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Learning agility: A key differentiator for leaders

Learning Agility: A key differentiator for leaders
Published: July 18, 2020
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Even before Covid-19, a leader’s ability to adapt and thrive in rapidly changing environments was a widely recognized requirement. And now, as we approach a post-pandemic future characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity, learning agility has emerged as the critical competency all leaders must have. In the current climate, leaders must constantly be scanning their surroundings, not just to see what has changed but to spot new challenges, risks, and opportunities; they also need to identify gaps in knowledge, skills, and capabilities and act swiftly to close them. Learning agility is often described as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’, and it is a key enabler for organizations that hope to grow, pivot, or transform themselves to remain relevant.

But change also brings mounting demands on our time – paradoxically, we tend to become more time-poor as the need for learning increases. As a result, we must all become proficient at learning in the flow of work and at building the learning agility muscle. And, importantly, every leader needs to be skilled in creating environments in which their people can do this.

Currently, we find ourselves operating in a protracted VUCA landscape (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), but it’s the ambiguity that’s most challenging. Our situation is riddled not only with unpredictability but also with ‘unknown unknowns’, and that makes it difficult to know where to start. Such ambiguity requires leaders to ready themselves and their teams for an unknown – perhaps unprecedented – future.

In addition to gaining new knowledge and skillsets, leaders need to expand their ability to deploy a variety of leadership styles to meet quickly changing needs. In contrast to the consensus-driven, participative style of leadership that most strive to embody, leading through a crisis requires a more direct and decisive approach. In such circumstances, top-down decision-making, radical transparency, and erring on the side of overcommunicating can help to establish clarity, stability, and short-term priorities. Being able to quickly dial up or down, for example, a directive vs. a participative style is what good leadership has looked like during Covid-19, and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

But switching leadership styles so quickly and dramatically is not an easy thing, and it’s also key that people recognize that this is what their leader is doing. Such an understanding relies on well-established trust and value alignment, achieved through more inclusive, participative, and coaching leadership styles when time allows.

Some of the best examples of Covid-19 leadership have been from people who leveraged the confidence and poise they gained in similar moments of crisis. However, as an experiential learning organization, anyone at Impact will tell you that learning does not flow automatically from experience; it must be drawn out through an intentional process of reflection and experimentation. Reflective practice is the idea that you actively reflect on and reassess how you showed up in a particular moment and integrate any insights or feedback toward improved future behavior. This is how strong leaders are able to continuously learn in the flow of work, applying past lessons that allow them to act quickly and decisively even as circumstances change.

Learning agility and the need to shift into different gears is relevant for everyone, not just leaders. The current requirement for many to work remotely interferes with relationship dynamics, threatening to undermine the interactions that maintain trust and rapport between people and among teams. Finding ways to substitute those organic, ‘drive-by’ connections we have with people in the office with more intentional interactions at a time of unprecedented physical disconnect is yet another call for new learning and adapted behaviors. Maintaining human interactions and the trust they cultivate helps us all to feel committed to the task of learning in the flow of getting the work done.

Covid-19 has shone a light on just how important learning agility is. Nothing in our lifetimes has so universally hit organizations, providing a profound jolt to the ways that we work together and demanding that we all learn to work differently, fast. Then reset, and do it again.

Steven Nishida is a senior consultant at Impact America.