Creating Learning Agile Leaders

Research from Korn/Ferry Institute assessed nearly 1 million executives and found that the higher up the corporate ladder an individual goes, the more at home they become with uncertainty and change. This is where being Learning Agile comes into play, especially for leadership.

Sports fans around the world will tell you that agility is rated as one of the most keenly appreciated skills a sportsperson can display. The ability to be flexible in the face of what is thrown at them is of paramount importance. The same skill of agility is extremely important for improving learning in a business environment. Business, as in life, is not all plain sailing. It is sometimes a treacherous place, where you never know what is going to happen next, hence why being Learning Agile has become such an important quality to possess. In a position of power it is you who is looked upon to make the decisions (sometimes without knowing the full details) and it is up to you to lead.

Learning Agile Leaders

Learning agility is described by Korn/Ferry Institute as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.’ They go on to say that Learning agility is a key indicator for leadership potential because Learning Agile individuals ‘excel at absorbing information from their experience and then extrapolating from those to navigate unfamiliar situations.’ Therefore, in an increasingly turbulent business environment having the ability to learn and adapt and apply yourself in constantly changing circumstances is the best way to ensure you and your leadership team do not become stagnated.

There are 4 main types of agility that Learning Agile Leaders have:

  • Agility with Others –Agile Leaders will have the ability to relate well with others which is easy in good times however they still can relate to them in tough situations.
  • Mentally Agile – Agile Leaders will have the mental ability to delve deep into complex issues and create new possibilities from them.
  • Agility with Results – Most leaders can deliver results in a repetitive cycle in an area they know well. Learning Agile Leaders deliver results at the first time of asking in new and changing environments by inspiring their team and building confidence.
  • Agility in Change – Learning Agile Leaders enjoy change they like the perceived challenge of change and can deal with uncertainty. They view change as a chance to learn.

Research has also identified that there are four very specific behaviours that Learning Agile Leaders have that enables them to constantly learn and progress.

  • Innovation – These leaders constantly want to challenge beliefs and find unique ways of completing tasks. They examine the status-quo from different angles to try and see if there are new and better ways of working. This leader is constantly seeking new experiences for them to begin to innovate.
  • Risk – There is always an element of risk for these leaders. This risk comes from the want to try new ways of working, and to experience new roles. They use what is called ‘Progressive-Risk’ they do not throw caution to the wind but understand that risk leads to possibility. These leaders put themselves forward for tasks that may not have success guaranteed but there is the possibility of learning, as in the saying ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’.
  • Reflection – Just because a Learning Agile Leader has new experiences does not mean they will learn from them. A constant need for reflection is necessary, they will look for feedback and process what has gone well and where there needs to be improvements, be it with their own behaviours or their actions. By reflecting these leaders become more insightful.
  • Performance – The most learning comes from being in the thick of it and performing a new task or challenge. To learn from these circumstances, the individual must be able to stay on task, not get flustered by the new challenge and be able to perform. The Learning Agile Leader will be able to pick up the new skills required and perform them quicker than their less agile colleagues.

In addition to these four specific behaviours that a Learning Agile individual will have, there is one behaviour that they must avoid:

  • Defensive – A defining principal for learning is being open, be it to new experiences or receptive to feedback. For these individuals they like to seek feedback as it is a chance to validate their progress and processes; they are then able to build upon what has gone well and identify where they need further development. A non-agile learner will be defensive when they are challenged or critiqued. This will put them directly at odds with progression through learning.

How can you develop into an Agile Learner?

  • Innovation – Take any opportunity to seek out new ways to operate. Ask yourself questions such as ‘What more could I be doing?’ ‘What different ways can I approach this task?’ Get yourself into the mindset of looking to innovate where you can.
  • Risk – Look to find tasks where you are not guaranteed success, try to find areas where you will test yourself.
  • Reflection – Ask yourself ‘What if’ questions and think through ways in which tasks would have turned out differently if you had used a different approach. Regularly seek feedback from colleagues and ask them specific questions as to how they felt you approached a task such as ‘What two areas should I improve on for the next task?’. This way you can be sure they will give specific and actionable feedback.
  • Performance – When dealing with a new or complex task, try to find the similarities in this task to that of tasks you have successfully completed. Be deliberate in what you do; don’t simply react in a knee-jerk way. Understand the task at hand fully before rushing to complete it.

Learning Agility is a skill. Like any skill it can be developed and honed over time. It takes time, effort and practice you need to consistently make sure what you are doing is working toward your goal. However, once you have become plugged into this mind-set you will see any chance to learn as an opportunity not to be missed. 

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  • 10 Alternatives to Training Courses for SMEs

    With the business world being as competitive as it is, employers are discovering that the main thing that can help differentiate them is their people. Developing, or ‘up-skilling’, employees is now more important than ever. Gone are the days where training courses focused upon just the necessities and regulations of the job role; we are now seeing more forward-thinking employers who are looking to uncover talent within their people which, in time, will give them the advantage over their competitors.

