||10/16/2012 7:38:40 PM|
Learning Agility: Looking Beyond Experience to Build Succession Plans
By MaryAnn Miller, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Avnet, Inc.
Experience is still the best teacher, but by itself, it isn’t a good measure of how a person might perform in a new job.
Filling positions solely by evaluating an individual’s experience and performance is essentially relying on “lagging indicators” to predict future performance. Since more than 40 percent of executive appointments fail, according to the Corporate Executive Board, something obviously isn’t working.
The job and the person must be a good fit for each other, and experience alone won’t accurately predict a perfect match. However, evaluating experience through the prism of learning agility, a concept gaining more favor in business planning, adds a “leading indicator” to the equation and yields better succession planning decisions. Properly applied, learning agility can help companies develop a deep bench of talent and an understanding of how best to use that talent.
Understanding learning agility
Learning agility is the ability to respond quickly to diverse, intense, varied, and challenging assignments. Agile learners demonstrate superior performance under first time or unique conditions, and they eagerly learn new competencies in order to perform well.
Agile learners can always answer the question: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” With learning agility, the focus is placed on the skills and knowledge that an individual can acquire and less on what an individual has already acquired. Agile learners don’t try to force-fit circumstances to fit their experiences; they use their experiences to advise each new situation.
There are five components – or “awarenesses” – that comprise learning agility, which include:
- Change: accepting uncertainty, exploring and developing opportunities
- Mental: dealing with complexity, seeing patterns and making connections
- People: developing personal insights and conviction about needs and requirements
- Self-Awareness: understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses, actively seeking feedback and being sensitive to the impact on others
- Results: focusing on delivery, achieving personal impact and motivating others
Factoring learning agility into the succession equation deepens companies’ views of their talent pools. A thoughtfully constructed talent analysis that incorporates learning agility can reveal which executive candidate is the right fit for a given position. Learning agility extends the conversation beyond the results individuals produced in their current or previous jobs to focusing on the thinking that went into achieving their success.
Identifying and using learning agility
The surest sign of high learning agility is an individual’s response to challenge. When faced with something new or unfamiliar do they pitch in with gusto and an eagerness to figure it out? Those are the people to start with when you’re looking for agile learners.
Executives, directors, front-line managers and anyone else who does performance evaluations are in the best position to help you get started on your learning agility search. After working with these leaders to identify people who thrive on challenges, human resources needs to begin ongoing conversations with managers that go beyond annual performance review metrics and explore key areas, such as:
- What characteristics does a promising employee bring to challenges?
- What personal attributes do they bring to a new task?
- How do they manage an unfamiliar situation? Do they get excited by matching their attributes against the demands of a task?
- When they don’t know what to do or they lack a skill, do they know how to build internal networks to bring in the right expertise? Or, do they wait for information to come to them?
- In every situation, what are their underlying competencies?
These types of questions will spur a much different conversation than those covered in a traditional performance evaluation, and they all lead to the key question: What is the individual’s likely career path – the type of position and highest level in the organization that they can attain?
During conversations on learning agility, human resource professionals might start running into resistance. Some executives and managers can be reluctant to surface talented employees as they fear they will be poached by other departments or, worse, outside the company. They might hesitate to share their sharpest insights for fear of losing valuable employees.
Companies that face this dynamic need a cultural shift. The talent pool has to be a company asset, not an individual executive’s asset. Evaluating managers on how they develop and export talent, and rewarding the most successful at this is an important first step to getting past the initial resistance.
Using learning agility properly
It’s a short leap from identifying agile learners in your organization to building a matrix of their skills. This talent pool matrix is half of the succession planning process. The other half is doing a similar breakdown of your job requirements, which brings us to the point of how best to use the learning agility findings in succession planning.
Just as experience isn’t an accurate predictor of success on its own, neither is learning agility. Everyone has different levels of learning agility. Some jobs require high levels of learning agility, others less. Companies that simply rank their talent by learning agility and move the top person on the list into each newly open position are in many cases setting up their active learners to fail.
For example, a highly agile learner can be disruptive in a structured, process-driven environment that works to operational metrics. They might want to re-make processes that already work, or to take on all of the special project work for themselves.
Many companies also assume that advancement is synonymous with leadership positions, but that’s not always the best role for an agile learner. Some of them may not be satisfied managing an established team because they thrive on challenges and building something new. These people may be more valuable to the company as individual contributors.
At Avnet, we help our leaders recognize their talents and evaluate their learning agility by rotating them through diverse assignments. We test them in a variety of situations so they can gain confidence through new experiences, and we can see how they respond. This also helps us avoid the trap that the Corporate Executive Board identified in 2011, when one out of three emerging leaders cited that they did not receive enough development and coaching.
Succession for long term success
The Corporate Executive Board’s 2011 survey of 33,000 corporate leaders in 23 countries revealed that almost half – 41 percent – were struggling to find qualified executive leadership. Succession planning that incorporates learning agility can help companies develop a “deep bench” of leadership talent instead of hoping to find it when a new position opens up or simply promoting the next person in line with the most seniority.
Understanding learning agility helps companies see their leadership needs, their leadership assets, and how to develop a system for bringing them together. Matching an agile learner’s skills with a position that meets the company’s needs yields the best results for both.
Companies that properly factor learning agility into their succession planning will know whether a position calls for a highly agile learner or a less agile learner who has other strengths. A creative role that requires breaking down barriers and challenging the status quo in an