Having the right leaders in place is absolutely critical to business success. Without strong leadership throughout an organization, even the most talented employees will struggle to be effective. When assessing leadership potential, companies emphasize a number of skills, behaviors, and competencies related to job performance, but they often fail to consider how a candidate learns and applies new information. While they might assess people for other characteristics, they might not give sufficient thought to someone’s learning agility.

What is Learning Agility?

While the term is used in a variety of contexts, learning agility broadly refers to the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn practices in a variety of contexts and environments. Put more simply, it’s being able to figure out what to do when placed in an unfamiliar situation with little guidance. Agile learners are able to adapt to changing circumstances, experiment with new ideas and approaches, and gather information that allows them to reflect on their performance.

There are two pivotal factors to consider when evaluating someone’s learning agility: speed and flexibility. They must be able to take in and process a large amount of information quickly, often from a variety of sources. More importantly, they must be flexible enough to allow that information to change their existing models and practices. Highly agile learners, for instance, will not hesitate to abandon or alter the perspectives and ideas that no longer apply to their current circumstances. They do not cling to the status quo out of sheer, inflexible habit.

The Difference Between Learning Ability and Learning Agility

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, learning ability is not the same thing as learning agility. A person’s ability to learn is more of a cognitive measure of how well they absorb and retain new information. Learning agility is more contextual and focuses on practical applications. Someone who can easily consume and understand materials related to their job responsibilities has high learning ability, but changing the way they do their job based on new information would be an indication of high learning agility.

Why Learning Agility Matters to Leadership Success

In order to be successful, leaders must find ways to continuously adapt to new situations and circumstances. Clinging to the same ideas and habits is a recipe for stagnation. When leaders stop learning, they become more risk-averse, less receptive to feedback, and unwilling to learn from failure. In today’s VUCA world, businesses need agile leaders with the ability to foster connections throughout the organization, adapt to shifting situations and priorities, and deliver results that drive innovation and growth.

Leaders who lack learning agility will struggle to manage change successfully, and may not even see the need for change in the first place. This can leave an organization flat-footed when the business landscape shifts beneath it, making it even harder to adapt. They also tend to be less resilient because they struggle to learn valuable lessons from setbacks and mistakes. Rather than identifying opportunities for improvement when things go wrong, they often double-down on the same failed strategies that are no longer as effective as they were in the past or place the blame on others.

The Importance of Assessing Learning Agility

The best time to focus on learning agility is during an assessment process. Simply evaluating performance in an existing role may indicate how well a person learns, but it often doesn’t provide much insight into how well they would perform in an unfamiliar situation. The distinguishing feature of high-potential employees is their ability to adapt to new circumstances, which gives an idea of whether they can thrive in a leadership role.

Leadership assessments that measure qualities like openness to experience, active listening skills, self-awareness, and adaptability create a more comprehensive picture of a potential leader’s learning agility. If they struggle to make decisions in a low information environment, lack critical thinking skills, or have a tendency to avoid taking risks, then they will likely be very uncomfortable in a leadership role that forces them to confront a variety of ambiguous and complex situations that don’t have clear or predictable solutions.

Focusing assessment efforts on identifying and cultivating learning agility will help organizations to find high-potential employees with the capacity to develop into agile leaders. These employees are the most critical element of any succession strategy as they are more likely to be able to step into a new role and find the best way to be successful. Without sufficient learning agility, they may struggle to adapt to their new role and lack the resilience necessary to learn from any setbacks that may occur.