Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
18 Jul 2013

Executive development learning agility

18 Jul 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Senior management skillsets

When it comes to dealing with the growing complexity, interconnectedness and changeability of the marketplace, 80% of managers never gain the strategic-adaptive skillset required for senior positions. This skillset is an outcome of vertical development, the restructuring of one’s meaning-making framework, as opposed to lateral development, the gradual competence-based learning.

Research carried out by Charan, Goldsmith, McCall et al over the past two decades suggests that managers can acquire a strategic-adaptive skillset by continuously learning from challenging experiences. Successful executives learn faster not because they are more intelligent, but because they adopt stronger, more active and effective learning strategies. The vast majority of executives derail or plateau because they continue to rely largely on the same skillset, values and time allocations that got them promoted, underestimating the novelty of their new challenges and context. They are not agile learners.

Enhancing hard-wired learning

Learning agility requires a natural 'hard-wiring' which can be enhanced. The key is to teach executives how to surface foundational, often obsolete, beliefs that drive their way of doing business. Take, for example, the widespread assumption that being a good leader is about solving problems or driving change, which is all about tangible goals, focus and drive. Having this belief can prevent you developing a more advanced meaning-making frame that would allow you to think beyond tangible goals, identify patterns in the market and spot opportunities while still keeping an eye on more immediate results. How can you unblock this bottleneck?

Learning techniques

To enhance your learning agility you need disruptive experiences to engage emotional centres in your brain and make you question your core assumptions. For example, you could try traditional outdoor team-building exercises, psychodrama sets enhancing self-awareness and 'full immersion' experiences aimed to improve understanding of niche markets. Less disruptive techniques, such as action inquiry, use a systematic mapping process of the behaviours that executives want to change. This helps identify their anxieties about what would happen if they were to actually make those changes so they can see what has held them back. The participant then designs and runs a series of small experiments in the workplace to test out the validity of their assumptions. As people realize that the assumptions they have been operating under are false or at least partial, their resistance to change diminishes and they begin to change their behaviour much more naturally.

Learning agility involves open-mindedness, flexibility, curiosity, willingness to reflect and desire to change. These are arguably more difficult to assess and develop than some more traditional measures of aptitude. Nonetheless, learning agility allows you to make the most of other learned skills, and therefore should become the cornerstone of senior executive development.