SOURCE: Green Peak Partners

March 09, 2015 10:30 ET

Leaders Who Want Competitive, Enduring Organizations Need to Find Employees With a Key Trait That Can Generate Success for Their Company: "Learning Agility"

Learning-Agile Employees Can Be Hard to Spot and Often Don't Match Corporate Standards -- They Take Risks and Push Back More Than Others -- But They Are Quick to Adapt and Adjust, and They Produce Better Results, According to Green Peak Partners

DENVER, CO--(Marketwired - Mar 9, 2015) - Managers who want their organizations to be more agile, more nimble and more competitive in challenging business environments need to look for and cultivate a different kind of employee -- those who, instead of following the standard corporate path to success, challenge the status quo, take risks and often view failure as a learning opportunity.

These people may not fit easily in the conventional organizational box, but they bring an important attribute to the table -- they are "learning-agile," able to rapidly process information and adjust on the fly to changing conditions. 

According to Green Peak Partners, learning-agile individuals have the right skills for dealing with volatile business environments -- more of the norm than the exception in today's world. In addition, they are superior performers. In a commentary, Learning Agility: A Tool for Modern Times, Green Peak reports on research showing that private-equity-backed C-suite leaders who ranked high for learning agility on an assessment test also outperformed less-agile peers as measured by revenue growth, EBITDA performance and "boss ratings" issued by the Board.

Learning-Agile People Can and Should Be Found in Every Organization

"Learning-agile people exist in nearly every organization," said J.P. Flaum, Managing Partner at Green Peak Partners. "A learning-agile person is someone who is currently inventing a better manufacturing process, or spotting what's wrong in the supply chain, or taking on a tough overseas assignment. He might be arguing with managers that a strategy needs to change; she might be alienating colleagues as an initiative she championed falls on its face. Each of those people will come out of the experience better than before, and help you see and take advantage of new opportunities."

"In practical terms, learning agility means flexibility, openness to information and the ability to get -- and apply -- insight, even from a misstep," said Dr. Becky Winkler, Partner at Green Peak Partners. "Learning-agile people can seem unruly -- they may not look like ideal corporate citizens. But given the right roles and the right guidance, they can produce unexpected and highly valuable results."

"Learning-agile employees and managers have the ability, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky described it, to 'skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been,'" Mr. Flaum added.

Learning Agility Has Been Underrated Because It Was Hard to Measure -- Until Now

According to Dr. Winkler, learning agility has been undervalued in the modern workplace, in part because until now there has been no reliable way to measure it. But that has changed. Green Peak's research links learning agility directly to business results. In a study of 100 CEOs, most of them in companies funded by private equity, Green Peak found that high scores on the Learning Agility Assessment Inventory (LAAI, a test developed by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Center for Creative Leadership) were strongly associated with superior performance as measured by revenue, EBITDA and positive performance reviews issued by the Board.

The LAAI scores employees according to five qualities that define learning agility: Innovating or challenging the status quo; performing in a way that keeps them focused on the present; reflecting on feedback to see if their assumptions panned out; taking smart risks that lead to opportunity, and avoiding defensiveness, reacting well to criticism as part of their cycle of learning and adaptation.

These qualities make learning-agile individuals more extroverted (more sociable, more active and more likely to take charge); more focused (they continually refine and polish their thinking and their work); more original (they are more likely to create new plans and ideas); more resilient (they are "at ease," calm and optimistic, and rebound more quickly from stressful events, and less accommodating (they are more likely to challenge others, welcome engagement and express their opinions).

Why the link between learning agility and business performance? "One of the reasons may be the self-awareness that comes with learning agility," Dr. Winkler said. "Learning-agile people are strongly self-aware. In previous research with Cornell University, we discovered that strong self-awareness was the single highest predictor of success across C-suite roles."

How Managers Can Cultivate Learning Agility in Their People, Their Organizations and Themselves

Managers can use these findings to make themselves and their organizations more learning agile and therefore more competitive, through:

  • Hiring: Look for candidates who haven't followed a linear, traditional career path; give personal qualities like scrappiness a priority over traditional measures like education and credentials; find people who have failed, learned from it, and are willing to talk about their mistakes in an open fashion; steer clear of overly "polished" applicants -- they may not be risk-takers; favor candidates who have taken non-traditional career paths.

  • Making yourself and your people more learning agile: Seek out new solutions and explore alternatives -- encourage your people to always ask, "what if?"; look for patterns in complex situations and reward those who do; cultivate calm through meditation and other techniques; seek out "stretch assignments" that take you out of your comfort zone, and give stretch assignments to your reports; acknowledge your failures and encourage your people to do so by conducting reviews that focus on projects more than people -- "what we learned" rather than "who got it wrong."

  • Embedding learning agility in the organizational culture: Incentivize innovation through budgets, rewards and dedicated entrepreneurial teams; change the tone of meetings by listening better and not always accepting that the fastest answer is best; bake "what ifs" into the strategic planning process; score managers on their willingness to reach out for help from colleagues; reward risk-taking and don't punish failures that result from risk-taking; create programs that rotate people through stretch assignments; make openness to failure a part of the review process and part of your leadership style.

"Reaping the benefits of learning agility takes effort and commitment," Mr. Flaum said. "But the first step is simple: Acknowledge that there is such a thing as learning agility, learn how to recognize it and understand that it can be cultivated. Once you do that, you will realize that you are surrounded by learning-agile individuals -- and that they can create tremendous value for your organization."

For a copy of Learning Agility: A Tool for Modern Times or to arrange an interview with J.P. Flaum or Becky Winkler, please contact Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller of Sommerfield Communications, Inc. at (212) 255-8386 or katarina@sommerfield.com.

About Green Peak Partners

Green Peak Partners is an organizational consulting firm with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle committed to expanding the talent and leadership capability of our client companies at both the individual and team level. For more information, visit http://greenpeakpartners.com.

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