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A Practical Plan to Become a More Agile Learner

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

 

To be ready for change, leaders must learn every day they’re on the job, taking each communication, decision-making event, or problem-solving test as a potential growth experience. By deliberately mining the workday for opportunities to learn, managers can form the good habits that accelerate learning agility and avoid the bad habits that slow it down.

These transformation-ready leaders don’t ask what they need to know about a given circumstance; they ask what they can learn from it. The subtle difference signals a flexible, curiosity-driven mind-set in the latter, and exposes a more rigid, expertise-forward attitude in the former that may limit their relevance beyond their core set of skills.

Pay attention to the people you work with, and you’ll quickly begin to spot the curious learners. They’re the ones who casually linger after a meeting to follow up, ask questions, and dig deeper. They’re the ones with above-average library fines and subscription fees because they hunger to read, consume podcasts, and spread their curiosity in new directions. And they’re the early adopters and connectors asking, “What’s the next big thing?”

Within this description are three consistent behaviors that create the conditions for learning agility. When you intentionally apply them, they become learning accelerators, and good things happen. Agile learners are more likely to: set challenging goals, make faster and better-informed decisions, take more calculated risks, ask more nuanced and valuable questions, read more books to stretch their thinking, network with more diverse people, and experiment with new processes and technology.

Take our quiz, “Are You Increasing Your Learning Agility — Or Are You Missing Out?”, to find out if you are seeking opportunities to grow:

To scale your expertise and accelerate your transformation readiness, follow these strategies:

Looking back. When you examine your past, you’re able to capture the best it has to offer. As I detailed in my last column, being a student of your own experience is the fastest way to accelerate learning agility because the lessons are often sitting in plain sight. But if you’re in the habit of rushing to the next thing, you’ll miss them. To gain more insight and to avoid repeating past mistakes, take time to reflect and explore. Here are two simple strategies to look back with greater clarity and consistency:

Pay attention to the people you work with, and you’ll quickly begin to spot the curious learners.

The Friday review: At the end of your week, pull up your calendar and look back at all of your interactions. Pick a few examples, drawing on the good, the bad, and the ugly. Now ask yourself: What factors led to each outcome? Who were the key players and what was their influence? What role did I play? If I were to teach somebody else the most important lesson learned from this interaction, how would I describe it? What do I need to do to make the best use of this lesson in the future?

Coach yourself the moment after: Weekly reflection is a helpful habit, but you don’t have to wait until Friday afternoon to look back. In the moments following an important event, whether you’re in the cab back to the airport or just walking down the hall to grab coffee before the next meeting, use these questions to capture key insights: What are the most important details of what just happened? How expected or unexpected were the results? What factors and decisions led to the specific outcome? If I were to do it all over again tomorrow, what would I change and what would I repeat? What’s the key takeaway from this episode?

Looking around. This is about pulling insights and “aha” moments from the mundane. Because we often pay attention to the big events — an important presentation, a critical feedback conversation — we sometimes overlook the day-to-day conversations and interactions that produce subtler learning opportunities. To pull the full potential from your everyday experience, tune in to your curiosity to notice more of what’s happening around you. Here are two easy exercise to look around with greater purpose and frequency:

People-watch at work: Identify the most interesting people you work with and pay attention to what they’re doing that stands out (for better or for worse). If observing their attitudes and actions from afar isn’t enough for you to glean insight, initiate a conversation with those working to make a positive impact. Ask about their motivations and see if they’ll share the recipe for their secret sauce. As you absorb these insights, consider what you can start doing right now to translate them into lessons on better ways of working for yourself.

Follow the ripples of success: Identify the projects and initiatives that are gaining traction, and then follow them back to their source. Is it a killer idea? Is it exceptional teamwork? Is it flawless execution? Or is it some combination of factors that is driving a project’s success? Set up some time to talk to the key players and find out what they’re doing to achieve such success, then distill your findings into a few takeaways that you can apply to your own workload.

Looking ahead. This is about anticipating what you need. Because we’re often in a rush to get things done, we sometimes address our tasks and responsibilities with just-in-time solutions. But when we’re too busy, the shortcuts we take can cause us to overlook the important knowledge and insights that could help us address future challenges. Here are two straightforward techniques to look ahead with more clarity and regularity:

The Monday future-scan: On Monday morning — before you get into the swing of your day — take a few minutes to look at the week ahead. For the conversations, meetings, and events you’ve got planned, consider where you’ve got room to flex your learning-agility muscles. Ask yourself: Where can I take a risk and try something new? Where can I challenge myself and others to move beyond standard expectations? (For example, if I’ve been really task-focused lately, where can I be more strategic?) What have I learned elsewhere that can inform this situation?

Look around the hidden corners: There’s a saying that great leaders can peek around corners to anticipate what’s coming next. While you may not be able to predict the future, you can prepare yourself for many of its possibilities. Spot your hidden corners by asking: What are the emerging trends in my industry that I might need to speak about with a client or coworker? What can I do right now to be ready for that potential conversation? What are some possible challenges that my teams or clients may encounter over the coming months? What can I do right now to understand the likelihood of those changes and the best response to them?

With these suggestions as a starting place, you’re got a game plan to accelerate your learning agility in the areas that are most relevant to you, both personally and professionally. Although leaders cannot out-learn the pace of change during turbulent times, they can keep up. So don’t ask for permission or wait to start practicing. Start small and start today to begin building your momentum.

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A Practical Plan to Become a More Agile Learner