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Learning Agility: The Leadership Skill for a Moving Target

Corbette Doyle | January 8, 2010

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Leadership is often described as a "process of influencing a group to achieve a common goal." It is such a simple definition to describe something so few actually accomplish. Perhaps the problem has less to do with one's ability to influence and more to do with the goal—and the fact that it, and the rules of the game, are constantly changing.

While 99 percent of CEOs expect the pace of change to accelerate, per an October 2007 Conference Board survey, "CEO Challenge 2007: Top 10 Challenges," few say their change management efforts deliver the desired results. A whopping 70 percent merit a failing grade. That hardly seems possible, until you think about the failed new product launches, IT conversions, outsourcing initiatives, or mergers you have witnessed. Looked at from that perspective, it's a wonder 30 percent succeed!

But why do some initiatives succeed? IBM research on IT projects suggests that some people, the "Change Masters," succeed the majority of the time. The others, the "Change Novices," rarely succeed. Setting aside the organizational constraints IBM identified, the difference between the successful individuals and the also-rans boils down to a skill many now characterize as leadership agility and/or learning agility.

Although the concept of learning agility is not new, it is gaining a new head of steam. The great work from the Center for Creative Leadership has made it clear that we learn most about being a leader by, well, being a leader. We learn from experiences that force us to step up and lead, preferably requiring us to stretch to be effective. But there is an interesting wrinkle to this. Not everyone is equally equipped to learn from their experiences.

There are important implications about both developing your next generation of leaders and being a good leader when you consider this. After years of creating rotational assignments and mapping the career progression of our high-potentials, we still see variability in the effectiveness of these so-groomed leaders. There is mounting evidence that one source of this variability stems from a leader's readiness and ability to learn—it is not just having the experience, but whether and what was learned from it that matters. As T.S. Eliot observed about the challenges of learning, "We had the experience but missed the meaning." 1 It turns out that having the experience and getting the meaning may not be as automatic as we thought.

Learning Agility Defined

Learning agility is the term used to describe those best equipped to learn the most from their experiences. At its most basic level, learning agility refers to a constellation of characteristics—raw aptitudes and abilities, as well as attitudes and skills—that relate to an individual's readiness and ability to learn from experiences. Learning agility breaks down into characteristics such as self-awareness, openness to experience, motivation to learn, feedback seeking, and use of deliberate learning strategies.

These characteristics make a difference because someone who is high in these (thus, high learning agility) is someone who is more likely to seek out new experiences, and more likely to learn from those experiences. This individual, therefore, will be more likely to gain new skills and will do so more quickly. This individual will be more adaptable and resilient in the face of change. Given the link between these characteristics and adaptability, it is not too surprising to find growing evidence that having these characteristics (that is, high in learning agility) is one of the strongest predictors of promotion among leaders. 2

Developing Learning Agility

What do these findings regarding learning agility mean for those who nurture the leadership pipeline in an organization? There is one clear message from the evidence around learning agility: you should either be hiring for it, developing it, or perhaps, both.

If you choose to hire for it, you should use screening tools that help you evaluate the stable, enduring abilities and traits that those high in learning agility seem to share: openness to experience and motivation to learn. While selection tools targeted to these characteristics are few and far between, there are some out there. For example, KornFerry's Lominger has a structured interview process for assessing learning agility. We have yet to find a well-constructed (that is, reliable and valid) personality-based screening tool targeted to learning agility, but rumor has it that a couple of large consulting firms have them in the works. Stay tuned. In the meantime, we would recommend working together with a firm that offers Big Five-based personality assessments (such as Hogan Assessments) where the personality dimensions related to learning agility can be measured and validity assessed.

An alternative to hiring for learning agility is developing it. While there are some stable abilities and traits that are important raw material for high learners, there are aspects of learning agility that are malleable; it is possible to learn how to learn. The developable side of learning agility includes self-awareness, how to seek out and use feedback, choosing developmental experiences, and creating deliberate learning strategies. The most effective ways to develop these all involve means to help make learning deliberate and explicit—360 degree feedback tools, mentoring and/or coaching, and carefully constructed action-learning programs.

Looking at this from the view of an individual who is, or aspires to be, a leader, there is an important question you can ask yourself, Am I too comfortable? It is human nature to keep doing what we already know how to do. When we do so, we feel competent and confident. To take on something new and different, and possibly fail along the way, is to welcome discomfort. This is not easy. If you find yourself focused more on sustaining performance, and undermining your willingness to try something new, there is a book that offers an easy to read take on how to increase your readiness to learn Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck.

If readiness is not an issue, the next question is whether you are using all the tools at your disposal to insure you learn from the experiences you are taking on? Do you spend time to reflect on what you've learned? Are you deliberate about this? Do you have a mentor, or even a peer, that you can rely on to help support you as you try to consciously take meaning from challenges? No need to overcomplicate this; just make a commitment to do it. Remember, it is not just the experience itself, but what meaning you make of it that converts challenging experience into new skills.


The evidence is growing; long-term success as a leader seems to depend largely on a readiness and ability to learn, namely 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 have always been important, it seems even more so now given the constant churn of today's business environment. This may explain why some of the foremost experts in identifying and developing leader talent say, now is the time to "bet on learners." 3

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1 T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages," Four Quartets.
2 Michael Lombardo & Bob Eichinger, The Leadership Machine: Architecture to Develop Leaders for Any Future (Lominger Ltd. Inc., 2000).
3 Ibid.