4 Ways to Become a Better Learner
The CEO sitting across from me is explaining how he and the other executives of a telecommunications firm were caught off guard by a new technology that disrupted the firm’s business. “We did not see WhatsApp coming,” he says, shaking his head. He wants to increase his capacity to learn, to spot and understand developments inside and outside of the firm. He believes this is vital not only for better performance now, but also for the continued success of his career. “I’m in my early 50s, and I’m afraid that the next time I want to change jobs, people will see me as irrelevant. I’ve seen it happen to plenty of others. How do I stay fresh and convince people that I still have a lot to contribute?”
His hunch is right on target. Research shows that leaders who think and act from the same assumptions and behavioral repertoires they’ve used for years are prone to stagnate, underperform, or derail. As David Peterson, director of executive coaching and leadership at Google puts it, “Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today, but it’s a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow.” To sustain success, you must develop learning agility.
What is Learning Agility?
Learning agility is the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience. Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.
A desire to develop by acquiring new skills and mastering new situations is a fundamental element of learning agility. Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from challenging developmental experiences.
As a result, they don’t get defensive and they’re willing to take risks, such as making a mistake or appearing non-expert in public. The CEO in the opening paragraph epitomizes non-defensiveness. Our conversation took place at the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School affiliate) Leadership Forum, held in October at IESE Business School. He talked openly about his challenges and fears, inviting feedback from four executive coaches whom he’d just met. Unfortunately, many leaders miss out on key learning opportunities because they avoid questioning themselves or intentionally moving outside of their comfort zone.
Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.
How Do You Develop Learning Agility?
Since developing learning agility involves learning to recognize and change automatic routines, the aid of a coach can be invaluable. Coaching, which Peterson calls “the ultimate customized learning solution,” helps clients understand how their minds work and how to make them work better. But even if you’re not working with a coach, there are steps you can take on your own to enhance your learning agility.
Ask for feedback. Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.
To reduce your defensiveness and develop a learning mindset, consider adopting a motto like Peterson’s: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.” The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.
Experiment with new approaches or behaviors. To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.
Look for connections across seemingly unrelated areas. For example, Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts. To try this technique yourself, choose a domain you have expertise in but that’s unrelated to your work and ask yourself how you might apply that knowledge to your current challenge.
Make time for reflection. A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly. To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.
Practicing these strategies will help you extract the maximum learning from experience. What did our CEO learn? Among other things, he realized that he’s been seeking advice on a current challenge from people in his network who are likely to have similar perspectives, and that he stands to learn a great deal from two individuals in different industries. He articulated what he hoped to learn from talking with them and scheduled a time to pick up the phone the next morning.