Learning Agility: Where does Learning Agility come from?

Learning Agility—the ability and willingness to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new, first-time conditions—is grounded in research. Originated at the think tank Center for Creative Leadership and extended by 20 years of global research and practice by Lominger and Korn/Ferry International, Learning Agility’s foundations are in two streams of research that looked at leadership success (and failure).  In study after study, it’s been proven that a leader’s success depends on their interest in seeking out new, diverse, and challenging experiences; drawing numerous and varied lessons from those experiences; and integrating and applying those lessons and principles to their next challenge. In other words – being Learning Agile.

In contrast, the behaviors that trip up executives and get them in trouble, sometimes even derailing previously successful careers is the tendency to focus on doing more of the same, relying too much on past experiences, and defaulting to their favorite solutions. At the extreme, derailed executives appear to quit learning new things altogether and, if anything, just add ammunition to support what they already know. As a result, they don’t make transitions to new different jobs effectively or adapt quickly to the unfamiliar. They tend to rely on what got them to where they are, ironically becoming victimized by their past successes. Faced with new demands, they get stuck, underestimate the newness of the demands and, instead, assume the new demands are just another version of what they’ve done before.

Here’s what the research shows:

Those with Successful Careers 

Those Whose Careers Stall or Derail 

Have roughly twice the variety (but sometimes the same number) of on-the-job challenges 

Tend to have the same types of assignments but virtually no pattern of learning new things from them; almost seem to have quit learning 

Seek and get more feedback on how they come across to others and what they need to do to improve 

Have low self-awareness—an imbalanced view of their strengths and weaknesses

Have zigzag careers–with many firsts and some failures

Don’t have a clear view of what they aren’t good at, so don’t think to develop new skills…until it’s too late 

Respond to this newness and adversity by learning new skills and ways of thinking 

Fail when making transitions from the known to the unknown 

All this doesn’t mean you should discount your experience and abandon what’s worked for you before. It also doesn’t mean you won’t continue to see success in similar situations. You should both honor your experiences and retain a healthy dose of skepticism about them. When you’re faced with a new or tough problem or issue that needs solving, pause before defaulting to what’s been the tried-and-true path for you in the past. If the solution or course of action feels comfortable—that’s a red flag. If it seems like a winner on the surface—another red flag.

Remember that your favored solutions likely have a shelf life. You are bound to encounter new contexts, different people, and unfamiliar problems. And, eventually, you will come up against a situation where your favored solutions or skills just won’t get the job done. Build your Learning Agility and you’ll have an insurance policy to thrive in an uncertain future.