People agility: a potential game-changer for leaders

People agility has emerged as a ‘must-have’ capability for leaders in today’s complex and dynamic business world.

Not only do leaders need to navigate this turbulent environment successfully themselves, but they also need to be the enablers for their people to solve problems and deliver results.

One way they can create the inclusive, collaborative and innovative culture their organisations need is by consistently demonstrating a desire to explore, discover and learn with others.

Simply put, it’s about being agile in the way they engage with their people. However, many strategic and operational demands on senior executives can get in the way.

People agility defined

At first glance, people agility seems to describe the capacity to get on well with others, but there is more to it than that. People agility is the ability to take an open-minded, curious and flexible approach to people, looking for diverse opinions to broaden mutual understanding and achieve common goals.

People agility is also about communicating clearly, adjusting the style, pace and message to the audience. It’s being willing to take on a different viewpoint depending on the person or circumstances. People agile individuals learn quickly how to hear out opposing views and take care not to incite or escalate tension or conflict.

These characteristics are rounded out by the ability to read people well and predict how individuals and groups will respond to various events and situations and being ready and willing to help others to excel. This is often referred to as ’emotional intelligence’ or EQ.

This is the second of five blogs on why Learning Agility matters for executive success, with specific tips for enhancing the people agility dimension for yourself and others.

Social leadership

Leading involves understanding the social needs of people, including those who consider themselves focused on tasks rather than people. It must be recognised that social engagement is fundamental to human health and well-being which has a significant impact on organisational performance.

Dr Matthew Lieberman, neuroscientist and author, describes social engagement as a fundamental requirement built into our biology along with the basic needs for survival. In his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect he suggests that it deserves to be at the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Infants embody the need to be connected because they are totally dependent on their caregiver(s) and the quality of care they receive has been shown to influence their cognitive and emotional development. The effects can last a lifetime.

So, what are the implications for business leaders? They need a mindset that helps them focus on:

  • Recognising the need for people to ‘belong’ and emphasising the importance of the team.
  • Facilitating open dialogue with a wide variety of contributors and stakeholders.
  • Breaking down barriers to collaboration across the organisation.
  • Building a sense of community connected to a higher purpose.

People orchestration skills

In his book Know-How, Ram Charan describes skills that separate leaders who perform from those who don’t. One of those skills is the ability to manage the social system of their business so people can work effectively and cooperatively together.

As many of us recognise this isn’t always easy, and the title of that chapter tells us so – Herding Cats!

Charan says that building the right social system requires making superb judgments on people, knowing how to select them, get them into the right jobs and help them build the skills to lead. He says this is highly developable.

So is people agility. Each of its elements is described in behavioural terms, so with targeted and systematic efforts leaders can adopt the practices used by great people leaders.

Tips for increasing people agility

  • Keep an open mind by suspending judgment. Listen to what people are saying and find clues about how they formed their opinions. Think about why you might differ and how you can reach common ground.
  • Take time to get to know your people, make sure you are aware of their strengths, weaknesses and career aspirations and check in regularly. Don’t assume you know.
  • Be alert when decisions are to be made, by being present and in the moment. Stop and consider whether you have all the facts in unfamiliar situations. Look for anything you are missing and read the people in the room.
  • Slow down when you disagree with others. Choose your words carefully so you don’t appear biased. Focus on the issue at hand, not the person.
  • Set people up for success by sharing what you know. Be an advocate for people you believe in and make sure you give credit where it’s due.
  • Build a network for yourself outside your immediate circle. Connect with individuals and groups who don’t know each other so you than can access new information and fresh thinking.

The future of work

The rapid pace of change today brings a need to transform the way we do business and find new ways of working. We are in the midst of a massive shift, evidenced by the trend to flexible working, remote teams, coworking spaces, artificial intelligence and more.

Add to this the fact that people are living longer and retiring later, whilst younger people are now entering the workforce. This means that, for the first time, we have five generations in the workplace and must accommodate the different needs and expectations of those groups.

Last year research conducted by PWC published the results of a global survey of business and HR leaders. In a paper entitled Preparing for tomorrow’s workforce, today, they note that the most astute leaders must ask the question: “How can I deliver great performance by helping our people to thrive?”

Yes, indeed! The need for leaders to cultivate people agility has never been greater!

Last words

If you would like to see how leaders can create a circle of trust to build cooperation and collaboration, check out Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk – Why good leaders make you feel safe.

Sinek says that doing this, especially in an uneven economy, is a big responsibility for leaders – but it’s the key to helping ordinary people achieve extraordinary things.

 

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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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Developing your next generation of leaders

Do you have a model of leadership competency needed for your business to succeed? If so, you are probably using it to shape the development of your next generation of leaders.

If not, you may be putting your business and your most promising people at risk as they navigate their way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow.

Many organisations struggle with building the depth and breadth of leadership talent they need for the future. They may have identified their best performers, carefully chosen some courses for them and developed a list of promotion opportunities.

But, somehow it doesn’t all come together and there may be a nagging doubt on the return on investment in time and effort.

So, how do you create the conditions where the people who can lead your organisation into the future can be nurtured and developed?

This may seem a simple question, but the answer is complex. Your organisation’s culture and way of operating, existing development practices and the aspirations of your people need to be taken into account.

Adults are motivated to learn something if it has value to them. Therefore, a program that will equip aspiring leaders with the skills they need to achieve their career goals will have great appeal.

