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How to Find Next-Generation Leaders

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Mon Jun 01 2015

How to Find Next-Generation Leaders
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It’s an age-old question: What kind of people do you want to lead your company? For years, the reflexive answer has been, “experienced people.” However, "people who demonstrate learning agility" is a new contender for the top spot. 

Learning agility is a metric that organizations can use to evaluate leadership prospects. Indeed, it is a more sophisticated method of evaluating talent; it forces companies to seek out people who not only possess conventional attributes like experience, but people who can employ those attributes in a way that is particularly suited to today’s business environment. 

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Learning agility has emerged as a valuable determiner of leadership success, because organizations must deal with the accelerating pace of change of the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). In fact, for many organizations, the days of simply making payroll, dealing with customer concerns, rolling out new products, managing growth planning, keeping an eye on the competition, and so forth are over. Today, most companies must constantly adapt and change in order to overcome such challenges as:  

  • disruptive technology

  • fresh competitors who threaten their business model

  • new environmental regulations that squarely impact their operations

  • cyber attacks that corrupt their customer database. 

Adaptability, creative problem solving, and a high tolerance for uncertainty can be even more relevant to executive leadership than experience, due to the proverbial sands that are constantly shifting under organizations. Although it often helps to have been in a few scrapes and lived to tell the tale, applying the lessons learned from those experiences—in the right way—means knowing how to use them “here and now,” rather than just rewinding an experience to fit new circumstances. 

Enter Learning Agility 

The executive recruitment company Korn Ferry and the Center for Creative Leadership are among the growing number of organizations to discern that learning agility is a key ingredient for responding appropriately to constant change. They define learning agility as the capability to respond quickly to diverse, intense, varied, and challenging assignments. Likewise, agile learners not only demonstrate superior performance under first-time or unique conditions, they also eagerly learn new competencies in order to perform well. 

Specifically, Korn Ferry defines five components of learning agility: 

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  1. Results: focuses on delivery, achieves personal impact, and motivates others

  2. People: develops personal insights and convictions about needs and requirements

  3. Mental: deals with complexity, sees patterns, and makes connections

  4. Change: accepts uncertainty, explores, and develops opportunities

  5. Self-Awareness: understands personal strengths and weaknesses, actively seeks feedback and is sensitive to their impact on others. 

When the world tilts or the bottom drops out, agile learners see it as a mystery to unravel, and they dive in with gusto. Agile learners thrive on turning challenges into successes and taking calculated risks to make big gains, and they instinctively identify the people who can help them succeed and energize them to do so. 

In other words, experience creates even more dynamic agile learners—but that’s because they use their prior successes and lessons learned as indicators, not as fixed realities. Rather than force-fitting circumstances into their experience, they use it to evaluate the circumstances facing them at that moment. 

Put simply, agile learners can always answer the question: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” 

Agile Learners as Leaders 

For organizations struggling in a VUCA world, agile learners are valuable leadership candidates. The challenge is to identify your agile learners. 

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Unlike workplace experience, people can’t list learning agility on a resume. More importantly, because it’s a different way of looking at typical attributes, a lot of employees and candidates might not even realize that they’re agile learners. There are, however, a few tell-tale signs of an agile leaner that can help managers identify them: 

  • How do workers manage unfamiliar situations? Do they get excited by matching their attributes against the demands of a task?

  • When workers don’t know what to do or lack a skill, do they know how to build internal networks to bring in the right expertise? Or, do they wait for information to come to them?

  • In every situation, what are their underlying competencies? 

Bottom line: Organizations that factor learning agility as a “leading” indicator for their talent development efforts (recruitment, promotions, and executive succession planning) create more opportunities to get the right people in the right jobs than those who lean disproportionately on experience—which is a “lagging” indicator.

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