Why ‘Learning Agility' Is Key to Leadership Success - IEDP
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Why ‘Learning Agility' Is Key to Leadership Success

"There are five main characteristics that can be assessed to determine an individual’s learning agility."


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To succeed in today’s complex business world, leaders must be adaptable, resilient and open to innovative thinking. And above all, according to Korn Ferry’s Steve Newhall, they need one essential quality — ‘Learning Agility’. Here he explains why:

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

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

People who have high levels of 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.

After conducting many thousands of senior executive assessments across the globe, at Korn Ferry we have found that learning agility is now the single best predictor of executive success, above intelligence and education. There are no absolutes, but agile learners tend to get promoted faster and achieve more.

Yet, only about 15 per cent of people are really strong agile learners.

Why do some executives have initially successful careers which then plateau or derail? 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.

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.

There are five main characteristics that can be assessed to determine an individual’s learning agility.

Mental Agility — how comfortable are they in dealing with complexity?

People Agility — are they skilled communicators who can work with diverse people?

Change Agility — do they like to experiment? Are they not afraid to be at the forefront of change?

Results Agility — can they deliver results in first-time situations?

Self-Awareness — do they recognise their own strengths and weaknesses? 

So what does learning agility, the combination of the above characteristics, look like in an individual? 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 empathised 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.

Success in an increasingly unpredictable business landscape requires leadership styles and skills that differ markedly from those that dominated in a more stable business environment. Executives must now have the fluidity to manage disruption and the agility to adapt their strategies based on rapidly evolving circumstances. 

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

Objectively identifying managers with high levels of learning agility has tremendous value for an organization. Before putting time, energy, and money into developing an executive, a company can confirm if he or she truly is the right investment. They can also avoid the mistake of overlooking an apparently nondescript employee who really is a high potential talent.

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

Only a minority of companies are using learning agility as a means to assess the leadership potential of internal and external candidates. However, organizations that see their leaders as key drivers of growth and success are increasingly adopting learning agility as a way to differentiate talent, and we expect this rise to continue as businesses increasingly understand the value of being led by agile learners.

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