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How Transformation-Ready Leaders Learn

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.

 

The pace and magnitude of disruption creates a readiness paradox for today’s leaders. Deep expertise is required to navigate uncertainty and solve difficult problems, yet the range of challenges and complexities leaders face often draws them outside of that knowledge and their comfort zone. This can render core expertise less relevant at the very moment it’s needed most. The way through this paradox? Leaders must increase their capacity to learn alongside the changing conditions they confront.

Learning agility is the ability to learn when you least expect it. Not just in the classroom, or during a formal training, but on the fly throughout your day-to-day experience. Without learning agility, leaders are more likely to repeat past mistakes and will be less prepared for an uncertain future.

If you want to weather disruption with greater resilience, you can increase your transformation readiness with more dynamic learning. It won’t cost you anything beyond a little time and focus, but you have to actively look for these opportunities to learn and grow. Because outlook is so critical to the discipline of learning from daily experiences, I focus on the six perspectives that inform learning agility.

Three of these unique vantage points accelerate your learning potential, while the other three impede it. As a leader, it is important to understand the specific mix of behaviors you practice.

To understand this framework and create your own plan for increasing learning agility, consider which of these accelerators and blockers you practice. First, here are the three intentional behaviors that can help you accelerate your readiness and capacity to learn.

Looking back. When you make time to reflect on your past experiences — whether they include a pivotal client meeting or just a casual conversation with a colleague — you accelerate your potential to learn. This reflection enables you to make meaning from your past experience, then take what you’ve learned and apply it to future situations. It helps you understand what you’d do differently next time and what you’ll repeat for continued success.

Example: You just wrapped up a project, but rather than immediately starting on the next one, you spend a few minutes thinking about what surprised you, what frustrated you, and what worked best. With these reflections in hand, you draw conclusions and hatch a plan to share them with your team and incorporate them into your next effort.

Looking around. When you pay attention to colleagues and clients, and notice the contributions of others, you accelerate your potential to learn. The ability to leverage your everyday interactions with people — especially those in diverse fields working on novel concepts — allows you to explore better ways of working by borrowing the best of what others have to offer.

Example: In the past, you seldom thought of your colleagues from other divisions, believing their work was unrelated to your priorities. But now you’re cultivating relationships to stay current on what they’re doing so that you not only maintain a broader perspective of business issues, but also the potential to leverage their best practices and emerging innovations in your own work.

Looking ahead. When you intentionally focus on what’s just ahead — whether it’s an emerging problem your client might face or an improved approach to getting your work done — you stretch your mental flexibility and increase the potential to accelerate your learning. The ability to peek around “hidden corners” with curiosity and anticipate the need to adapt to future change helps you stay ahead of the curve and be able to capitalize on opportunities for innovation and continuous improvement — before others even have them on their radar.

Example: There is a status meeting scheduled for next week with your client, and you decide to forecast a few of the critical issues and solutions that your team can help address. Over the weekend you spend time thinking about your views on the client’s evolving issues, as well as the future strategic priorities they will produce. Though nobody asked you to do this creative thinking, the process revs your excitement and leads to an approach to the presentation that feels distinctive and value-added.

But in the same way there are specific behaviors that can accelerate your learning agility, there are three counterproductive behaviors that block it.

Looking for the status quo. When you over rely on “this how we’ve always done things,” you insulate yourself from the changes and improvements necessary to stay relevant. By focusing too much on past ways of thinking and acting, you unconsciously block your ability to innovate.

Leaders must increase their capacity to learn alongside the changing conditions they confront.

Example: Your boss tells you she wants your input on a new project. To prepare for the kickoff meeting, you spend time thinking about all of the past projects that are most like the new one, including the parameters and best practices that should be followed. However, this narrow scope only allows the old ways of thinking to persist through the new project, blocking what might have been new and improved ways of working.

Looking for the easy way. When you take shortcuts to avoid spending the time and energy to learn something new or try something different — no matter how justified you feel that resource savings might be — you cut off your access to the trial-and-error cycles that increase agility. By sticking to the path of least resistance, you may avoid the short-term costs of learning (i.e., making mistakes) but you pay the long-term price of failing to adapt.

Example: You’re trying to do a better job with your weekly status updates for your boss. You realize that you can combine text with some interactive data tables in a new software application, but it will take some time to learn the formatting and fine-tune it. Feeling rushed for time, you decide you’ll just stick with the old format — bullet points in an email.

Looking for the excuse. When you try to protect yourself from the challenge of change by sidestepping difficult but potentially fruitful situations, you eliminate the growth experiences that could follow. Avoiding challenges by blaming the people and circumstances around you for the pressure to change trades convenience for potential growth.

Example: You know there are several process improvements that, if implemented, could enhance the efficiency of your team’s workflow. But in the past, others have had their ideas on improving workflow shot down by a few vocal critics in the group. Instead of advocating for your perspective, you preemptively label your colleagues closed-minded and keep your opinions to yourself.

Psychologist and organizational development pioneer Kurt Lewin developed his change model of force field analysis to illustrate how concurrent driving and restraining forces effect change in organizations. The force field is basically two opposite forces working for and against change.

These opposite forces are useful in achieving systemic change as well as personal development. There is no faster way to make progress on a goal than to advance from two directions. By doing the things that accelerate your learning agility, while simultaneously discontinuing the things that slow it down, you create the potential for a surge that can lead to exponential growth. As a leader, an investment like this is well worth your time and focus.

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How Transformation-Ready Leaders Learn