    We know that making sure your employees are up to speed with what is required of them is vital, so training in that respect will always be a necessity. However, with some training courses coming in at a high cost, SMEs could find it hard to find the budget for broader training and development, often having to weigh up the cost of training courses against other necessities in their annual budget.

    With this in mind, we’ve put together some alternatives to training courses that SMEs could investigate that might help implement learning and development and nurture talent at a lower cost.


    This is effective if the employee has a specific objective or area of development that they need to target.


    An effective technique when there is already an individual within the organisation with the expertise to develop potential. This enables transfer of knowledge and ways of working.


    A great way of helping an employee explore different aspects of the business. It is beneficial to watch someone else demonstrating what is required of them, then reflecting on what they have learned. They can then discover the effectiveness of their ways of working and even make suggestions for improvements, which could be mutually beneficial. This could be a reciprocal arrangement whereby one colleague shadows another in turn, allowing for feedback on both.

    Expanding Roles

    By expanding an employee’s current role, they are likely to develop longer term aspirations and invest more into the organisation. Also, they will come to realise what areas they need to improve in and, given the opportunity and with support, can start to address these.

    Project Roles

    Putting an individual forward for different project roles helps to broaden their perspective, whilst encouraging interaction with new areas of the business can aid their development. It may even result in hidden skills being identified.

    Practical Learning

    If an individual has been given a new task or responsibility, they may be able to learn on the job providing they are properly supported. It is important however that they have the confidence to ask managers and colleagues for support and advice whilst they are learning.

    Distance and E-Learning

    There are specific college and online courses, some of which are free, where the individual learns in their own time and at their own pace. These can include accredited courses, which build towards a qualification.


    Giving employees the opportunity and time off to volunteer may help to develop existing skills and learn new ones. Volunteering could help people build their confidence, as it is a less pressurised environment. It may also lead to networking opportunities.

    Blended Learning

    This is where the focus is not on one development area but a variety. By using Blended Learning, it gives the employee a mixture of different activities to develop many skills over a short space of time.


    There is a wealth of information available on platforms such as YouTube and watching specific programmes can help gain useful knowledge.

    Books and publications

    In the modern world there is a neglect of written texts. These books and other resources hold a valuable knowledge and theories that can help employees develop. However, for convenience and accessibility, there are often PDF copies of these resources available.

    Other Notables

    Membership of professional bodies, work placements, sabbaticals, sideways moves and job swaps.


    People development will always be needed if SMEs are to stay ahead of their competition. But we also know that funding for all these development activities is often limited, therefore thinking outside the box and using alternative methods of learning and development are definitely worth looking into.

    Developing Leadership with the Johari Window

    As a leader, trust and honest communication should be at the centre of what you strive to achieve. Without trust, it will be impossible to work through any complex problems or issues with your team as honest and productive conversations will not be able to take place.

    What is the Johari Window?

    Building good working relationships is a common leadership goal, but it can be difficult to know how and where to start. That is where the Johari Window comes into play.

    The Johari Window (1955) was developed by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram it was created as an attempt to better understand ourselves and our relationships with others. They created the model below:

    Open –  This section relates to all that is known about that individual. It is what is known by the individual themselves and what is known about them by the group. The information that is open can relate to their behaviour, feelings, knowledge, experience or skills etc.

    Blind Spot – This area relates to what is known about the individual by the group, but that individual does not know about them self.

    Hidden – This relates to what the individual knows about them self but does not reveal to the group. This could be related to their own feelings, fears, sensitivities, agenda or manipulations.

    Unknown – This section deals with all the information, feelings, experiences such as a natural ability the individual does not know they possess etc. These are neither known to the individual or known to the group.

    Putting the Johari Window into context

    Understanding the premise of the Johari Window is one thing but being able to put it into the context of leadership is another! Below are the two most important aspects to focus on whilst using the Johari Window for leadership development.

    When engaging in honest conversation as a leader, important information is placed into the open area. Leaders want others to know what the relevant details are to enable them to make informed decisions or understand the targets they must achieve. However, the complicated aspect is moving information from hidden into the open.

    Moving information from the Hidden into the Open

    It can seem strange to want to move things that are hidden into the open. However, when employees are not aware of what a leader’s goals or concerns are, often they will guess them. Keeping things hidden from employees is often problematic; how can your employees be expected to alleviate your concerns when they aren’t aware of them? When speaking with your team members, consider sharing these two crucial bits of information:

    1. Your top priorities and in what timeframe
    2. The issues that are keeping you up at night

    When you share what’s on your mind with colleagues and team members, you are giving them the opportunity to offer their help.

