A key skill for leading a business right now? Learning agility

A key skill for leading a business right now? Learning agility

It's key to responding to the unexpected.

For Kellie Clenton, ‘learning agility’ has been a powerful skill that’s enabled her to cross industries and continents in her career.

She cites it as allowing her to use past experiences to ‘bridge’ gaps in her experience in order to open up new opportunities at tech companies like Expedia and Paypal in the UK, and helpful again as she returned to Australia with no job to step into in late 2018, after almost a decade overseas.

Now as Head of Delivery Partner for Uber Eats ANZ, she says it’s always imperative that companies place value in people who have skills in learning agility – the ability to recognise patterns and adapt to new environments, to learn new skills quickly and constantly — rather than simply hiring those with deep domain expertise alone.

And over the past few months, it’s a skill that’s never been more important as businesses respond to the twin health and economic crises.

Learning agility is not something you can learn at university. It’s the ability to embrace learning and new concepts, and to draw on previous experiences, in order to find answers to questions you’ve never had to answer before. It’s about being open-minded, willing to take on new challenges and experiences. Korn Ferry once described it as the “single best predictor of executive success.”

A World Economic Forum publication listed learning agility — along with resilience and grounded optimism — as one of the three vital skills for the age of disruption. That was in September 2019, well before we knew the full extent of fast and immediate disruption businesses would experience in 2020.

Kellie says in her experience, learning agility has enabled her to find the patterns and parallels of her previous on-the-job experience to take into news roles and industries. “The pattern recognition piece is so important. Always keep in your mind that your experience is valuable,” she said.

“You’re never going to replicate the same situation twice, but you can find those analogies. Once you reflect back on your experiences, the more confident and better enabled you’ll feel to come up with a solution.”

Such confidence has been vital in responding to the unexpected challenges brought about by the pandemic.

“I have never previously had to think about how to procure personal protective equipment,” Kellie says, citing a recent example of tackling an unpredictable challenge. “I just haven’t had to comprehend that, yet we spent a lot of time on that issue during COVID. Nothing can prepare you for that. You need to draw on your peers and colleagues and don’t try and go it alone.

Kellie was in New Zealand as the full reality of COVID started to hit in Australia in March, and returned to a world where all staff were working from home. They participated in daily situational reports examining how the situation was evolving, along with the news that was coming in and what they could learn from global teams.

Throughout her career, Kellie has seen the value of leadership agility firsthand. Although she’s made intentional career moves, she believes rigid career plans can be detrimental, and the current global situation is an obvious example of how the things you expect to occur don’t always happen. “It’s better to have a longer range view. Think about sailing or hiking, you can see where you have to go to and there are multiple ways in which you can get there,” she says.

“What’s most important is to understand what your north star is, you intrinsic motivators, which then enable you to make decisions on opportunities as they come up.”

According to 2014 Korn Ferry research based on thousands of senior executive assessments internationally, just 15 per cent were found to be “really strong agile learners”. They say finding these types of leaders can “stretch the thinking of traditional HR”.

The research is now six years old, but the push for companies to better consider learning agility as a key skill is coming to life again during the Pandemic, and for the challenges that are to follow.

Is learning agility innate, or can it be developed?

Learning agility starts with curiosity, according to a 2019 publication from the WEF. Which is something anyone can aim to work on by continually asking ‘why’. The publication also suggests constantly exploring (including be engaging with different types of people) and reflecting, by cultivating self-awareness and pushing yourself to actively seek feedback and help and to, “see failure as learning.”

There are a number of learning agility “enablers”, according to the Harvard Business Review which can be cultivated – after the first step of realising the power of learning agility as an asset

Innovating. This involves challenging assumptions, questioning the status quo and seeking out new solutions, for example asking questions like, “what are several radical things I could try here?”

Performing. This is the ability to to stay present and engaged in difficult and sometimes high stress situations. To help, look for patterns in complex situations and find similarities between previous experiences and what you’re currently working on. Aim to listen to others, instead of immediately reacting.

Reflecting. This involves being able to learn from experience, by seeking feedback and processing information to better understand their behaviour. Ask questions of yourself and others regarding the things you could have done differently and better.

Risking. This is about stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone, in order to take on risks that lead to opportunities – such as through volunteering for jobs or roles where failure is a possibility.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox