Learning Agility: Why it matters for executive success

Learning Agility refers to the ability and willingness to quickly adapt. The concept was derived from systematic research over several years into the careers of highly effective business leaders.

These leaders were found to share important characteristics that set them apart. Keen observers of what was going on around them, they were intellectually curious, flexible and adventurous.

Reflective about their experiences, they frequently made creative connections between apparently unrelated pieces of information and they had a preference for bold and new solutions to problems.

Learning Agility Dimensions

Further studies revealed some interesting facts about those who had greater Learning Agility – not   only did they get promoted faster and more often than others, but they were significantly more successful after they were promoted.

Learning Agility has since been widely accepted as a key indicator of potential, and interest in Korn Ferry’s multidimensional model as way to develop leadership capability and performance has grown.

This is the first of five blogs on why Learning Agility matters for executive success, each focusing on one of the agility dimensions – mental, people, change, results and self-knowledge – with tips for enhancing Learning Agility for yourself and others.

Learning Agility in the 2020’s

The qualities associated with Learning Agility have taken on a new currency in today’s complex and dynamic business environment where change and uncertainty are the norm.

Significant shifts in technology, globalisation and social trends require organisations to transform the way they do business to stay relevant in their markets. Over the next decade, the organisations most likely to succeed will be those that are nimble and adaptable.

The guidance of forward-thinking and strategic leaders will be essential. You’ll know them when you see them – they embrace complexity, examine problems in unique and unusual ways and are open-minded toward ideas and people. In other words, they are learning agile.

Developing Learning Agility

A commonly asked question is – can people develop their Learning Agility? Whilst it’s a relatively stable attribute, Learning Agility is defined in terms of behaviours. So, the answer is yes. Conscious and deliberate practice of those behaviours will enable people to enhance their Learning Agility.

As a starting point, a person should be on the lookout for opportunities to learn and grow or, even better, embrace the concept of learning as a lifelong journey. In her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck described this as having a ‘growth mindset’ which she says is the key for realising one’s full potential.

Mental Agility

This dimension of Learning Agility concerns the way people deal with concepts and ideas. Being mentally agile is primarily about being curious and inquisitive – searching for the new, exploring the unknown, taking time to think things through and looking for themes within and across situations.

A person with this orientation doesn’t stop at obvious answers to problems but looks below the surface for underlying causes, drilling down into complex issues to simplify and make sense of them.

About Curiosity

A Google search today on ‘curiosity’ resulted in 122 million results. Seems like a lot of people are writing about it! Narrow the search by adding the word ‘executive’ and there are still 44 million results. Impressive.

One of the top results points to a feature on curiosity published in Harvard Business Review (2018), highlighting that curiosity is vital to an organisation’s performance.

The author says curiosity helps leaders and employees come up with more creative solutions to external pressures. It enables leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more trusting and collaborative relationships with colleagues.

Sounds good? Well, of course there’s a trap. Although leaders say they value inquisitive minds, in practice they may stifle curiosity. It was reported that about 70 percent of employees who were surveyed said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

Tips for increasing Mental Agility

  • Challenge yourself to think about how curious and creative you really are. Over the last week, what was the balance between solutions you provided and questions you asked?
  • Questions are the fuel for new ideas, so start and keep asking why, how and what. Listen to the answers carefully, suspending judgement as you do.
  • Encourage curiosity and learning by reviewing events and outcomes, posing the right questions. Why did that happen? What can we learn from that?
  • Become an observer of agile thinking, listen to people talking and note the words and phrases that reveal a ‘growth’ mindset versus a ‘fixed’ one.
  • Reflect on questions asked in your organisation. Are they encouraged or are they seen as a challenge to authority? Do your people explore ideas with each other or are they too task-focused to take the time? What do you need to do to enable creative and innovative thought?

Last Words

If you are looking for inspiration on what it means to be curious and creative, try reading A Curious Mind, written by Oscar-winning film producer Brian Grazer.

Having practiced ‘curiosity conversations’ for years with people outside his industry, he describes curiosity as having many shades and intensities that serve different purposes. A great read!

 

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