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Learning Agility – 5 Factors

Learning Agility - 5 Factors
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Many organizations struggle to identify the best predictors of leadership potential. Learning Agility, or the willingness and ability to learn from one’s experience and then apply that learning to new situations, is a key component of potential and can be accurately defined and measured. As organizations work to truly differentiate their high potentials from the rest of the pack, assessing learning agility is a great first step.

So, what makes up Learning Agility and how do you identify someone who is learning agile? Let’s break it down.

Korn Ferry breaks Learning Agility into 5 parts:

  1. Mental Agility
  2. People Agility
  3. Change Agility
  4. Results Agility
  5. Self-Awareness

Mental Agility

Mental Agility is different from being smart or intelligent. It is more akin to street smarts than book smarts. Mentally agile individuals are curious, always looking for parallels and fresh connections. They are sponges, always trying to learn new information from books, TED talks, newspapers, and the like.

One highly learning agile Fortune 500 CEO I interviewed told me that when there are interesting speakers in town, he goes to see them, even if they are speaking on a topic that he has no real interest in. He shared “I just like to be around smart and interesting people to see what they have to say and how they think.” That is a classic example of how a learning agile person would see the world.

People Agility

People Agility has a component of emotional intelligence, but is also different. Individuals with high people agility are looked to by others in a crisis, enjoy helping others solve problems, and are open to a wide array of individual perspectives. They value diversity of thought, rather than find it threatening. Unlike those with low people agility who want to surround themselves with others just like themselves, the highly people agile understand the value of different perspectives and surround themselves with a very diverse team. They can work through conflict successfully and without a lot of noise.

One executive I worked with went to Mexico to complete his first ex-pat assignment. He fell into the trap of trying to use a US-centric management style in Mexico (if you don’t understand me I’ll talk louder) and was unsuccessful. From there, he got a recommendation for a book on working in Mexico, spoke to others who have been successful in that culture, and aligned himself with a mentor. The next time he went back to Mexico, he was highly successful. He learned from his initial experience.

The real hallmark of the learning agile is that they leverage that learning in subsequent situations. So on a new assignment in China, he realized that he must adapt to a new culture and spent the time up-front learning what he needed to be successful in that assignment.

Change Agility

Those high in Change Agility seek out new and first-time situations. They introduce new slants and can take the heat of change in organizations. Successful individuals will often set up low-cost or no-cost pilots to try out their thinking before implementing broad organizational change.

If this agility is overused, individuals who are highly change agile can be disruptive, always tinkering and trying to change things that are not broken.

They say that Thomas Edison took over 1000 tries to find the right element for his light bulb. When asked about his high failure rate, he purported to say “Now I know 999 ways not to invent the light bulb.” Change-agile individuals take failure in stride.

Results Agility

Individuals who are high in Results Agility perform well in new and first-time situations through resourcefulness and inspiring teams. While many individuals consistently deliver strong results in similar situations to those they have faced before, what differentiates the learning agile individual is the ability to repeatedly deliver top results in new and challenging situations.

When Lou Gerstner was CEO of IBM, he had a young MBA who was managing a business and lost 2 million dollars in the venture. When Mr. Gerstner called this individual into the office the MBA said “I’m assuming you want my resignation.” Mr. Gerstner said, “I just invested 2 million dollars in your education, I don’t want you to quit, I want to know what you learned.”


Self-awareness is the fifth piece of the learning agility puzzle. Those who know their strengths and weaknesses and do not have blind spots (i.e. weaknesses that everyone else is aware of except that person) perform better over time. High self-awareness tends to lead to humility, rather than overconfidence.

In a Cornell University study, it was found that self-awareness was the best predictor of overall success in leaders. In other research on 360-degree feedback, those who overrated themselves in comparison to others were five times more likely to be fired. If you think you are doing great (giving yourself high scores on 360 feedback) and everyone else thinks you are not, it is no surprise to see that people with a blind spot big enough to drive a truck through would get fired.

Korn Ferry’s Learning Agility or the Talentx7(R) are great for predicting leadership success. Identifying individuals with high Learning Agility is extremely valuable.

Interested in assessing your team for learning agility? Contact us to get started today.

Meet the Author

David Weller

Senior Partner

For the past 25 years, David has had a passion for helping clients take the guesswork out of their hiring and development practices.

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