The last two decades were the Golden age of superheroes and we have witnessed some outstanding entertainment. I realised that with the reincarnation of these superheroes we also witnessed the increased complexity and challenges that came along. Today’s leadership is driving every single facet of the organization towards a particular and integrated purpose of sustainable growth & customer delight with stakeholders and business associates. The question is what does it take to transform a mechanic to an "Iron Man"?
Harvard Business Publishing presented a survey (in 2010) in which a whopping 88% of the top Indian organizations identified "gaps in their leadership practice" as their foremost challenge in the coming years. Not much later, in 2012, Manpower Group did a global talent shortage survey of employers reporting that 48% India-based respondents faced a challenge in finding qualified candidates for their respective leadership positions. In a recent in-depth analysis of India's top 500 companies by Booz & Company, it was forecasted and that by 2017/18, 15% to 18% of leadership positions in these companies will be either unoccupied or be filled by those who are still not prepared for these jobs.
The Indicators & predictors of true leadership are an individual's ability to find meaning in negative and multifarious events and learn from even the most worrisome state of affairs. Of late, there has been some noise about the competency termed as "Learning Agility". I understand "Learning Agility” as the proficiency or preparedness of decoding the dynamic past experiences and applying the code to face new situations successfully. In order to prevent a leadership crunch it is imperative to correlate Learning Agility with long-term potential for promotion and play in the arena of volatility.
After a detailed study, I have identified four individual characteristics believed to be associated with Learning Agility.
Psychological Agility - Being comfortable in VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and ambiguity) conditions. This includes thinking through problems, introspecting, reflecting, looking out for fresh viewpoints, guiding thoughts with creativity and purposefully putting one-self into difficult situations.
e.g. - Military researches around the world have confirmed development through adaptive behaviour when exposed to key fundamentals of intricacy, changeability, and ambiguity. It shows how ranked officers undergo training in numerous and diverse environmental situations and then are exposed to opportunities where they apply the lessons learned, receive feedbacks, and then apply them again. The need of the hour is to make them display highest level of leadership in both conflict and peacekeeping scenarios.
Transformational Agility - Having passion for ideas, liking for experiments, skill building, being open to change, responding to change in a positive way, challenging the status quo.
e.g. - Priyanka Vice President - HR in an MNC with 2 children feels intense about missed opportunities in her way — both in her personal and professional life. At her office, where her peers worked 54 hours per week while she worked 40 hours , and at home, where she was often too distracted or tried to fully engage with her husband and children. In this situation there is that one inner voice which tells her to be a better employee or risk her career failure and yet another to be a better mother/wife or risk neglecting her family. In such daunting situation Neha fails to pick her opportunities and prospects at office and keeps her mind preoccupied during family time.
The best way to develop psychological agility is to counter such scenarios, notice when you are being victimised by your thoughts and feelings. That’s hard but there are signs. Study says brain builds patterns to behave/think in a certain way sometimes it becomes rigid and sometimes repetitive. Realization that your thought got stuck is from where you can initiate change.
People Agility - Understanding self and others, treating others constructively, keeping cool, self-reflection, self-awareness, seeking feedback and changing one’s behaviour for the better.
e.g. - One Executive from where I worked went to Switzerland to take up an assignment. He fell into the trap of trying to use an Indian management style of "Jugaad" (if you don’t get a permanent solution, go for temporary solutions) and was unsuccessful. A senior from the organization recommended him to study Switz working style and interact with others who have been successful in their delivery in that culture and aligned himself. He was sent to Switzerland again and was highly successful. He leverage his learning is subsequent situations. In his successive assignments to China and Germany, he realized that again he must adapt to a new culture and spent the time up-front learning to be successful.
Stakeholder Agility - Complete understanding of different viewpoints and the objectives of different stakeholders and aligning one’s action with them
E.g. – Once 2 groups of professionals were asked to visit a house, the 1 group had 4 architects whereas the 2nd had a plumber, an architect, a mason and wood craftsmen when asked to roam around and collect their observation for renovation, 1st group had one dimensional view point whereas the other group came up with observations with different perspective and multiple dimension which made up a much better proposal for renovation.
How can "Learning Agility" be infused as an attribute in an individual? A simple 5R concept can be considered as a simple tool to make this possible. 5R can empower employees and help them develop that edge for leadership skills. Organizations must adopt this model as a talent development tool. The 5 R’s evolves you to take up any given challenge.
- Re - Innovate - Do not be afraid of challenging the status quo. Without breaking the monotony one will get exhausted with his/her life cycle in the same way as any available products.
- Reiterate Performance - Remain calm in the face of adverse situations and try identifying the best options available to sustain performance. Steve Jobs believed in quality & performance, kept reminding himself even in the adverse time to re-gain his position at Apple Inc.
- Reflect - Take time to reflect on your experiences while finding out probable options of a given challenge. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) developed the technology to launch satellites under the leadership of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. The Satellite Launch Vehicle was built to carry a payload of 40kgs to a height of 400 kms. The first flight experimented in August 1979 failed due to faulty valve. Approximately 1 year after reflecting upon their challenges helped them to overcome and on 18 July 1980 they successfully launched Rohini at RS-1.
- Risk – Take up and stand in challenging situations, this will help one to be attentive and alert in any given situation. Let’s take one more case from Steve Jobs life events, He wanted to put technology in everyone's hand and he eventually did. Though the ride was not that easy and obstacles stood tall in his way. The Apple PDA failed and MacBook was not was not raging to success. Never the less it was persistently pushed and navigated the external surrounding risks for some 20 years or so to meet his goal.
- Resist - Resist resistance to change and instead become an enabler of change by being more creative. Darwin’s theory of adaptation to change through creative efforts says it all. (Study of Darwin over mockingbirds finches)
Although our knowledge and understanding regarding the learning agility is on the rise, researches are still in their early years and much work remains to be done. It is imperious that we continue to build up our understanding and mature more around what Learning Agility is, how can it be measured and how can we differentiate learning agile individuals from rest. Ultimately this work will help us better assess, and select people. What is certain is that individuals developing this competency will unbridle their own leadership potential and will be better prepared for future leadership roles.