Leadership and Learning Agility

Posted on June 01, 2013 at 13:59 PM

Increasingly we are hearing from organisations that are moving away from highly bespoke, tailored models of leadership effectiveness within their organisations to using generic, cross-sector criteria for assessing their top people, finding talent and developing their pool of leaders.

One recurring theme among these generic models is learning agility. This is not a new concept; in their 1985 paper “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge”, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus identified ‘the development of self’ as a key dimension associated with success, finding that the majority of successful leaders “are highly proficient in learning from experience’. Sternberg, Wagner, Williams and Horvath (1995) set learning agility out as being distinct from basic intelligence and linked it to concepts such as ‘street smart’, ‘savvy’ and ‘common sense’. However, we may now be seeing the emergence of learning agility as a key, underpinning leadership competency which has the potential to influence the way we select and develop leaders in much the same way as the EQ revolution did. Lominger, the developers of research-based assessment and development tools that can be customised to fit any organisation’s culture or operating style, have Learning Agility as a core concept within their frameworks and have defined it as being “able and willing to derive meaning from all kinds of experience” (Eichinger & Lombardo, 2004).

What does learning agility look like? What behaviours might the ‘learning agile’ leader demonstrate?

We think it encompasses the following things:

  • The ability to reflect on experience; to learn from one’s own and others’ successes and failures and to use this learning in the future
  • The willingness to seek out challenging experiences, opportunities to develop and try out new behaviours and strategies
  • Showing an openness to feedback; actively seeking feedback from multiple sources, assimilating and using it to improve future performance
  • The ability to perform well in first-time, challenging conditions
  • The ability to derive learning from a range of different situations, opportunities and sources
  • The ability to apply new strategies, concepts, behaviours and knowledge to novel problems; not sticking to just one ‘success recipe’ that may be inappropriate for the context.

So, if we are saying that these qualities are essential for leadership effectiveness, how can we

  1. select leaders who have this quality,
  2. can we develop it and
  3. if the answer to 2 is “yes”, how do we do that?

There are a number of ways in which we have seen learning agility measured as a competency:

  • Use the behavioural markers of learning agility to conduct a 360 degree review Give an individual an exercise (e.g., a problem solving activity). Let them do it, give them feedback and then administer a parallel exercise and look at how their approach differs - through observation and by interviewing them afterwards on their rationale behind doing particular things
  • Conduct a critical incident-based interview which focuses on how the individual has learned key concepts, skills, abilities, knowledge and behaviour, and how they adapt their approach to different situations
  • Use a psychometric test such as the Cognitive Process Profile, which consists of simulated problem-solving exercises and monitors candidates on their ability to explore, link, structure, transform, remember, learn and clarify information. This test also provides an indication of the cognitive level at which the individual is currently performing, and the level to which they might be able to develop to, given appropriate opportunities. It gives feedback on an individual’s ability to explore and use new information, analyse, structure, solve problems and their capacity to learn from the process and incorporate that learning into subsequent problems.

Can learning agility be developed? The underlying principles on which the CPP was developed would suggest so. Some practitioners take the view that it cannot be taught, but can be developed in those who have the innate trait. But aren’t all human beings capable of learning? If we accept that we engage in a huge amount of learning throughout our entire lives, then why can’t we learn to be more agile in our learning?

Whilst we are not saying that some individuals are naturally more agile than others, we think there are some ways in which we think that learning agility could be encouraged and developed:

  • Leaders could be helped, through coaching, to adopt the practices employed by effective learners (e.g., taking time after key events to reflect on one’s own performance and to note lessons for the future, to become more aware of one’s own learning preferences and to actively engage in all four stages within Kolb’s learning cycle, etc)
  • Supporting individuals in deliberately seeking out experiences which would stretch them out of their comfort zone
  • Ensuring personal development or career plans include a range of different learning opportunities, which tap into different learning styles or modes
  • Engaging in team or peer reviews to analyse the efficacy of decisions made, gathering a range of views on how different people would approach the same situation and to collectively explore alternative strategies.

It could be also argued that being an agile learner must be a pre-requisite for developing other key leadership skills and that it is also important that senior managers role model learning agility in order to create a culture of continuous learning and personal growth. It’s also something that an individual can demonstrate in any role, regardless of the stage the individual is at in their career. So if learning agility is closely linked to leadership success, then it’s probably something we could focus on as a marker of potential for the highest-level leadership positions, which makes it a highly useful concept.....

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