Learning agility: The key to identifying future leaders

Most of our clients invest substantial effort and time in managing employee performance with an eye toward building their pipeline of future leaders. Who has the most technical expertise and process knowledge to lead production? Who can connect with our workforce and has with the ability to inspire? Competencies are, indeed, a necessary component of the solution, but are they the “secret sauce”? Is there something even more important that is the key to unlocking these competencies in the organization?

Today’s top performing organizations are steered by senior leaders who can navigate change, uncertainty and ambiguity with ease. They spot emerging trends quickly and independently build the skills required to address them. In short, these leaders are highly agile learners.

Empirically, ArchPoint has found that when we review history, successful senior leaders demonstrate learning agility from the very beginning of their careers. Therefore, we have found learning agility to be one of the biggest predictors of a leader’s success. You may be skeptical, but consider what learning agility really means. In their whitepaper, Learning About Learning Agility, Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris describe learning-agile individuals as “continually able to jettison skills, perspectives and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are”.

It’s like having a superpower that allows you to absorb other powers. A person who is learning-agile can learn something, file it away and pull it out of a memory reservoir when faced with a brand-new situation.

Learning agility as a concept

Learning agility was popularized by Lominger International (later acquired by Korn/Ferry) who, over decades of research, have published several thought-leading pieces on the topic. Lominger identified seven discrete profiles of learning-agile individuals (Problem Solvers, Thought Leaders, Trailblazers, Champions, Pillars, Diplomats and Energizers) and developed the Leadership Architect™ Global Competency Framework, a highly respected HR planning model built on 67 competencies  – abilities and skills that contribute to a person’s success in business which includes #32 – “Learning on the Fly.”

Lominger’s Learning Agility Architect™ is an assessment model that measures learning agility across a five-factor model (self-awareness, mental agility, change agility, people agility and results agility) and provides individuals with a methodology to develop and enhance their learning agility.

How to recognize learning-agile individuals

The consensus of thought-leaders on learning agility validates ArchPoint’s experience that individuals with high learning agility will:

  • Regularly seek – and act upon – feedback. The inability to process and learn from criticism is the ultimate killer of learning agility, since a level of self-awareness and openness is required to truly change behavior.
  • Demonstrate more innovative thinking due to their multi-dimensional view of every situation. They examine a situation from all angles, prompting more original ideas and solutions outside the norm.  What makes these individuals so valuable to organizations is that they can read the proverbial compass even in a fog. When everyone else is lost, they demonstrate an uncanny ability to define a clear path forward.
  • Possess a significant level of emotional intelligence (EQ). Not only do they possess heightened consciousness of their own strengths/weaknesses, they quickly discern subtleties in the way their words and actions are affecting others. This strength enables them to more easily connect and collaborate with others which leads to the discovery of more robust solutions.
  • Rise to a challenge. Big, bold goals are inspiring to this person and so they are often the first to walk into the fire. They are not deterred by obstacles or uncertainty. Rather, they thrive in uncertain instances because they see each challenge as a complex puzzle just waiting to be solved. They have a natural affinity for risk. They enjoy a high stakes situation because the reality of potential consequences gives them an adrenalin rush!
  • Admit they don’t have all the answers. They are incredibly curious, always working to refine their knowledge, gain new experiences and hone their expertise. They excel at asking questions and learning from others.  While they may only be asking 20% of the questions, the secret is that their questions typically generate discussion that ultimately delivers 80% of the value.

It’s easy to tell if a person who is already leading has learning agility or not, but as you move down the ladder, it becomes more difficult. My first brush with learning agility came well before my understanding of the concept. Early in my career, I worked for Macy’s Department Stores. As the company was headed into the peak holiday season, the staff recruiter for the largest store in the division resigned and I was asked to provide support. Upon my arrival, I discovered that there were no systems in place to track open jobs, files were a mess and the phone was ringing off the hook as prospective candidates called for information about their applications.  Management watched optimistically to see what would happen. They were waiting to see if I would create order out of chaos – or if I would flounder in the ambiguity of it all. This is a classic example of how “stretch assignments” can help us to spot learning agility in entry-level positions. By exposing emerging leaders to uncharted situations that require agility and critical thinking, you create learning agility “testing grounds.”

Learning agility is demonstrated in your organization every day. Just look for evidence of employees consistently solving complex problems without a lot of help and you’ll be hot on the trail.

If leaders can become more focused and sophisticated in trying to identify managers who are already demonstrating characteristics of learning agility and give them increasingly complex problems to solve, they can increase the speed at which leaders and their abilities are developed.

As in my own experience at Macy’s, leaders and HR managers can cultivate learning agility by creating safe environments for employees to build perspective, develop new skills and take risks. When a culture encourages curiosity and rewards calculated risk-taking (regardless of the consequences) the naturally agile learners will quickly become more visible. It’s very important to allow employees to experience some failure without the threat of censure or punishment. The key is how quickly and adeptly the employees learn from the failures and redirect their efforts.

The importance of learning agility beyond leadership

Learning agility should also be considered in the context of teams. When John F. Kennedy, Jr. announced that the U.S. was going to “send a man to the moon and bring him home safely by the end of the decade,” it forced NASA employees to become more learning agile and to accelerate the sharing of insights and information across the entire organization. Aggressive deadlines can create positive pressure that encourages teams to utilize one another more effectively.

Want to learn more?

Bob Landis is the leader of ArchPoint’s People & Organization practice globally.  He is an expert in talent and change management and regularly works with clients to enhance the effectiveness of leaders and teams. To learn how to incorporate learning agility into your company’s talent management practices, you can contact Bob directly at bob.landis@archpointgroup.com.

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