Summer 2021
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CTDO Magazine

Navigate the Future With Learning Agility

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Leaders who are open to new thinking and are adaptable will succeed.

Shifting work policies, social unrest, financial uncertainty, and accelerating digital solutions—the past 12-plus months have been marked with disruption on all fronts. And the pace of change shows few signs of slowing anytime soon.


To navigate this new world of work, companies can upskill and reskill employees. But how can they do so at the speed required to keep up with this change?

Enter learning agility

Korn Ferry has been studying learning agility for nearly a decade, and its research reveals that agility is a key indicator in leadership success. In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, the management consulting firm interviewed more than 100 CEOs in North America to investigate how leaders see business evolving, what challenges businesses and leaders face, and what leadership skills and capabilities future leaders need.

Specifically, Korn Ferry asked study participants to identify the characteristics future leaders would need to succeed. An extensive list of skills and capabilities emerged, and not surprisingly, tech-savviness, risk-taking, authenticity, resilience, and emotional intelligence topped the list. More importantly, more than half of the respondents stressed the need for continuous L&D.

More recently, Korn Ferry launched a global survey to investigate how organizations are reacting to the pandemic, and the responses underscored the importance of leaders being open to new thinking and being able to adapt quickly. In other words, they need learning agility.

“Leaders who are highly learning agile are more flexible and better able to adapt their behaviors as situations change,” asserts Guangrong Dai, senior director of research for Korn Ferry Institute, when describing the recent study.

“And given today’s dynamic, hyperchanging environment, a premium has been placed on learning agility as an essential and indispensable quality for both leaders and high-potential talent.”

Learning agility defined

But what does it mean to be learning agile?

Most experts agree that learning agility is not an academic skill but an individual’s ability to quickly study a new problem and use their own learning process to gain deep understanding before making a decision. Individuals with learning agility are curious, continually seek out challenges, work on acquiring new skills, and make a point of learning from their experiences.

Korn Ferry breaks this quality down into a few key areas:

  • Critical thinking and the ability to make fresh connections and solve complex problems
  • Self-awareness, which helps the individual navigate and handle tough situations
  • Experimentation mindset and feeling comfortable with change

Leaders who are learning agile are always “learning and willing to consider things they may not know or understand, as well as embrace those things that may not be traditional and familiar. They have to be insatiable learners, driven to continually educate themselves,” adds Dai.

Learning agility doesn’t only benefit the organization, it can boost a person’s career too. Data from Korn Ferry’s assessment of learning agility reveals that those who scored highly were 18 times more likely than low scorers to be identified as high potentials. What’s more, the research uncovered that individuals with high learning agility earn promotions more quickly.

Start now

It’s never too late to increase learning agility. According to the Center for Creative Leadership’s Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience, to excel at learning from experience and to succeed in challenging times, follow these for four tips:

  1. Seek out unfamiliar and diverse experiences to immerse yourself in situations that broaden your skills and perspective. CCL notes that if you avoid new opportunities and stay close to your comfort zone, you may minimize frustration but also miss out on growth.
  2. Hone your sense-making capabilities. Business situations shift quickly, and leaders rarely have the luxury of time, warns CCL. That means you need to be willing to experiment, engage in active listing, and always ask “Why?” “How? and “Why not?”
  3. Internalize and reflect on lessons learned. After a project or challenging situation, debrief with others about what took place, review decisions, and ask for feedback. That process is critical in solidifying insights so you can apply them in the future, says CCL.
  4. Adapt and learn. Leaders with learning agility are not only nimble, they also look for similarities between new situations and things they’ve already experienced and learned from. CCL advises executives to explore and draw on similarities to frame new challenges.

The key to future readiness is learning agility, which “is central to becoming a self-disruptive leader who can adapt and thrive in new, ambiguous, uncertain situations,” writes Dai. He adds that “in an age when the word ‘unprecedented’ is ubiquitous, learning agility is at the core of building leaders’ adaptive strength—which can mean the difference between surviving the future and thriving in it.”

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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