Veronica Schmidt Harvey and Kenneth P. De Meuse, editors of The Age of Agility, offer valuable insight into the concept of “learning agility” and strategies that promote more effective leadership. They are both experts in the field of leadership practical experience developing healthy skills that help both individuals and organizations to thrive.
Why is “learning agility” an important trend in organizations?
There are several reasons. First: the pace of change. Most will agree that the world of work is a turbulent place. It only takes looking back at the COVID pandemic to recognize how quickly our world can be turned upside down! Then we can think of such recent trends as quiet quitting, AI, the virtual workforce, the mental health crisis, and on and on. Consequently, both leaders and organizations are recognizing that survival of the fittest equates to “survival of the agile.” Organizations that cultivate leaders who are learning agile are much better prepared to deal with change.
A second important reason is that organizations need high performing leaders. Challenges with an adequate leadership pipeline consistently show up on surveys as one of the things that keeps CEOs up at night! And the evidence is clear that learning agility is one of the most robust predictors of leadership success as measured by:
- leadership potential
- levels of effectiveness
- international assignments
- salary increases
- faster speed to competence in a new role
In fact, a meta-analysis conducted by Ken in 2019 found that learning agility is a stronger predictor of leadership performance than IQ, EQ, or job experience. It is not just hyperbole to say that the effectiveness of leadership in organization depends on the levels of learning agility among their leaders.
Third, we believe the development of learning agility can help in diversifying the leadership pipeline. Research indicates that learning agility when properly assessed does not disproportionally screen out women, minorities, individuals over 40, or other marginalized groups. Organizations increase their objectivity and level the playing field for all employees and applicants alike. Supporting the development of learning agility shows promise for not only expanding but increasing the diversity of leadership pipelines.
“Organizations that cultivate leaders who are learning agile are much better prepared to deal with change.”
Is learning agility a new concept?
Although agility is a term that is clearly trending, the concept of learning agility does have considerable history. At least dating back to the early 1980s, organizations began to recognize the importance of identifying individuals with the potential to learn from their experiences and adapt to changing circumstances. Dr Morgan McCall and his colleagues at The Center for Creative Leadership published the now-classic book The Lessons of Experience in 1988. Veronica’s own dissertation in that same year focused on how successful leaders learn from their experiences rather than solely in a classroom (Schmidt, 1988).
The specific term “learning agility” was first coined more than two decades ago by Drs Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger (2000). They agreed with McCall that a primary indicator of leadership potential is learning agility, aptly describing it as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” While learning agility is a relatively new compared to some other psychological constructs, it is not simply a “shiny-new-object” that is likely to become irrelevant any time soon.
How would you describe learning agility to someone unfamiliar with the concept?
Researchers have used a number of different definitions. And, like many complex constructs, there are differences in opinion among them. The following two definitions are frequently used:
- “The ability and willingness to learn from experience and then apply those lessons to perform well in new and challenging leadership situations” (De Meuse, 2017)
- “The self-regulated behaviors, strategies, and habits that enable learning at an accelerated pace, facilitate more agile adaptation to dynamic conditions and result in more effective leadership” (Harvey & Prager, 2021).
Despite multiple definitions, as we describe in Chapter 19 of The Age of Agility, there is considerable consensus among researchers and practitioners alike that learning agility is a “metacompetency.” One can think of learning agility as a “whole body exercise” involving (a) how we perceive things—the perceptual; (b) how we process information—the cognitive; (c) how we regulate our emotions, and (d) how all of these are manifest in our observable behavior. Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experiences and the attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral flexibility to apply those lessons to perform effectively in current and new leadership roles.
What are the most successful methods of developing agility in employees and organizations?
As part of writing Chapter 6 for The Age of Agility, Veronica and her colleague Raphael Prager and took a deep dive into reviewing the literature on developing learning agility. As a result, an evidence-based model was that focuses on five sets of behaviors and strategies that can be learned:
- Observing includes mindful awareness of situations and experiences as well as the ability to scan and forecast what will be needed in the future.
- Doing includes seeking information and experiences, experimenting with different behaviors, and deliberately practicing new ways of responding.
- Connecting involves learning with and from others by asking for help, observing role models, learning through coaches and mentors, and seeking feedback.
- Thinking includes cognitive strategies such as reflection, understanding the mental filters that may be biasing our actions, approaching situations with curiosity, and adapting a learning mindset.
- Mobilizing involves learning to set goals, regulate emotions, maintain focus and discipline, and recognize when resilience and periods of renewal are needed.
How do we develop and support the next generation of leaders in a more remote world?
As we explore new ways of working, one of the best ways we can support the next generation of leaders is to accurately identify them by assessing for learning agility along with other predictors of leadership. Then once identified, offer them numerous opportunities to develop their learning agility. It is incredibly empowering to have confidence in one’s own capability to learn what to do no matter what life may throw at you. A colleague Anna Marie Valerio and Veronica recently published an article in the Consulting Psychology journal on “Coaching to Develop Learning Agility.” It is likely one of the most critical things that leadership coaches can do!
How does increased learning agility impact employees and organizations?
The negative impact a poor leader can have on a team and in an organization is hard to overstate. The proper application of learning agility can help minimize such mistakes. Moreover, the promotion and hiring of effective leaders (regardless of age, gender, or minority status) sends a powerful signal to all employees that they matter and management has their back!
What do you think the world of work will look like in 10 years?
One thing that is certain is that it will look considerably different than it does today! It is impossible to predict with any precision what those change will be. However, we do feel certain that those leaders with strong learning agility will be better equipped to successfully respond. Perhaps, Alvin Toffler said it best in his book Future Shock (1970), “The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” And he wrote it more than 50 years ago!
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