Learning needs to be as practical as possible, providing tools and techniques for leading and managing that can be applied immediately. If the learning is delivered in a modular format so they can try out the skills and report back on progress, even better.

Our suggestions for engaging your leaders of the future in meaningful development are:

  • Use your business goals and challenges to define the capability future leaders need to succeed.
  • Devise a program that communicates and focuses on building this capability.
  • Select the right assessments to help participants heighten their self-awareness.
  • Design learning experiences that integrate seamlessly with the responsibilities and work schedules of the participants.
  • Assign participants to projects of significance to the success of your organisation.
  • Turn up the intensity of the learning by involving senior leaders in mentoring participants.
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Taking Stock of Your Career

It is often said that experience is the greatest teacher. Take a moment to test that by thinking about your career. How long is it since you took your first job? How many different jobs have you had? What have you learnt along the way?

The sum total of your capability is made up of many parts. Sure, your education gave you a foundation but what came afterwards shaped a lot of who you are today and how you lead. You acquired fundamental skills by performing routine tasks and progressed to more advanced skills as you took on assignments with greater complexity.

Then, there were those challenging times that had a powerful impact on the speed and intensity of your learning, taking your competence to a whole new level. Most likely, they occurred at times when you took on something completely new and you had to master skills uncalled for in unnecessary in previous roles.

The question to ask yourself is what has been the pattern of your career? Have you had a series of jobs in a familiar discipline or a range of jobs with a variety of responsibilities? This matters because different jobs offer different learning opportunities. Hopefully, you will have built the depth and breadth to take you where you want to go. Or, maybe not.

Consider the case of Simon, a manager who earned hero status in his organisation as the ‘turnaround king’. Over seven years, he took over no less than four poorly performing units and restored them all to profitability. He brought a high level of energy and determination to each new assignment. His natural autocratic leadership style played out well and he quickly learnt how to analyse a business and implement change decisively.

Success in doing what he already knew how to do may have been good for Simon’s company but not for his career over the long term. When a general management role came up he was passed over for promotion because he wasn’t seen to have the broad perspective and interpersonal skills to sustain critical relationships with the new joint venture partners.

Unknowingly, this can happen to the best of us. We sail along confidently in our career until suddenly we are faced to deal with a set of new and unfamiliar challenges.  These scenarios will invariably broaden your experience base and add new skills to your toolkit.

Perhaps, reading this is prompting you to think about your career and what the next chapter is going to be. If so, think of taking stock by listing the jobs you’ve had and the skills you have acquired. Make a note about times in your career you have particularly enjoyed and why.

Next, find a colleague or mentor who would be prepared to talk through your reflections, help you identify what’s driven your success to date and what opportunities you should be exploring for the future.

 

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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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Engagement and talent retention

Are any of these issues on your agenda? Are they keeping you awake at night or would you simply like to get a bit better at them?

Engagement and talent retention are tipped to be among this year’s key people management issues, according to Josh Bersin (Redesigning the Organization for a Rapidly Changing World, January 2015). This resonates with us because, in the course of our work, we frequently hear the comment “we could do better with regard to engagement”

When we delve deeper, research on engagement reveals some startling statistics – actively disengaged employees outnumber engaged employees by 2 to 1 (State of the Global Workplace, Gallup, 2013).

A 2014 global survey of than 18,000 employees by LinkedIn indicates that for those people either actively or passively looking for alternative jobs, the top five most important reasons for considering a move:

  1. Opportunities for advancement
  2. Better compensation and benefits
  3. More challenging work
  4. A role that was a better fit for the skillset
  5. More learning opportunities.

When one overlays the gradual but inexorable demographic change and the cost of replacing staff, it reinforces the importance of retaining good people.

So, why aren’t organisations better at engaging their good talent? And by good talent, we don’t just mean the high performing-high potential stars in box 9 on the talent matrix, we’re including those in the ‘mighty middle’ who consistently deliver but may not have aspirations beyond their current type of job and may not make much fuss about their dissatisfaction.

Based on coaching individuals across a wide spectrum of roles and industries, we have observed some common themes that relate directly to engagement:

  • The majority of people like receiving feedback for doing a good job.
  • Capable individuals do not see a burgeoning in-tray of tasks or projects as development.
  • Employees welcome the opportunity to discuss, explore and develop their careers.
  • Organisations that differentiate talent are able to offer more satisfying development opportunities to key performers and high potentials.

Organisations that address these themes and take action to fix what needs fixing can turn around low workplace engagement in order to drive better business outcomes.

Whilst every organisation must address engagement and talent retention in the context of its workforce, culture and business conditions, there are best practices that apply to all organisations and we will focus on some of these in future blogs.

 

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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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Enhancing the Employee Value Proposition

How many new employees did you hire in the last 12 months?

What attracted them to join your organisation?

You may have listed the benefits of working with you on the career section of your website, but do you really know?

If you are finding it hard to source top talent and not securing the highly capable, motivated candidates you need, you may want to revisit your Employee Value Proposition (EVP).

A good place to start is by asking your most talented employees what they like most about working for you; and why they stay with the organisation. You could be surprised. The drivers that motivate your people may have changed, especially if the demographic of your workforce has shifted.

Next, capture the views of new employees in the onboarding process. Canvas their first impressions of what your organisation has to offer and revisit them in 12 months to see if the reality measures up to the promise of your EVP.

A strong EVP that delivers intrinsic satisfaction with the work experience drives employee engagement, leading to a healthy and happy workplace.

 

 

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