Learning Agility: Key to Building a Great Team

I was recently talking with an HR leader who mentioned that a newly promoted executive at her company was facing the challenge of restructuring the organization as part of a companywide cost reduction program.  Her advice to this leader was to start with the goals she was being asked to achieve and to think about the best way to configure her organization and the capabilities that will be required.  Then and only then, think about the people on her team and determine if they have the skills and learning agility – the ability to successfully face new challenges – necessary to be successful.

Experience Does Not Always Equal Success

My associate had shared two powerful messages. One was that “staffing follows structure,” a concept explored in AlignOrg Solutions’ book, “Mastering the Cube.” The second was her guidance on how to select people to fill roles once she designed the new structure.  Leaders, including myself, can fall into the trap of trying to find the most experienced candidate for a role. We can expand this concept beyond staffing to include how we look at organization design in general. We know that an essential part of the organization design process is building the right team – but are we focusing only on relevant experience, or should we broaden our perspective to consider including teammates with other qualifications?

When defining the qualifications needed to be successful, we often include years of experience.  The default is often to require 10 – 15 years or more of relevant experience for leadership roles. We may fall back on similar criteria when selecting an organization design team member. But I can tell you that most of the time, we do not have validated research to support that “number of years” requirement. 

So why does that matter – don’t we intuitively know that if someone has a history of doing something it will be less risky to put them in a similar job? That might be what our gut tells us, but it’s not always true.  This approach can remove very talented candidates or teammates who may not have obtained the arbitrary amount of experience we’ve determined qualifies someone to do the job.

The “years of experience” requirement is typically based on an assumption that if a person learned a skill previously, they will require less time to be productive in their new role. This is not always a reliable predictor of future success – in fact, some would argue previous experience can be a trap because the person might try to complete tasks in a way that worked in their last role.  However, more times than not, different contexts require different actions. Hearing a member of your organization design team or newly promoted colleague say, “In my last job, this is what we did,” as the sole rationale for undertaking a project or embracing a strategy frustrates teammates and rarely leads to success.

The Value of Learning Agility

On the other hand, people who exhibit learning agility are more likely to succeed if placed in positions of greater complexity and scope. If organizations want to predict how well a person might perform in a future position, assessing his or her learning agility rather than basing the assessment solely off age and experience is a good place to start.

This idea that the best candidates are often those with the ability to learn from experience and then apply their learning to other situations was first defined by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger in the early 2000s and has been backed by subsequent research as a predictor for success. Other sources point to the same basic concept – people who are most successful in new roles are those who learn quickly and trust themselves enough to experiment with new solutions and apply their knowledge in different ways to situations they haven’t experienced before.

The advice the HR leader was providing to the newly promoted executive was spot on. Focusing on learning agility, and reducing or eliminating the years of experience qualification, will be of greater help to this new leader when she has to select people for the positions in her newly designed organization. She’ll be able to evaluate a whole new set of candidates and current team members who may have been disadvantaged due to lesser years of experience but who possess a strong desire for growth.

Characteristics of the Learning Agile

Observing whether someone demonstrates the following characteristics will help reveal their learning agility:

  • Are they willing to learn from feedback and do they demonstrate a commitment to personal improvement?
  • Are they willing to solve ambiguous problems, even when there is no clear solution?
  • Can they read other people well and adapt their interactions and messages accordingly?
  • Are they open to change and diversity of viewpoints, and do they invest in their colleagues’ success?
  • Are they intellectually curious and inquisitive, and do they dig beneath the surface to understand the world around them?
  • Can they constructively challenge the status quo and direct their energy to search for improvement?
  • Are they able to deliver results the first time under tough conditions, where other colleagues have struggled to be successful?
  • Do they exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in others?
  • Are they threatened by disagreement, or can they tolerate the discomfort of conflict?

Learning Agility: A Skill For Us All

Finally, let us not forget the unexpected situation we find ourselves in right now that most, if not all, of us have no prior experience with – coping with the threats, fears and disruptions of a global pandemic.  It’s the learning agile among us who are helping navigate this very uncharted territory. Those of us who can confront these new challenges with resilience and enthusiasm will have the best chance of success, in the corporate world and beyond.

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