Learning Agility: The #1 Leadership Skill

What is the top leadership skill for leaders in this uncertain, ever-changing time of the pandemic, economic, and social unrest to survive and thrive? 

This question was posed to two Chief Executive Officers (CEOs)  during an interview with Gary Burnison of the Korn Ferry Institute. Korn Ferry is an international consulting and leadership development firm. They recently hosted a webinar with the aforementioned two Chief Executive Officers on the leadership skills they saw as crucial to their organization in the world today.

The two guest CEOs came from vastly different businesses. One CEO, Carol Tome came from United Parcel Services (UPS). UPS, a delivery service, delivers 6% of the United States Gross Domestic Product a day. The other CEO, John Donahoe, came from the top sneaker company in the world, Nike. Both spoke of their companies’ different challenges. UPS delivery business is booming, and the safety of of their delivery and people were key concerns. Conversely, NIKE had to close stores around the world and they were challenged to take care of their employees during these inevitable shutdowns. Interestingly Tome’ has only been the CEO at UPS for 60 days, and Donahoe became CEO at Nike in January 2020.

What Makes This Skill Essential

When asked what they thought is the #1 skill for leaders, both unequivocally noted learning agility. A leader with the ability to be an agile learner can process information quickly from diverse sources and perspectives to help their organization adapt and change to meet customer needs. The leader who is an agile learner may be the critical factor in an organization’s progress in uncertain times. Tome and Donahoe talked of three practices to bolster their learning agility.

3 Practices to Become More Agile

1. Think like a start-up business leader.

A start-up business leader learns and their actions are based on a purpose, curiosity, and a drive to learn to be better and grow. A start-up is not bound by “that’s the way we always did it” thinking. Both CEOs feel the start-up mindset frees one up to try new things and prevents the organization from getting stuck in the status quo. 

2. Ask , listen, learn, and commit.

Both CEOs stressed the need to connect and seek information from a wide variety of perspectives in the organization. Therefore, Tome’ launched a worldwide listening tour when she arrived at UPS. She asked employees for their honest feedback and ideas moving forward.

Donahoe conducted 150 one-one meetings with top executives and 25-30 focus groups with diverse worker groups over his first 100 days. He asked 3 questions to the organization:

What  2-3 things are we getting right? 
What 2-3 things should we keep?
What 2-3 things should we change?

Both CEOs reported back summarizing the information and publishing it for the organization or via Zoom Meetings. Consequently, they both noted much higher rates of engagement since the release of information, meeting, and commitment to act.

3. Act on learnings within the purpose of the organization.

Both CEO’s first noted responses to their questions, secondly planned to address the feedback received, and finally made a timeline to proceed. Learnings and actions implemented are all based on the purpose of the organization. This, they noted, provided a unity of action and engagement centered on the organization’s purpose. These actions reinforce the purpose of the organization.

The ability of a leader to continuously learn has always been a critical factor in leadership. In times of volatility and uncertainty, agile learning in leadership can provide a model for those a leader serves. Agile learning modeled and taught by the leader can build a culture of trust risk-taking and learning to help any organization seize opportunities and thrive. Agile learning will be a factor vital to transformation as we all enter a new better normal.

Leadership Question for you:

Are you willing to take on and practice one, two, or all three of the agile learning practices in your leadership?

John Hackett, Ed. D

John Hackett, Ed. D is a servant leader who helps people and organizations move from where they are to where they want to be. John is an accomplished and experienced coach, trainer, writer, and leader in a variety of educational and other nonprofit and direct sales settings. He is a growing, learning entrepreneur in coaching and training who is passionate about equipping leaders to develop other leaders to serve. John is a certified trainer and coach with the Direct Selling World Alliance. John is a coach for the FUSE Business Training and a member of the John Maxwell team!


Please Login to Comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.