Leanna Butterfield Cruz
Career success in a world where our work is always changing, where challenges are constant and unpredictable, and where competition exists everywhere relies on learning agility. Agile learners learn, grow, and change over time and consequently develop new skills, rather than simply enhance those they already have. They seek experiences and learning opportunities to gain new knowledge and skills and can quickly apply them.
Learning Agility Defined
Individuals who are agile learners are those who are best equipped to learn the most from their experiences. Characteristics of an agile learner include self-awareness, openness to experiences, and motivation to learn. Agile learners are curious people who adapt their thinking and their behavior in response to their evolving understanding of the situations in which they find themselves. They are committed to personal growth, they are courageous enough to take personal risks, and they are confident enough to take setbacks in stride. These individuals are also diligent about seeking feedback and deliberate about learning.
Individuals high in learning agility are describe as:
1. Seeking more experiences to learn from;
2. Enjoying complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences;
3. Getting more out of these experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them; and
4. Performing better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire as a result.
Given the link between these characteristics and adaptability, it is not surprising to find that individuals high in learning agility tend to get promoted and are effective and successful leaders.
Learning Agility as a Measure of Leadership Success
Identifying individuals willing to learn new leadership behaviors in the future, particularly during times of radical change, is imperative for the continued success of any organization. It is not enough to have had previous success.
A study conducted by The Center for Creative Leadership found that successful executives are those who tend to learn new perspectives and behaviors from both work and life experiences while derailed executives, all of whom had been successful for many years and had many experiences and key job assignments, showed virtually no pattern of learning. The derailed executives saw no need to change their behavior and therefore couldn’t make the transition to a new position. They relied on the skills that brought them success but that did not meet the demands of the new position. They became victims of their own success.
It’s safe to say then, that learning agility is a predictor of leadership success and is an important factor in selecting individuals for promotion or for more challenging assignments. As leaders agile learners are:
1. Eager to learn about self, others, and ideas.
2. Showing genuine willingness to learn from feedback and experience and change their behavior and viewpoints as a result.
3. Interested in helping people think and experiment.
4. Resilient and philosophical about what happens to people during change.
5. Uncompromising: While wide-open to diversity of thought, and a range of views, once they incorporate these into their thinking, they are resolute in pushing their beliefs and ideas. They rely on logic, well-thought-through ideas, cool communications, and perseverance to sell their points.
Developing Learning Agility
The developable side of learning agility includes fostering self-awareness, learning how to seek out and use feedback, choosing developmental experiences and assignments, and developing a deliberate learning strategy.
Soak up new information all the time, seek challenges, push yourself out of your comfort zone even though it may shake your confidence if you’re accustomed to success.
If you find yourself focused more on sustaining performance and avoiding trying something new, it is time to rethink your career advancement strategy. It is human nature to keep doing what we already know how to do. When we do so, we feel competent and confident. To take on something new and different, and possibly fail along the way, means we must welcome discomfort. The agile learner is comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
Being deliberate about spending time to reflect on what you’ve learned from new and challenging experiences improves your ability to recall the skill in different circumstances in the future. Connect with a mentor, a peer, or career coach that you can rely on to help support you as you try to consciously take meaning from challenges. It is not just the experience itself, but what meaning you make of it that converts challenging experience into new skills, a change in perspective, new behavior, or new knowledge.
The one thing that is constant is change and effective leaders continue to learn and change over time in order to perform successfully in new or challenging circumstances. They change with change. They are resilient in the face of change. That’s the power of learning agility. And companies are putting their future success in the hands of agile learners.
The evidence is growing that long-term success as a leader seems to depend largely on a readiness and ability to learn, because it enables us to acquire new behaviors quickly and effectively, which ultimately enables adaptability and resilience. While this overarching concept of learning agility may always have been important, it seems even more so now, given the constant change in today’s business environment.