More than seven years ago, Peter Senge alerted us to the need for more learning organisations. To my mind, that need has grown enormously. Yet, the number one limitation I find to organisations becoming better at learning is that their leaders are not very adept at it.
Last October (2012), I suggested that we should “Hail the Agile Leader”. Here’s how I closed my thoughts back then:
Research from a growing number of scholars suggests that leaders who are able to seek out, manage, understand and ultimately learn from new and challenging experiences are able to act decisively even when uncertain. As a result, learning-agile individuals can effectively take in and process information, integrate new ideas with previous experiences, reflect upon new insights and generate solutions to problems that ultimately lead to new ways of doing things. In my experience, agile leaders are best suited to utilise opportunity foresense when confronted by disruptive ambiguity. That is, agile leaders don’t allow themselves to become stuck with the solutions that worked for yesterday’s problems, even if they themselves were the ones who came up with those solutions.
Many have taken an interest in the subject and are regularly adding to the knowledge base on this subject. One good treatment of the subject that was published at about the same time as my own post (which I just discovered) is a post by Leanna Cruz with a most-interesting title: “Learning Agility — The Difference Between a Successful Leader and One on the Path to Derailment”. Cruz, writing for Positively Successful, has a nice four-point definition of “learning agility” that I would suggest you add to your own lexicon of critical business skills:
Individuals high in learning agility are describe as:
1. Seeking more experiences to learn from
2. Enjoying complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences
3. Getting more out of these experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them, and
4. Performing better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire as a result
She also reveals how she might have decided how to title her article: “A study conducted by The Center for Creative Leadership [CCL] found that successful executives are those who tend to learn new perspectives and behaviours from both work and life experiences while derailed executives, all of whom had been successful for many years and had many experiences and key job assignments, showed virtually no pattern of learning.”
The CCL study was done in 2012, and you can download a 19-page PDF on the subject here. The A. J. O’Connor consultancy also has an excellent comparison-contrast of CCL’s view on learning agility versus two other studies. Even more recently, check out the 2013 Korn/Ferry Institute blog on the subject, in which they note, “Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful executives from unsuccessful ones.”
It may seem obvious that getting to next is, at the root level, an exercise in learning. But that does not alter the fact that some organisational leaders are averse to learning, placing 80 or more per cent of their confidence for sustaining the firm by relying only on what made it successful in the past. For such leaders, newly conceived processes, systems, products, services, technologies and workplace experiments are not only alien to their sense of what’s needed to keep their enterprise growing, they may even feel that any time spent by anyone discussing new possibilities is time wasted. When leaders are anchored in the past — what they learned and did in years gone by — their organisations tend to tiptoe into the future no matter how fast their competitors are racing ahead.
Organisations learn when its people learn, and I find that people throughout an enterprise are much more likely to develop a passion for learning when their leaders model the behaviour. And Cruz affirms that this is not an option for leaders:
The evidence is growing that long-term success as a leader seems to depend largely on a readiness and ability to learn, because it enables us to acquire new behaviors quickly and effectively, which ultimately enables adaptability and resilience. While this overarching concept of learning agility may always have been important, it seems even more so now, given the constant change in today’s business environment.
Before you can learn to seek the future, you have to seek to learn.