In the era of digital transformation, change is frequent and ongoing—and some of the traditional hallmarks of effective leadership are shifting as well. While in the past it may have made sense to seek out leaders who were decisive experts, what’s needed today—perhaps more than anything—is adaptability.
“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,” wrote Jesse Sostrin, director of PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, in an article earlier this year.
That’s essentially the definition of what Sostrin and others call “learning agility.”
“Marketers and digital officers are all dealing with constant change, so being ‘learning agile’ is an extremely critical trait,” said Caren Fleit, managing director at Korn Ferry and leader of its Global Marketing Officer Practice. In fact, Fleit has found that learning agility is a predictor of long-term performance and career success.
“Our studies have shown that what differentiates marketing leaders are things that connect to learning agility, like high tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to remain calm in the face of difficulty, being unafraid to challenge the status go, and seeking out new experiences,” she told CMO.com.
The even better news is that learning agility is something that digital leaders can work to improve—and instill in their teams.
“Learning agility is a unique position that anyone can take,” said Jen Kelchner, co-founder of consultancy LDR21, which helps companies and individuals develop open mindsets. “It is vital to all leaders today as the speed of innovation is only increasing. There are no more lulls in business cycles. To be clear, we are in a continuous state of disruption, and it is only increasing in speed. The capacity to be learning agile is a critically needed skill at all levels.”
Learning The ‘How’
Unfortunately, the ways in which organizations have operated for years may have conditioned learning agility out of today’s leaders.
“The glaring problem in all of this is that we’ve never been taught how to do this,” said Jay Acunzo, a former media strategist at Google and author of “Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work.” “We’ve been taught what the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers are, but we’ve never been taught how to get answers.”
That has yielded a generation of leaders who make decisions based on precedent or best practice—an approach that can fall short in a volatile and rapidly evolving business environment, he added.
“If you don’t continually learn and expand your knowledge, you base your decisions on lagging indicators, which is useful but only gets you to average [outcomes],” Acunzo told CMO.com. Or worse: It can lead to being disrupted and tossed aside.
While everyone may have the capacity for learning agility, they may not know how to tap into it. There are a number of ways digital leaders can foster a continuous learning mindset:
• Question everything: “The real switch leaders have to make in the digital age is to stop acting like experts and start acting like investigators,” Acuzo said. “Experts know absolutes and theories. The hallmark of an investigator is you know the right questions to ask. You may not know the answer, but you know how to get it.”
Most high-performing digital leaders are in “constant rethink mode,” Fleit added.
• Expose yourself to new situations: Agile learners seek out new experiences and deliberately put themselves in challenging situations “because they are open to learning,” Fleit said.
For CMOs and CDOs, that may also mean being more open to information from a wide variety of sources and being willing to get their hands dirty. That way, when they come up against a new challenge, “they have a deeper understanding of digital because they’ve partnered with the experts and the agencies as opposed to just farming everything out,” Fleit said.
• Find time to reflect: Unfortunately, learning does not just happen by osmosis. Leaders with a continuous learning mindset make it a point to look back on experiences so they are more apt to draw lessons they can use in new situations, Fleit said.
In his article on becoming a more agile learner, PwC’s Sostrin argued that one of the best ways to accelerate that process is to become “a student of your own experience.” He offered two strategies for making that happen: a review at the end of each work week and in-the-moment self-debriefings after important events.
• Know what you need: It’s important for a leader to understand what he or she personally needs to move through uncertainty and process new information, whether that’s additional details or more stability in routine to offset the constant input and flux.
“We engage with change contextually and have an initial response to that information in different ways,” LDR21’s Kelchner said. “Some may need 20 questions answered before moving forward with a decision; others need to grieve and talk about it; while others are comfortable stepping into the new without a safety net. When you understand your responses and needs, you can quickly engage with change and new information.”
• Treat everything like a test: “When we talk about life-long learning, it can feel big and overwhelming,” said Acunzo, who advises lowering the stakes by simply treating each new effort as a test-and-learn process. “You can do that in a simple way, starting with a hypothesis and a list of constraints and trying to figure out an answer. It’s not just a clever hack—it’s the way we learn.”
• Consider mindfulness exercises: Mindfulness practices, such as breathing techniques or meditation, can be especially useful for increasing learning agility. “The practice of mindfulness increases the capacity for emotional self-control, which then increases our capacity for adaptability,” Kelchner said. “Mindfulness changes the ways our neural networks connect and work together, improving cognitive flexibility and adaptability.”
• Change your goals: Traditionally, leaders have focused on specific outcomes, such as growing sales 50% quarter over quarter or doubling their social media reach. That’s no way to learn and grow, Acunzo said. “If, instead, you set an aspirational anchor that combines some intent for the future and a dissatisfaction with the way things are today, you’ll get more of the behavioral change and learning you’re seeking,” he said.
• Make room for learning opportunities: In the always-on digital environment, it can be difficult to create space for learning to happen. “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,” Sostrin wrote.
One technique she offered to overcome that temptation is to take a few minutes at the beginning of the week to highlight items on your agenda that may be opportunities to try something new or challenge yourself.
• Look for a learning culture: “Learning-agile folks are not going to develop in an organization where it’s all about maintaining the status quo or doing things the way they’ve always been done,” Fleit said. While digital leaders can certainly foster a pro-learning culture in their own functions, they won’t get far themselves if the larger organization is built to thwart those efforts. Digital leaders who want to improve their learning agility must make sure they seek out organizations with a suitable environment.