Leadership Development

Learning Agility and its Role in Leadership

David Hoff is chief operating officer and executive vice president of leadership development at EASI Consult. He is co-author of “Learning Agility: The Key to Leader Potential.”

One of the great mysteries of leadership development programs, succession planning initiatives and high-potential efforts is how effective they are at capturing the results of past efforts and predicting the capability of someone to master as-yet-unknown challenges.

Those of us who have spent our careers in talent management have long been in search of the “silver bullet” or “secret sauce.” Competencies were thought to demonstrate what great looks like, but the problem is they are retrospective, not prospective.

Learning agility, which focuses on the ability to perform in the future, provides an answer. Warner Burke, professor of psychology at Columbia University, has studied learning agility for six years and describes it as being in an unfamiliar situation, not knowing what to do and figuring it out.


D. Scott DeRue, the Edward J. Frey dean at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, summarizes learning agility as involving two elements — speed and flexibility. Speed is the ability to act quickly, discarding ideas that don’t work to accelerate other possibilities. Flexibility is being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions. Burke built on DeRue’s work and identified seven additional dimensions involved in learning agility:

  • Experimenting.
  • Performance risk taking.
  • Interpersonal risk taking.
  • Collaborating.
  • Information gathering.
  • Feedback seeking.
  • Reflecting.

Burke’s research led to a set of 38 questions that, with a high degree of validity and reliability, measure these nine dimensions. The questions comprise the Burke Learning Agility Inventory,™ which provides a way to measure learning agility to determine a person’s “baseline.”

But just because someone knows what to do doesn’t mean their motivation will be sufficient to overcome the unknown and apply the level of effort needed to succeed. DeRue cited motivation and context in his research as factors that have a significant impact on learning agility.

Learning agility can be a leadership game-changer. It has the potential to be a major difference-maker for leaders and their people, and it doesn’t have to be adopted systemically like total quality or knowledge management. Wherever an organization chooses to embrace learning agility (individual, team, function or organization), it needs to become part of the vernacular. If a leader is working to strengthen interpersonal risk taking or collaborating, for example, then their coach, mentor or leader must know what those things mean and what that person is doing to improve in those areas.

The learning agility dimensions act as a lens to view the specific objective so all stakeholders can support or reinforce learning and development. Reflecting should be part of every activity so what has been learned is explicit and what can be improved going forward is identified.

So, what are the applications for leaders?

The impact of learning agility can begin with onboarding, where new employee leaders complete the Burke LAI and learn how their results demonstrate strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Then, in their performance management and development meeting with their supervisor, the supervisor can talk about learning agility in the context of development plans. The performance objectives will be the “what” and the learning agility dimension part of the “how.”

Learning agility could be one of the assessment tools used in different leadership training programs. Since all these experiences are supposed to be about learning, what better way to emphasize that then to provide those results to participants at the beginning of the program? In subsequent activities, ask participants, “What learning agility dimensions could you use here?” Improvement goals could include learning agility dimensions that will be used.

Succession planning programs have struggled to address potential. Learning agility is about potential. If your company uses the nine dimensions to array your talent, you now have an objective measure of potential at the overall score level. The specific learning agility dimensions that need strengthening are available and can be integrated into the person’s new assignment.

David Hoff is chief operating officer and executive vice president of leadership development at EASI Consult. He is co-author of “Learning Agility: The Key to Leader Potential.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com. 

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