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Learning Agility is the Prescription for 21st-Century Leaders


By Vicki Swisher and Jim Tapper

June 10, 2014 4:48 by

In today’s kinetic business environment, leaders can no longer rely on strategies that have worked in the past, or are even working today.

The best performing enterprises have leaders who thrive on change and can make sense of uncertainty. These individuals have “learning agility.”

“Learning agility” is key to success

People high in Learning Agility seek out and learn from unfamiliar experiences and then apply those lessons to succeed in the next new situation. Learning Agility helps them know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

We’ve found learning agility is now the single best predictor of executive success, above intelligence and education. Yet, only about 15 percent of people are really strong agile learners.

There are no absolutes, but agile learners tend to get promoted faster and achieve more.

Stick with what you know?

The research behind Learning Agility draws on well-established findings on what makes some executives successful and causes others’ careers to either plateau or downright derail. Why do some executives stumble? They over-rely on past solutions, have “blind spots” to their own faults, have underdeveloped competencies, fail at relationships, can’t relinquish control and simply quit learning.  Worst of all, they are often content with their company’s place in the market.

Effective executives need to be hungry and restless.

It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s about what you can do now and in the future.

Learning agility is not so much about what someone has accomplished. It’s about what they have the potential to accomplish, especially when faced with new challenges. Finding these candidates stretches the thinking of traditional HR.

What does learning agility look like? Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, personifies learning agility. Branson’s biggest motivation is to keep challenging himself. “I see life almost like one long university education that I never had,” Branson said.

Branson used this mindset to build businesses in music, telecommunications, air and rail transportation and even space travel. He persevered through stumbles and setbacks, using every experience to get better.

Agile learners are creators. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, likely applied his ‘change agility’ when creating the concept of “microlending,” which is now used around the world. Professor Yunus turned conventional banking on its head—with life-changing results for the bank’s millions of borrowers.

Agile learners build bridges. The late Nelson Mandela empathized with and understood those who imprisoned him. His “people agility” enabled him to emerge from prison with grace and become one of the world’s most revered and transformational leaders.

Branson, Yunus and Mandela never let the status quo or even failure impede them. They broke away from conventional wisdom and changed the world.

The five characteristics of agile learners

Here are five areas to assess to determine an individual’s learning agility:

  1. Mental Agility — How comfortable are they in dealing with complexity?
  2. People Agility — Are they skilled communicators who can work with diverse people?
  3. Change Agility — Do they like to experiment? Are they not afraid to be on the forefront of change?
  4. Results Agility — Can they deliver results in first-time situations?
  5. Self-Awareness — Do they recognize their own strengths and weaknesses?

Finding diamonds in the rough

Most organizations don’t employ a Muhammad Yunus or a Richard Branson, but they probably have people who share some of their qualities.

There is a way to identify these people and develop them. The challenge is matching talent to the right opportunities and enabling future leaders to develop a rich set of experiences.

Right now, about 25 percent of Fortune 100 companies are using learning agility as a means to assess leadership potential of internal and external candidates.

Learning agility in the Middle East

It is hard to think of a region that could benefit more from learning agility than the Middle East. Businesses are becoming more mature, expanding beyond the region and into new sectors, and regional conglomerates are breaking down silos among subsidiaries. Learning agility offers a measureable approach to succession management and a way to remove the risks around localization.

As their businesses globalize, more and more Middle Eastern business leaders are being thrust into “big jobs.”  Executives with high learning agility have the best shot at success.

Right now, we’re working with a major Saudi technology company and a UAE company in the consumer products sector to make learning agility a prerequisite for their future leaders.  We’re confident these companies will see sustainable results.

Learning agility is about creativity, flexibility and resilience.  In a world rife with trade wars and a head-spinning pace of change, enterprises need visionary leaders.  Learning agile leaders are a company’s most valuable asset

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