We have recently developed and used the concept of Learning Agility in the HR Consulting group, which reports to me in my current role, possibly for the first time in Kazakhstan in a Kazakh company.

I had used Learning Agility a couple of times in previous companies, as an aid in identifying (high) potential.

Now we were assessing everyone in the HR organization of one of the national companies. The aim was to choose a mix of people who could best work in a task force on Transformation. So in addition to competence based interviews, psychometric tests and HR case studies (to test HR knowledge that was required), I suggested we also use Learning Agility.

Learning agility isn’t new of course. Two of the world’s largest and most-respected leadership consultancies and trainers, Korn-Ferry and CCL (Centre for Creative Leadership) have both worked on learning agility for many years: researching the concept, validating the measurement against leadership and company performance and developing assessment tools and development approaches.

Learning agility is a description of a person’s speed of learning, which is considered one of the most important factors in successful leadership and is also a good predictor of ‘high-potential’. People with strong learning agility can rapidly study, analyse and understand new situations, new business problems and come with solutions.

In this context ‘potential’ can be described as the eagerness and ability to learn and grow from experience and successfully apply that learning; to be resourceful in facing change by developing new behaviours and attitudes.

Korn-Ferry and CCL have developed slightly different models. They may disagree but I would say the essence is the same.

Korn-Ferry’s has five elements.

  • Mental Agility: Thinking critically, comfortable with complexity, penetrating complex problems, expanding possibilities by making fresh connections, parallels and contrasts, finding solutions to tough problems
  • People Agility: Understanding and relating to a variety of other people and tough situations, handling conflict constructively, open minded, politically agile, enjoying helping others to succeed, ensuring collective top performance.
  • Change Agility: Enjoying experimentation and trying out new things, curious, effectively dealing with the discomfort of change, understanding the impact of change and how to manage it
  • Results Agility: Delivering results in first-time situations, have drive and personal presence, flexible and adaptable, accomplishes things against the odds that builds confidence in themselves and others, inspiring high-performing teams.
  • Self-Awareness: Reflective, knowing themselves well; understanding their capabilities and their impact on others.

CCL defines four behaviors that enable learning agility and one that derails it.

  • Innovating: questioning the status quo, challenging long-held assumptions with the goal of discovering new ways of doing things, generating new ideas through the ability to view issues from multiple angles
  • Performing: learning from experience occurs most often when overcoming an unfamiliar challenge; handling the stress brought about by ambiguity and adapting quickly, picking up new skills quickly and performing them better than others, which requires observation and listening skills, and the ability to process data quickly
  • Reflecting: to really learn from experience requires looking for feedback and eagerly processing information to better understand one’s own assumptions and behaviour, becoming insightful about oneself, others and the problems faced
  • Risking: stretching outside of the comfort zone, into unknown territory, trying new things, taking risks that lead to opportunity. A continual cycle of learning and confidence-building leading ultimately to success

The learning-agility “derailer” is:

  • Defending: individuals who remain closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback tend to be low in learning agility.

We didn’t use either of the consultancies’ own tools but developed a set of questions for a learning agility-based interview. In practice we used the four elements of mental agility, results agility, change agility and people agility (including self-knowledge) and looked for examples inside or outside work, from the participants.

The results were enlightening and encouraging and gave the leaders of the HR organization, who also undertook the learning agility interviews themselves, new insight into a number of their staff, and allowed them to choose a different group of people for their Transformation project team than they might have originally planned.

Finally, a personal observation and my personal experience.

One might assume that learning agility – flexibility, adaptability, growing from mistakes and resilience – are leadership qualities that any organization would value and prize in their people. Unfortunately I have seen that successful career ‘broadening’ experiences are often discounted. Many organisations prefer qualities and attributes that are easier to measure and seem to want a future leader’s development to follow a steady and linear chronology of well-defined business roles and structures. And frankly, managers with a low learning agility in organisations – and there are many – will find some people with high learning agility ‘difficult’.

However if you have learning agility, I can testify that the road might not be straight but it is certainly more fun and makes you a far better leader. And the organization benefits immensely from leaders who have developed and have a high learning agility. Which is why I am such a fervent supporter of the concept and its measurement and wish the large consultancies every success in promoting it and their tools. And why, when I recently hosted an ‘Open Door’ on learning agility for HR practitioners in Kazakhstan, and nobody in the audience had heard of the concept, I told them to remember the date, because they would look back in the future and say ‘That was the day I first heard about learning agility’.

1 Comment

  1. Dmitry Dmitriev

    Great work Gary! Happy to see you are driving change applying agility principles in big national entities. In our projects we also implement agile principles and frameworks such as Scrum as well as measure and develop corporate cultures using alternative world-class tools. So I understand it is not easy, however this is the way to go!


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