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Is learning agility the key to future success?

Kiddy & Partners

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Learning agility as a construct is nothing new. It is a construct we have heard time and time again is a key way to differentiate between the stars and the mediocre.

And what is our view? Is the ability to learn and adapt based on previous experience really that important? Well, based on our research and experience we would say a resounding yes

What do we mean by learning agility and why is it so important? 

Learning agility is often defined as the ability to extract learning from experiences and then, importantly, apply that learning to new situations. An important complementary factor to this ability is having a ‘learning mindset’; the extent to which a leader seeks new experiences and feedback, maximising opportunities to learn and develop. 

Over the past decade there has been a host of research into the importance of learning agility with results finding that learning agility is six times more likely to predict whether someone has high leadership potential than job performance (1). Further, learning agility is a strong predictor of an individual’s future success and, also their future performance levels 

In the rapidly changing and ever uncertain world in which leaders find themselves operating, it is critical that leaders evolve and grow from experiences. With no precedent or clear way forward, it is crucial for leaders to use and adapt what they know and have done before, changing their approach to meet the requirements of the situation and leaving old habits behind  to form new more successful methods. 

What can you do to increase your leader’s ability to learn?

Whilst there are some individual differences that predispose an individual to be more learning agile (e.g. cognitive ability, openness to experience) (3), encouraging certain behaviours and increasing opportunities to learn can support individuals to increase their ability to learn. Some activities you can do include: 

  1. Providing new experiences: It has long been accepted that experiential, on-the-job learning is far superior to workshops or training in ensuring the transfer of learning to the work environment and supporting people’s development. Providing individuals with exposure to new experiences and situations gives them direct access to pivotal opportunities to learn and to try new approaches. Further, it can push people outside of their comfort zone, forcing them to learn. 
  2. Encouraging reflective practice: Whilst new experiences can be one piece of the puzzle, learning does not automatically follow experience; it is an intentional process that individuals need to take the time to do. Without taking the time to reflect and gather feedback from others, the learning from any given situation can be minimal and limit the value of the experience (4). Encourage individuals to put time aside to regularly think through what went well, what could have been improved and invite feedback from others; they will then be able to take lessons forward and quickly apply the insights in the future. 
  3. Developing different leadership styles: No one leadership style is effective across all situations; great leaders have a variety of styles in their toolkit that they can deploy to fit different situations and different audiences. The first step is getting individuals to recognise and accept that having different styles is important, overcoming the myth that they need to turn up the same to every situation so that people ‘know what they are getting’. The next step is then providing opportunities to develop different approaches through experience and observing others, and of course, finally, encouraging learning, through trial and error, which style to use when, making it ok for them to not always get it right first time.

How can you spot individuals with high learning agility?

It can be difficult, to identify who has the ability to extract and apply learning, and, currently, there is no single validated test to provide this insight, with organisations needing to rely on multiple metrics interpreted by qualified Occupational Psychologists. Here are a few key indicators you can look out for when trying to spot those with high learning agility; individuals who: 

  1. Proactively seek new and challenging opportunities 
  2. Invite and reflect on feedback from others 
  3. Take the time to consider lessons learnt, what went well and less well after pivotal events (e.g. presentations, challenging meetings or projects), sharing this with others 
  4. Take calculated risks, trying new ways or working and approaches, drawing on knowledge and experience 

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References 

  1. Nicky Dries, N.,  Vantilborgh, T., & Pepermans, R. (2012). The role of learning agility and career variety in the identification and development of high potential employees. Personnel Review, 41.3, 340-358.
  2. De Meuse, K (2019). A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship between Learning Agility and Leader Success. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 19.1, 25-34.
  3. Harvey, V., & Prager, R. (2021). The Age of Agility: Building Learning Agile Leaders and Organizations. SIOP professional Practice Series.
  4. Anseel, F., Lievens,F., & Schollaret, E (2009). Reflection as a strategy to enhance task performance after feedback. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 110, 23-35
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