Guide: The importance of hiring for learning agility

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The importance of hiring for learning agility

Last Updated: April 2, 2020

If anything has become clear in recent weeks it is we can’t always predict what challenges our companies will face up ahead. With this type of uncertainty, how do you hire leaders who can thrive in these conditions? According to Warner Burke, a Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, 50% of leaders hired will fail. So what can we do from a hiring standpoint to improve the odds that the leaders we hire will not only succeed, but also support us as our business changes?

One method we can use to identify high potential candidates is to hire those who are high on “learning agility”. Burke defines learning agility as the ability to learn from experience with speed and flexibility. In an ever increasingly ambiguous economic environment, we need leaders who can be flexible and open to new ideas and ways of thinking. By hiring for learning agility, we can start to develop leaders who can thrive and direct us through many different types of situations. The key behaviors that define learning agility are feedback seeking, interpersonal risk taking, performance risk taking, collaboration, experimentation, reflection, speed and flexibility.

Guide Creator:Jess Wass Coaching & Consulting

Jess Wass helps individuals and companies reach their full potential through Executive Coaching and Change Management Consulting. She is passionate about elevating ordinary managers to become exceptional leaders. To learn more about how to improve your learning agility reach out to me here.

Criteria this guide covers

Interview GPS organizes questions by personal values, competencies, and skills. Click a criteria to explore more questions

Adaptability Adapts to changing economy and business needs
Coachability Willingness to accept feedback and incorporate it into their behavior/actions
Dealing with Ambiguity Effectively copes with change, shifts gears comfortably, decides and acts without having the total picture, and handles risk and uncertainty
Self Improvement Proactively investigates new perspectives, approaches, and behaviors, and takes steps to evaluate and improve performance
Self-Awareness Aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and how other people might perceive them
Secondary criteria: Collaboration Creativity Mental Agility Teamwork

Tell me about a time you sought out feedback from a boss or coworker. Who did you ask, why did you seek out the feedback, what was the feedback you received, and what did you do with that feedback?

Feedback seeking and Reflection are key competencies of learning agility. In order to increase our learning we have to be willing and open enough to receive feedback. This particular interview question goes further to understand what the candidate then decided to do with the feedback received. It’s one thing to ask for the feedback, it's another thing to actually put it into action and make some changes. The most agile leaders are able to be reflective, open to feedback, and then adjust as needed.


Tell me the last time you had to admit you made a mistake at work. What was the mistake, who did you tell and what was their reaction? What did you learn?

Interpersonal risk-taking is the ability to make mistakes, seek help, and discuss errors openly. Particularly for leaders, demonstrating they can admit mistakes will set an important tone for their team. Most employees are afraid to admit mistakes for fear of punishment or retribution. When a leader is able to be vulnerable enough to admit a mistake to their team, it creates a psychologically safe environment for their employees to do the same. As this trust continues to be built, the leader can further develop the team to not identify the problem but also propose solutions for how to address the situation and how they will ensure the mistake won’t happen again. That is how you create a productive and effective team and it all comes back to a leader being able to admit their own mistakes.


Tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you had never done before. How did you react? What did you learn?

Performance risk-taking and Flexibility refer to the ability to put oneself in ambiguous situations, take on stretch projects or seek out new challenges. One of the best ways to grow and demonstrate agility is to try new experiences. This not only builds out a leaders toolbox but also helps leaders keep their mind open to new thoughts and ideas. When leaders do too much of the same thing and only work on assignments they have done in the past, it anchors them to a specific way to approach problems and limits their ability to innovate. Agile leaders are willing to try new things, demonstrate how they can adapt their skills to new situations, and also learn a thing or two along the way.


Tell me about a time when you had to adjust to a colleague’s working style in order to complete a project or achieve your objectives.

Collaboration and teamwork are crucial to succeeding in many companies as teams are dependent on one another. Particularly when hiring a leader, it's important they know how to collaborate with not only other leaders at the company but also within their own team. Being able to recognize different working styles and flexing as needed demonstrates that a leader is low ego, sensitive to others, and willing to do what it takes to get the work done for the company.


Tell us about a time in which you developed an unconventional approach to solve a problem. How did you develop this new approach? What challenges did you face and how did you address them?

Experimenting is an important component to learning agility as it demonstrates a willingness to try new approaches or ideas. Speed is also a key component of learning agility as being able to iterate and/or pivot quickly fosters growth. In uncertain environments, being open to testing out ideas and then being able to pivot based on whether or not it is successful will enable companies to innovate and thrive. Startups are particularly skilled at developing employees who are able to identify low-stakes ways to test out new ideas and/or gather data in order to make a decision about moving forward on a larger scale. These skills are just as useful in a larger company and should be valued.

About the Author

Jess Wass

Jess Wass is an Executive Coach, Consultant, Facilitator and Speaker. She has worked in strategy consulting at a big 4 firm, a large global hospitality company, and various stage startups. She received her Masters in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University and works with clients to help them reach their full potential.

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