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The Proof is in the Paper


by Robin Stanton Gerrow

Research Confirms the Importance and Validity of Learning Agility for Leadership Success

“Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, and then doing it.”

There are a number of definitions of learning agility, but Kenneth De Meuse, PhD, puts it pretty succinctly.

The concept of learning agility came about nearly 20 years ago in a journal article by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger. “The term was coined because the ‘right stuff’ is not always enough,” De Meuse said. “You might have the ‘right stuff’—all the right competencies and performing at a high level—but if you want to continue up the ladder into leadership, you have to continue to learn and grow, and do new things.”

Although the idea of learning agility has been around for a while, organizations who use it had to rely on anecdotal evidence without the science to back it up. As a scientist, that wasn’t good enough for De Meuse.

“Over the last 10 years learning agility has become very popular,” he said. “Some organizations are using it because it is shiny and new rather than because they understand that it really works. I knew there had to be scientific evidence that learning agility is important—more than just hype. I wanted to demonstrate that there is hard data that would support the connection of learning agility to leadership success.”

So, that’s what he set out to do, and he presented his results, “A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Learning Agility and Leader Success,” at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Chicago, IL. He reviewed 19 field studies looking at the link between learning agility and leader success and found a significant relationship between the two.

“Overall, the meta-analysis revealed a strong relationship between learning agility and leader success,” De Meuse said. “Whether one is focusing on the linkage between leader performance and learning agility or the linkage between leader potential and learning agility, the findings appear clear. Learning agility is significantly related to leader success. It is the number one predictor of success—the next closest is intelligence.”

The need to identify and nurture learning agile employees is critical not only for the individual but also for the success of the organization. Learning agility comes into play for several of SIOP’s Top 10 Workplace Trends for 2018, including leadership development and improvement, and selecting, training, developing, and retaining millennials.

Measuring and developing learning agility among high-potential employees is particularly important in industries that require leaders to constantly change and adapt to new market conditions.

“Learning agility is learning from experiences,” De Meuse said. “People who are learning agile will have the ability, willingness, and flexibility, both cognitively and behaviorally, to let go of behaviors that are no longer relevant to a situation they are facing.”

“People who are learning agile get restless, they like to stretch and grow—they have a very wide comfort zone,” he continued. “They have an insatiable appetite to try new things. When one is promoted up the organizational ladder, the skills that led to their success up to that point may not be the same ones they need in the new role. What we find with managers who derail, is that they rely on the same behaviors and technical skills that led to their initial success rather than being willing to latch on to the new skills and competencies required. Learning agility becomes more important when you have to deal with ambiguity.”

As organizations work to create diverse pipelines of successful leaders, the ability to measure learning agility becomes more important.

“Many large corporations will have potential leader programs to grow and develop nonmanagers into manager roles,” De Meuse said. “They will look at performance and potential. Performance tends to be quantitative, reviewing ratings over a period of years. Potential is a difficult metric to calibrate on employees. Often, organizations will make the mistake of just looking at performance, overevaluating IQ and underevaluating EQ, and end up having a ‘similar-to-me’ effect. We tend to like people who are similar to us, including gender and race, resulting in organizations with an implicit bias. If you have an independent assessment of learning agility with a calibrated score, it can help break that bias—having learning agility as a separate metric really can enhance diversity.”

Besides using tools to just measure learning agility, organizations also need to develop that skill within their leadership training programs.

“Learning agility can be developed, but it is a behavior, and like any other behavior it is hard to change and requires motivation, dedication, and time,” De Meuse said. “Organizations that provide resources allowing individuals to grow and create a culture that allows people to make mistakes are more likely to value learning agility. For learning agility to flourish, people have to feel comfortable that they can make mistakes—mistakes are part of the learning process. Organizations that conduct 360 reviews, provide mentors and coaches, and allow people to stretch are setting their employees up to be learning agile. Micromanagement stifles learning agility because it keeps people in a narrow band of skills and tasks. Learning and growing means you are going to make mistakes along the way, and that’s OK.”

Practical applications for screening and developing learning agility within organizations are also examined in the SIOP white paper, “Want More Effective Managers: Learning Agility May Be the Key,” and the SIOP Mini Webinar Series, “Learning Agility.”

De Meuse believes that organizations using learning agility measurement tools must do their due diligence.

“My advice is to be savvy about the instruments they choose,” he said. “Ask for the technical reports, and make sure that the assessment has been tested and validated—look for the scientific support. In short, buyer beware.”

Connect with Kenneth De Meuse by email or through LinkedIn.