“I’m in my early 50s, and I’m afraid that the next time I want to change jobs, people will see me as irrelevant. I’ve seen it happen to plenty of others. How do I stay fresh and convince people that I still have a lot to contribute.”
This is a quote from a CEO of a major telecommunications firm. It’s not a quote from me.
The CEO is right. Research shows that leaders who think and act from the same assumptions and behaviors that they’ve used for years are prone to stagnate, underperform, or derail. As David Peterson, director of executive coaching and leadership at Google puts it, “Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today, but it’s a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow.” To sustain relevance, you must develop learning agility.
What is Learning Agility?
Learning agility is the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience. Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.
A desire to develop by acquiring new skills and mastering new situations is a fundamental element of learning agility. Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from challenging developmental experiences.
As a result, they don’t get defensive and they’re willing to take risks, such as making a mistake or appearing non-expert in public. The CEO in the opening paragraph epitomizes non-defensiveness. Unfortunately, many leaders miss out on key learning opportunities because they avoid questioning themselves or intentionally moving outside of their comfort zone.
Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information.
How Do You Develop Learning Agility?
1. ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.
To reduce your defensiveness and develop a learning mindset, consider adopting a motto like Peterson’s:
“There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”
The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.
2. EXPERIMENT WITH NEW BEHAVIOURS
To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” Don’t just listen to what people do differently in respect of their leadership or read about recommendations for how to do something, experiment. Find an environment that is safe and experiment.
3. LOOK FOR CONNECTIONS THAT MAY NOT CURRENTLY EXIST
Growth almost always comes through the connectivity we have with people. Someone has done what you need to do, connect. Someone is one step ahead and you need the one-step knowledge, connect. I have found that leaders are more than willing to help other leaders, people are more than willing to help.
4. MAKE TIME FOR REFLECTION
A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly. To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.
Practicing these strategies will help you extract the maximum learning from experience.