declaring to a group of about sixty women my sophomore year that I was going to play in Synthesis.  And I did.  In fact we traveled as a band to the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Couldn't I do the same on Wall Street? I started taking accounting and finance courses at night, and after three years of hard work, and a little luck, as in I had a boss who was willing to sponsor me, I moved up the food chain from secretary to investment banker.
Supplemental Video:
Disrupt Yourself
Question:  Have you ever wanted to do something, but you couldn't walk in the front door, so you walked in the side / back, or built your own door?

Seven years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to move into one of the most prestigious groups within investment banking, Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A). I did everything I could to persuade the higher-ups that I could do this, that I would do this.  The answer was a resoundingly polite non-answer.  I was a woman, and i was pregnant.  You can't do this job with a young child.  Will you even come back?  Sting as this did, bumping up against this glass ceiling led me to rethink my career trajectory, and to take what many considered a step back, including me, and to move into equity research.

Equity research turned out to be a career maker for me.  It's when I learned what all disruptors know; look for what you do well that others didn't.  Sure, there were certain pay-to-play skills that I had acquired like learning to do financial analysis.  I had also needed to improve my writing skills in order to persuasively communicate a 'buy' or 'sell' opinion on a stock.  There were plenty of people who could calculate and communicate as well if not better than me. What propelled me were the 'smarts' that many might have considered non-essential, and even dismissed.

Supplemental readings:
Disrupt Yourself
To Get Paid What You're Worth, Know Your Disruptive Skills
Get Ahead at Work, Learn to Talk Out of School

Question: Have you ever taken what your peers might have considered a step back, perhaps in popularity or status, in order to slingshot forward?

Musical intelligence, for example, isn’t just about playing an instrument, or learning a new language, though speaking a foreign language did come in handy in the emerging markets.  Musical intelligence is also about the principles of organization, whether a presentation, conference or event. Many of my clients and colleagues remember well a trip I organized to visit Ing. Carlos Slim.  A conversation in his private library about his favorite books gave investors insight into what motivates one of the world’s billionaires, and the controlling shareholder of America Movil, one of the stocks I covered.

I also relied on interpersonal intelligence: the ability to look at the behavior and feelings of others, figuring out their motivations.  Whether publicly traded or privately-held companies, I spend a lot of time analyzing the personalities of the controlling shareholders and senior management of the companies. One of my best stock calls of moving from a sell to a buy has been due, in part, to making a determination about the personal motivations of a controlling shareholder.

Supplemental reading:
There Are So Many Ways To Be Smart

Question:  As you think about your career, what are your pay-to-play skills?  What do you do outstandingly well?  How can you combine these skills?  If the marketplace doesn’t recognize or value this particular type of smarts initially, even better — that will become your competitive edge.

After eight years in equity research, I was Institutional Investor double-ranked, at the top of the food chain, and contemplating another round of disruption.  I had hit a glass ceiling, I wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and to focus more on the art of mothering.  But, in contrast to the beginning of my career when there was nowhere to go but up, there was a lot of downside. Leaving Wall Street meant giving up status and security when just a year earlier my husband had left academia so as to help further my career, and to provide our children with more hands-on parenting.  It was the the innovator's dilemma. If I left, I would lose something. if I stayed, I would die inside a little.

What I instinctively knew then, but have come to learn more theoretically is that disrupting myself is a risk worth taking.  Even though might we may fail, the odds of success are 6x higher, and the revenue opportunity are 20x greater when we pursue a disruptive course.  And either because of, or as a consequence of, when we jump to a new learning curve, we are 'unstuck' and enjoy the feel-good effects of learning, of dopamine.  And we are happy.  And that is the life I want to live.

So I dared to disrupt myself, and jumped.

Supplemental reading:
Why I Still Dream of Having It All
Throw Your Life a Curve

What would you do in this situation?