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 a 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 new currency in today’s complex and dynamic business environment where change and uncertainty are the norms.

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 practise 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 per cent 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 are. Over the last week, what was the balance between the 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 practised ‘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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Do you know the leadership gaps in your organisation?

In today’s volatile business environment, leaders are being challenged more than ever to adapt to new realities and lead ongoing change. But, do they have what it takes?

We were recently asked by one of our global clients to determine the most common development needs from assessments completed by 30 people in preparation for an advanced leadership development program.

It set us thinking. Could we go broader and identify trends across our 360-feedback database?

Indeed, we could. And we found the results of our analysis fascinating.

Here is a brief summary that we hope will trigger some reflection and insights for you and your organisation.

Drawing on Korn Ferry’s global competency framework, we examined data gathered for 226 leaders who participated in Voices 360-feedback across Australia and New Zealand. With input from over 2,000 raters, these individuals work in senior management and executive roles in a range of public, private and government organisations.

We compared what people thought was important for these leaders to be successful in their roles with the level of skill they currently demonstrate. Three competencies immediately jumped out where there was a significant leadership gap – importance was high and skill was low.

  • Builds Effective Teams – Defined as developing strong-identity teams that apply diverse skills to achieve common goals.
  • Directs Work – Defined as giving direction, delegating, and removing obstacles in order to get work done.
  • Drives Engagement – Defined as creating a climate where people are motivated to do their best to help the organisation achieve its objectives.

In combination, these competencies are directly related to leveraging talent and inspiring people through a sense of purpose and belonging. As core leadership skills, they have a profound impact on the way people relate to each other and their organisation, as well as the discretionary effort they put into doing their work.

When faced with continuous change, people look for something to hold on to. They want to cut through uncertainty, understand what needs to be done and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

If leaders are unable to create an environment where people feel committed and empowered to perform, there can be significant consequences to business performance in both bottom-line results and staff engagement.

We think the results of our analysis are important because it’s not the first time we have seen them. They align with Korn Ferry’s global competency research findings that were released in 2017.

There, we saw that skill level in these three competencies was actually lower for executives than managers. Yet, two were found to be significant to performance at the executive level (Builds Effective Teams and Directs Work).

In our view, Builds Effective Teams warrants special attention because we have seen it steadily growing in importance over the last decade according to our 360-feedback data. People are increasingly recognising there are substantial benefits when teams are set up for success.

However, skill in developing a well-functioning team has not kept pace with demand. Not surprisingly, this competency rates high on Korn Ferry’s Developmental Difficulty Index, meaning it is a more complex skill to acquire, compared to other competencies in the framework. In addition, Failure to Build a Team has been identified by Korn Ferry as one of ten potential career stallers for leaders.

Our conclusion is that the current strength in these areas is not sufficient for optimum effectiveness in leadership roles today. What’s your experience? Does your organisation have a leadership gap in any of these areas?

If so, you may be thinking about what can be done to improve the situation. The good news is that plenty of resources are available to build capability in each of the three competencies.

Continue Reading Do you know the leadership gaps in your organisation?

Why measure Learning Agility?

Most people are good at doing things they’ve done in the past and coming up with solutions they know from experience work well. Fewer are adept at handling new and unique challenges where there are no obvious answers. Yet, this is precisely what is demanded of leaders today.

A dynamic and complex business environment requires people to be resourceful and adaptable, to think and act in new ways as situations change. It takes people out of their comfort zone and pushes them beyond their usual ways of doing things.

The extent to which people enjoy these challenges varies significantly. Some prefer to avoid them, holding on to trusted skills, expertise and patterns of behaviour, whilst others actively seek them out in order to satisfy their natural curiosity and enjoyment of doing new things.

Agile learners demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn from experience and use those lessons to succeed in new and different situations. They look for many, diverse experiences and this runs counter to sticking with any one discipline for long periods.

On this basis, not every job is suited to agile learners. Some jobs require deep expertise where being highly learning agile could actually be a disadvantage. Organisations can better manage their talent when they measure learning agility and carefully match the right people to the right jobs, career paths and developmental experiences.

How can learning agility be measured?

Learning agility is a multi-dimensional concept. Based on research over three decades, Korn Ferry’s model is made up of five factors – Self-Awareness, Mental Agility, People Agility, Change Agility and Results Agility. These are defined as a set of behaviours that are both observable and measurable.

Multi-rater assessment

A straightforward way to measure Learning Agility is through a 360-degree survey. Choices® is a proven, easy-to-use online assessment that provides people with meaningful feedback on their overall Learning Agility and each of its five factors.

Choices® is useful as it raises awareness of what Learning Agility actually is among individuals and their raters by reading the behavioural descriptors as they complete the assessment. It is also supported by the FYI for Learning Agility™ book that contains specific actions a person can take to develop Learning Agility.

Self-assessment

A second way to assess Learning Agility is through an online self-assessment called viaEDGE™. To overcome the tendency of individuals to over or underrate themselves, rigorous verification scales are used to determine the accuracy of their scores, providing a confidence index for each completed assessment.

viaEDGE™ is useful when time is at a premium and is effective for assessing larger groups of individuals. It is supported by a development guide called Becoming an Agile Leader: A Guide to Learning from your Experience.

What are the benefits of measuring learning agility?

An organisation’s success depends largely on its people, talented individuals who contribute to the achievement of organisational goals. Those who effectively leverage the abilities of their people are focused on understanding and differentiating their talent.

All talent is important, but all talent is not the same. On one hand, there are high-professionals who generally have deep technical expertise and do well in functional roles. On the other are high-potentials, those who prefer broader experiences and responsibilities and are better suited to general management positions.

