Bulletin for sailors – Learning Agility: How skilled are you?

Rose Cartolari

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler 

Like many of you, the last 15 months have confronted me with all the intricacies of adapting to the constantly and rapidly changing world of today. One of the thoughts that keeps turning up for me is how much learning agility – the ability to learn quickly in situations that are new and/or changing – is becoming increasingly valuable for experienced leaders as they try to adapt and upgrade themselves in an onslaught of changes. The ability, therefore, the recognise when certain knowledge or skills need to be updated or extended, and the ease with which this upgrade can be made, becomes a fundamental skill for all leaders. Agility in learning has several aspects, but being quick and flexible are recognised as being the most important. Other factors include having an open mind, knowing how to take risks, collect data, reflect and have a number of interpersonal skills, such as knowing how to collaborate and offer and accept feedback. 

Unfortunately, learning agility gets much harder to acquire as you work your way up the corporate ladder; it’s much easier to cultivate and develop when you are younger. First off, as you get older, you get more set in your ways of doing and thinking. It gets harder to change (and to actually realise that you are the one that needs to change). Second, most leaders are used to being experts and they lead from experience – it’s what got them to where they are. But in such a high paced, changing world, no one has the experience to lead. Therefore we have to develop the ability to learn “on the fly”. This can be hard to accept. Of course being intrinsically smart (learning ability) is important in navigating a constantly evolving environment. But today, being smarter and smarter is not always better. When entire paradigms of working and leading are changing, deep knowledge and cognitive depth can be less important than the ability to change perspectives, to explore new ideas. You can see how knowing how to learn quickly becomes absolutely essential to handle the many curve balls life hands you.

But all hope is not lost. Behavioural aspects of learning agility can be developed. Here are some ways you can get better:

You can get better at dealing with uncertainty – put yourself in new situations and environments (both at work and at home) and learn to navigate them. Start with limited situations, where your mistakes won’t have a significant negative impact. Think of it as being at the gym; start with the lighter weights and slowly set yourself bigger challenges. From this you’ll learn to be ready to lead your organisation calmly, mindfully and with a steady hand, even during extreme situations and under environmental stress.

You can get better at seeing mistakes as learning opportunities – we are usually very good with getting things done well, but how are we when we get things wrong? Start to reframe and embrace, or you’ll never fully take risks.

You can get better at knowing yourself– start observing when you shut down to ideas and people, and when you open up to them. Study yourself so that you can spot patterns of automated behaviour and use that knowledge to get better at listening to others.

The world dynamics of today require higher degrees of learning agility. If we improve our abilities in this area, we are well on our way to start unleashing the capabilities of both ourselves and those around us.