There is a direct connection between the growth of your people and your company’s success. If your people are successful, your company will be, too – which means training new employees is a necessary, and even a critical responsibility for Human Resources professionals. Could there be a way to enhance how you train new employees? Is there a trick to unlocking potential and encouraging development on a daily basis? Yes. That trick is Learning Agility.
What is Learning Agility?
Learning Agility is defined as the willingness and ability to learn from experience – and subsequently, apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions. It is a particular type of learning that differs from traditional learning, which helps with memory, analysis, and comprehending new information. It’s a concept grounded in years of leadership research which uncovered that the most effective leaders were those that learned from diverse and challenging experiences over the course of their careers.
There are five focus areas of Learning Agility:
1. Self-Awareness (knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, seeking to improve)
2. Mental Agility (critical thinkers, creative problem solvers)
3. People Agility (exceptional communicators, comfortable navigating conflict)
4. Change Agility (experimenters, highly invested in continuous improvement)
5. Results Agility (delivering results in first-time tough situations, resourceful).
While all these areas are beneficial, a sustained focus on self-awareness can serve as a foundation for building Learning Agility overall.
Does everyone need to be highly skilled in Learning Agility?
The extent to which having Learning Agility matters really depends on the demands of an employee’s role. If the role requires easily learning a new function, creatively solving problems, thriving in ambiguity and complexity, championing change efforts, and overall performing well under new, first-time conditions, Learning Agility will be more important for success.
For roles where deep expertise is critical to success, Learning Agility is not necessarily going to be a differentiator. Employees in these types of roles are often passionate and highly accomplished in their specific subject matter – and can be described as having a Mastery orientation. A master gets the job done when no one else can because they are a specialized “guru” in the area.
“Neither Learning Agility nor Mastery is better than the other,” explains Vicki Swisher, author of Becoming An Agile Leader and a Learning Agility expert. “There is value and benefit to both. In fact, most of us have characteristics of both mastery and Learning Agility. From an [Human Resource] standpoint, it’s really about fit – to role, career aspirations, and to what mix of talent the organization needs to grow.”
Vicki has a wealth of experience in organization and leadership development and talent management. Her broad expertise includes: succession planning, competencies, talent development, learning agility, assessment, coaching, performance management, engagement, team effectiveness, change management, executive facilitation, training, M&A integration, sales and people management. She is a featured speaker at Human Resource and leadership events and the is the author and co-author of several books on leadership and team effectiveness.
In five parts below, Vicki chimes in about Learning Agility, a featured topic in her latest book, Becoming An Agile Leader, and explains what Human Resource managers need to know about the role Learning Agility plays in today’s business environment. She also discusses identifying, engaging, and leveraging Learning Agility while training new employees.
Part One: What role does Learning Agility play in the ever-changing business landscape (and world)?
The world is changing fast. A company that fosters Learning Agility can increase success while navigating the changes.
We are in what Vicki calls a VUCA world. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
She says, “The reality is that the business environment today is one where external forces in the market and the world in general will continue to exert pressure on companies, making it increasingly difficult to achieve sustained competitive advantage or hold the title ‘market leader’ for long.”
The world is most likely not going to get any less intense than it is right now. A focus on Learning Agility can help your employees thrive when confronted with unforseen circumstances, dilemmas, crises, and other complex problems.
“Training your employees to become Agile Learners, or increase their already present Learning Agility, will provide them ideas and approaches that are varied and diverse. By encouraging reflection, asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ to make sense of what they’re experiencing, they’re enabled to pull insights and lessons from past experiences and apply [the lessons] to new [experiences],” says Vicki.
Part Two: How do I spot an Agile Learner?
“[Human Resource] managers can begin to observe high-potential employees in a way that identifies them as agile learners or mastery-focused learners in order to better support them and help the organization achieve its objectives,” says Vicki.
You can spot an Agile Learner informally when you interact with them, through their verbal cues, interests, and their potential boredom with cyclical and predictable work. In fact, an agile learner may look like a low-performing employee because they have been placed in a more mastery-focused role.
Vicki explains, “Agile Learners are generally restless. They are curious, eager, and yearning to explore the new and different.”
To discern whether your employee demonstrates Learning Agility, ask yourself:
1. How does this person deal with change or ambiguity?
2. Do they adapt well?
3. Do they proactively seek feedback?
4. Do they effectively handle conflict?
If the answer is “yes” to these questions, that employee is most likely an Agile Learner.