It’s worth noting that people across both of these groups are critical to an organisation’s future success, yet their contributions are quite different and they need to be nurtured and developed differently.

The key criterion that differentiates talent along the high-professional/high-potential continuum is Learning Agility. Knowing where your people stand on this scale will allow you to make more informed decisions in selection, succession management, career planning and development.

The benefits for individuals are obvious – better alignment between career and personal interests and motivation means greater job satisfaction and a greater likelihood of access to personally meaningful development opportunities.

For organisations, measurement of Learning Agility gives that all-important big picture view of the talent pool. Group data with scores across each of the five factors of Learning Agility offers the opportunity to identify candidates who have the right skills for a job now or those who would benefit from specific developmental opportunities.

Importantly, the overall Learning Agility Index for your talent pool provides critical insight into the dominant themes in your organisation’s culture and how agile it is as a whole.

 

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Understanding Learning Agility

What is Learning Agility?

Learning Agility is defined as “the ability and willingness to learn from experience and use those lessons to succeed in new and different situations”.

People differ significantly in what and how they learn from experience. Some acquire skills and knowledge, readily picking up technical information, whilst others are more adept figuring out how to solve unfamiliar problems and finding new ways of looking at issues.

Learning Agility is defined as “the ability and willingness to learn from experience and use those lessons to succeed in new and different situations”.

People differ significantly in what and how they learn from experience. Some acquire skills and knowledge, readily picking up technical information, whilst others are more adept figuring out how to solve unfamiliar problems and finding new ways of looking at issues.

Primarily, learning agility is an indicator of adaptability rather than intelligence. Although intelligence influences the ability to learn from a traditional perspective, learning agility is a different and distinct trait that is not significantly correlated with intelligence.

Agile learners tend to approach new experiences with curiosity and resourcefulness; they respond well to situations that stretch their thinking and current way of doing things. On the other hand, less agile learners prefer what is familiar and to go with proven solutions.

Where did the term Learning Agility come from?

Dr Michael Lombardo and Dr Robert Eichinger introduced the term Learning Agility two decades ago as a key indicator of leadership potential, based on extensive research into executive success and derailment carried out at the Center for Creative Leadership[1] and Lominger International.[2]

This work has been carried on by Korn Ferry since 2006 and their findings have echoed by many others who have highlighted the importance of learning from experience. For example, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas found that successful leaders commonly had critical experiences that changed their thinking.[3]

It should be noted that the origin of Learning Agility as a construct was derived from leadership research, as opposed to educational psychology. However, other streams of research have contributed to the understanding of Learning Agility, including studies of different forms of intelligence.

Dr Robert Sternberg put forward his theory of “successful intelligence” as the kind of intelligence used to achieve important goals. He emphasises analytical, creative and practical abilities as key components of the ability to succeed in career and life.[4]

Why is Learning Agility important?

As Learning Agility comprises a set of skills that allow us to learn something in one setting and apply it another, it is especially significant in today’s business environment where change, uncertainty and ambiguity are the norms.

As much as we may like to think that things are stable and under our control, the reality is quite different. The vast majority of the problems facing executives and managers lack clarity and have no obvious answers.[5] New technologies, new processes and new business challenges. Nothing stays the same very long.

In addition, jobs themselves become more complex at higher levels in an organisation and it’s here that Learning Agility must move into high gear. Executives need to sort information from a variety of sources and drill down to distil it into simple themes that are understandable for others.

 

[1] McCall, M Lombardo & Morrison, 1988, The Lessons of Experience, The Free Press

[2] Lombardo & Eichinger, 2010, The Leadership Machine 10th Anniversary Edition, Korn Ferry

[3] Bennis & Thomas, 2002, Geeks and Geezers, Harvard Business School Press

[4] Sternberg, 1997, Successful Intelligence: How practical and creative intelligence determine success in life, Plume.

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What’s new in competency frameworks?

For the last two decades, we have defined competencies as ‘measurable characteristics of a person that are related to success at work’. They can be technical in nature, such as the ability to develop a business plan or design a software program, or behavioural, which describe how a person goes about their job.

The ability to build strong customer relationships and deliver customer-centric solutions may drive success in a sales role, whilst motivating people to do their best to help the organisation achieve its objectives may be the key to effectiveness as a manager.

The value of behavioural competencies is well established. Ongoing research by Lominger, Korn Ferry and others has consistently found that that they account for between 40 and 60 percent of total job performance.

Organisations around the world recognise the need for competency frameworks that link individual competencies to the broader goals of the organisation, filtered through the business context and competitive strategy.

However, two factors are emerging that are shaping the way organisations think about their competency needs:

  • The rapidly shifting business environment demands increasing levels of resilience, flexibility and the ability to lead change and they want competencies to reflect this.
  • Many leaders recognise that they are facing an inadequate supply of top quality, ready-now talent and this is having a profound impact on hiring and selection.

In this context, the innovative new Korn Ferry Leadership Architect™ has a number of features with special appeal to those who want to:

  • Make sure their competencies are described in contemporary language that truly reflects the needs of jobs today.
  • Align competencies to their current business drivers and challenges, whilst also addressing future needs.
  • Precisely target a list of the most high-impact behaviours, skills and attributes.
  • Ensure competencies are relevant to people across the business, whilst keeping them simple and easy to use.
  • Take much of the guesswork out of putting the right talent in the right role at the right time.

In upcoming blogs we will describe how competencies themselves have evolved, how they are applied at different levels in the organisation and ways to overcome the most common challenges in implementing competency frameworks.

 

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