The Tuna Fish Sandwich Test

CEO Gary Burnison on the different but effective ways to determine learning agility.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

As much as people talk about being “lifelong learners,” few really make the effort. It’s one of those little fibs they tell themselves or say at job interviews.

But here’s the thing: more than the money or the title, what matters most in your career are the learning experiences. Yet, rarely does anyone think, “What am I going to learn in this position—and who am I going to learn from?”

Learning is so important to me, it’s one of the first things I look for. It’s also why I’ve been known to ask a quirky question in the middle of an interview—like, “How do you make a tuna fish sandwich?” I want to see how people think, how they handle the unexpected. Do they give me a cold stare because they can’t figure out why I’d ask such a thing? Or do they launch into a story?

By no means is this meant to be an assessment. But I’ve found that those who handle the unexpected question—and use it to showcase who they are and how they think—are more likely to be adaptable and curious. And those are key components of a very important quality: Learning agility.

Learning agility is defined as the willingness and ability to apply lessons from the past. Or, as I like to say, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. Learning agility is so important, our firm views it as the number one predictor of success.

Learning-agile people are insatiably curious and engaged with the world around them. They don’t just default to the “same old” solutions and “status quo” problem-solving tactics that worked in the past. They’re willing to go against the grain of what they know how to do and prefer to do. Why? They constantly seek to get better and to learn new skills and ways of behaving. They eagerly apply fresh approaches, ideas, and solutions.

To a large degree, agility is inborn. But it can be developed. One way is to develop your curiosity. Have varied interests, open yourself to the new and different—even eating unfamiliar foods or listening to music that’s outside your favorite genre.

Most of all, approach every day as a new opportunity to learn something, especially about yourself. After all, learning never ends.

How Learning Agile Are You?

Take this brief quiz. Give yourself 1, 2, or 3 points for each question, depending on your answer.

Now add up your score.

10-20 Points = Your pattern of scores indicates a predisposition toward "learning agility," especially change and mental agility. The ability to deal with uncertainty and change, while having the capacity to tolerate a lack of details, is a hallmark of the agile approach to work.

21-30 Points = Your pattern of scores indicates a predisposition toward diligence and dutifulness. Detail orientation and a need for certainty are hallmarks of of a strong contributing employee, but they can impede promotion and are in many ways the opposite of the agile approach to work.