    Moving Information from the Blind Spot into Open

    To develop this, you as a leader must provide an environment based safety and trust for your employees. It also takes a degree of courage to ask for honest feedback, both from the perspective of yourself and your team members. Your aim should be to have as few blind spots as possible. In our experience, one of the best methods of ensuring ongoing honest feedback is by having frequent one to one sessions with your direct reports. Within these sessions, it may help to ask these questions in order to uncover information on your blind spots:

    1. What should I start doing?
    2. What should I stop doing?
    3. What should I keep doing?

    An effective leadership development tool

    The Johari Window is an effective tool for helping to develop leadership as it enables a leader to identify areas that they need to work on and issue they have. It is great for helping to create honest conversations within a business and for gaining the ability to build trust –  two elements that cannot be overstated within a productive business environment. Try using this for yourself and see how effective it can be.

    Nurturing Leadership Qualities

    When you’re looking to grow your business and enable it to achieve its potential, it’s vital that you have a strong leadership team.

    Promoting from within can foster a meritocratic culture where employees understand that with the right qualities and behaviours they can rise up the ladder within your company. It can be more beneficial to recruit internally rather than externally because of the smooth transition between roles and increased employee engagement and retention.

    A great leader can engage your staff and encourage increased productivity. Spotting employees with leadership potential and helping them to develop their skills and behaviours will reap big rewards for both the individual and your organisation.

    There is an argument that great leaders are born rather than taught, however many people do recognise that leadership is indeed a skill you can learn. Leicester City Manager Claudio Ranieri is a prime example of how leadership skills can be developed and perfected over time, with the help of personal knowledge and experience.

    Writing in an article in The Psychologist, with Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, the psychologists explained: “Ultimately, Claudio Ranieri’s redemption follows a trajectory from ‘I’ to ‘we’. From his first day as Leicester manager he was keen to make it clear that it was not he who was special, but the team and league that he had come to serve.” Professor Haslam added: ‘Ranieri’s failures and successes teach us critical lessons about how to be a good leader – and also how to be a bad leader. Indeed, there is a long history of leaders in sport – but also in politics and business, moving in precisely the opposite direction to Ranieri.

    Leadership may be a skill, but it is understood that many leaders share similar traits, and it’s these traits that you can identify in your employees. In an article for the Guardian, Senior management coach, Steve Nicholls, was quoted as saying: “There is something built into leaders about the kind of personality traits which enable them to be effective. A strong self belief is very important. Natural qualities are fundamental to leadership. You can learn the techniques of leadership, but in terms of personality I don’t think you can.”

    Once you’ve identified leadership qualities in individuals it’s your job as an employer to encourage and assist them to reach their full potential.

    How to nurture?

    The first step is to talk to the person, let them know how well they’re doing and find out if they’re interesting in stepping up into a leadership role within the company. This is your opportunity to discuss development areas and see which path the individual would like their career to take. Once you know that the potential leader wants to progress, you can help them to reach the required level to step into the role when a vacancy appears.

    Give increased responsibility

    Providing opportunities to take on additional responsibility will show your employee how much you trust them. How you do this depends on the person’s role and your organisation but there are usually ways to offer small leadership roles, such as a place on a committee or chairing a team meeting.

    Other ways to increase an individual’s responsibility include delegating challenging assignments and tasking them with special projects. Give those you’re nurturing the autonomy and freedom to solve problems for your organisation. Managing director of INSPIRING John Telfer says that it’s important to make sure that managers aren’t using all of their time on reporting and line management duties however. “This can hinder their own progress by making them focus on what has been, instead of what could be achieved if they are allowed to develop their own inspiring leadership skills,” he explains.

    Mentoring programme

    Offering a mentor programme can help to support those in whom you spot potential. Pairing them with a senior leader will give your junior staff the opportunity to benefit from the senior member’s experience and they can be inspired to push forward and achieve their goals. Providing mentors can also assist your future leaders in growing their leadership skills. The mentors could suggest books to read, TED talks to watch, and so on.

    Provide training in areas of development

    In their current role it might not be possible for your future leaders to be exposed to areas that they need to develop, for example commercial knowledge. Offering training that fills these knowledge gaps is a good way to help your staff develop. This could be done formally through an external training provider or informally through work-shadowing or internal coaching on specific skills and leadership competencies.

    Recognise achievements and show your appreciation

    One of the traits of a good leader is commitment and dedication to the organisation. Your leadership team needs to be fully invested in your company, aiming to be able to encourage and engage junior employees. Thanking your staff and giving honest recognition for their work achievements can help them to feel appreciated and enhance their job satisfaction. As Bart Cleveland wrote for Ad Age, “Sure, it is an employee’s job to do their best. But ask yourself, would you give even more if you knew you were appreciated?”

    INSPIRING can provide your team with a personalised development programme, to help you to retain talent and aligns with your business needs, directly benefiting your bottom line. Find out more about INSPIRING Leadership here.