“Keep in mind that Learning Agility is like height and weight – it falls on a bell curve,” says Vicki. “It’s not binary, where you’ve either got it or you don’t. Most of us are somewhere in the middle and have learning agile characteristics to a certain extent. And since Learning Agility shows up as behaviors, everyone can develop into more Agile Learners if they’re motivated to do so. Given today’s business environment, a little dash of Learning Agility won’t hurt, even if your employee is looking for a mastery-oriented career. Even if you’ve found something you love and you’re passionate about, you can’t have blinders on. You need to keep stretching and challenging yourself in order to grow.”
Part Three: Learning Agility is often ignored – and it is a problem.
Without acknowledging and fostering an environment for Learning Agility, you could be losing money and great people.
By infusing Learning Agility into new employee training, you have an opportunity to identify those who may be best equipped to take on increasingly broad, complex roles in the future. Focusing on Learning Agility when training new employees means you can spot high-potential employees and support them in contributing to the success of the company overall. And since Learning Agility (and mastery) is all about fit-to-role and career goals, you can help guide employees to career paths that align with their preference. This can decrease turnover rate, saving your company (and your boss!) real money. It also means your employees will produce a higher quality and volume of work simply by increasing their happiness.
Vicki explains, “Agile Learners can contribute greatly to a company when they are encouraged to operate in a manner that aligns with their skill set. For example, if there’s a high risk/high exposure assignment (such as opening up a new market), it’s smart to assign an Agile Learner because they are suited to thrive and develop in a quickly changing project-sphere. They will handle the issues at hand and appreciate the opportunities to toggle between tasks.”
Part Four: How can I stimulate growth and productivity in new employee training by encouraging Learning Agility?
Learning Agility is a combination of personality and behavior and it is absolutely something your employees can develop. They have to know where they want to go with their career, they must seek feedback, and operate in a way where they are continuously learning. As an Human Resource manager, you can create the environment for them that encourages growth and development in Learning Agility.
To infuse a Learning Agility mindset into your training processes:
Provide employees opportunities to get out of their comfort zones to stretch and grow in different amounts and areas.
- Vicki recommends Human Resource Managers implement a combination of new experience creation, supported by opportunities for continuous self-reflection and feedback to encourage Learning Agility development in their employees.
Create opportunities for employees to take on assignments that are not particularly in their areas of expertise.
- Note that the projects need to be at least medium stakes. If the stakes are too low, the employee will not feel the risk and will not grow. The success or failure of the project must be worth fighting for.
- Remind employees they can do this in their personal lives as well. For example, employees can try volunteering to coach a team, raise funds for a local theater, or learn a new language. extra-curricular activity puts on a path of working with new, diverse people.
Encourage behavioral changes.
- Train your employees to ask for feedback from their colleagues and boss in real time to increase their self-awareness.
- Have employees identify their stress triggers to better understand their own ways of operating and how to navigate their emotional responses.
- Host a Mindfulness seminar at lunch or create a Mindfulness group. Increasing Mindfulness enables you to pause and respond in a productive way while controlling your impulses.
- Create and distribute a reading list of interesting articles or books related to your business and to the world in general. Reading broadly will enable your employees to make fresh connections to project work.
“When it comes to encouraging Learning Agility in the workplace, the general rule of how we develop rings true. We learn through experiences, especially new experiences. Above all, keep stretching yourself out of your comfort zone, and more than likely, you’ll grow as a result,” says Vicki.
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” We see that now more than ever. Employees who can adapt to change rather than freeze at the sight of it are the most successful.
There are ways to create opportunities for all employees to increase their Learning Agility, and in doing so, build a culture of Agile Learners. You now have the tools to build an environment that cultivates Agile Learners: from spotting Agile Learners, to making Learning Agility a priority in your training methods, to encouraging Learning Agility through opportunity creation and behavioral change. Applying a Learning Agility focus can increase the potency of your new employee training methods – saving you and your company valuable time and resources, while making your employees happier, more successful, and ready to take on their next project – and the world.
Novaretė would like to thank Vicki Swisher for her time and insight in this article.
Interested in determining whether your company culture encourages Learning Agility? Take our culture assessment below.