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Article No.: 15-11, November 1, 2015

Article Title: Sustaining a Culture of Learning Agility

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, CEQC

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Organizations today, more than ever, need high potential employees with openness, willingness to learn and experience new things, and flexibility to execute complex strategies.  They need a high tolerance for ambiguity, good interaction skills, vision, innovation and critical thinking skills.
Critical thinkers ask tough questions and challenge the thinking of others.  You know the type…these are the people we love to hate.  We affectionately call them “devil’s advocates.”  However, when challenged appropriately, this questioning technique can really force someone to think.  Anticipating a devil’s advocate in every crowd also helps one to better prepare for presentations, for example.
Think about it…most start with the tactical “how” and the “what” versus the strategic component such as the “why.”  This is the compelling part, so why not start here?
That being said, what are the implications for practice in order to sustain Learning Agility?
Implications for Practice
What are the key implications for HR practitioners?  The first of those is the need for a focus on Talent Management, defined as assessing and selecting talent.  The war for talent continues to increase, especially since the U.S. is coming out of a recession and people are more confident in looking for a different job.  Having a high number of candidates isn’t necessarily positive, though.  Having a high number of highly qualified candidates is the goal. 
A recommended succession planning framework is described below.
Align Succession Plan with Strategic Objectives
The foundation of the succession planning process is alignment of the succession plan with the organization’s Mission, Vision, and strategic objectives.  The first step is therefore a review of the Strategic Business Plan for analysis of the organization’s business direction, opportunities, and challenges.  Succession planning will be designed to support the long-term needs of the organization.

Leadership Development
An integral component of succession planning is leadership development.  In order to ensure organizational agility, leaders with critical competencies must be ready at appropriate junctures to support leadership continuity.  Leadership development will be woven into the organization’s corporate objectives as part of the strategic planning process.
Identify Critical Positions
A key decision point in the succession planning process is identification of critical positions that will ensure leadership continuity.  Because critical positions have a strong impact on the organization, they must be filled by competent, knowledgeable leaders.  To maximize the benefits of the succession planning process, a phased approach should be utilized to provide the opportunity to learn from succession planning at each level. 
Identify Core Leadership Competencies

Once critical positions have been identified, the competencies required to successfully fulfill the responsibilities and functions of those positions can be identified.  Interviews with the leadership team will be conducted and the essential competencies for both the present and future are reduced to writing so that candidates understand expectations.
Succession Planning Set as Goals for Senior Managers
When senior managers develop their individual and departmental goals, leadership continuity should be an important element of the process.  The metrics developed during the process can be utilized as performance management criteria to ensure that senior managers commit to and support the organization’s succession plan.
Differentiate Between High Potentials and High Performers
Not all high performing employees are high potential candidates, and an important step in the process is to differentiate between the two.  High performing employees are successfully completing the requirements of their current position; however, they have limited potential in terms of top leadership positions.  High potential candidates must be high performers and have the willingness, drive, and qualities that establish them as likely contenders for top level positions.
Create Position Profiles
Each critical position will have a written position profile which describes the skills, knowledge, experience and core competencies required in order to successfully fulfill the position’s responsibilities.  Human Resources will partner with incumbents in the target positions
to develop profiles for their level, which can then serve as guides for high potential candidates.
Conduct an Integrated Key Talent Review Session
The present leadership has the most comprehensive understanding of the skills, knowledge, and talents that are necessary for success in meeting organizational objectives.  This is the core group of people who will be brought together to identify high potential candidates within the organization who can be coached and mentored to prepare them for targeted key positions.  In the identification process, attention should be directed to diversity in terms of gender, race, and age to ensure that different perspectives and approaches are brought into leadership positions.
Conduct Multi-Rater Feedback

In order to provide comprehensive, meaningful input about candidates’ skills, knowledge and competencies, a multi-rater feedback process will be designed and implemented. Incumbents in the targeted positions will be the first to receive feedback in this process.

Determine Individual Leadership Gaps

An outcome of the multi-rater feedback process is clarification of gaps in skills, knowledge and competencies of incumbents and high potential candidates.  The input provided by peers, supervisors, and direct reports that observe the rated individuals frequently will help determine specific areas for development to ensure that incumbents and candidates possess critical competencies required for organization success.
Develop List of Potential Directed Assignments

Top level leaders are in an excellent position to take a global perspective towards directed assignments that can prepare high potential candidates for leadership positions.  The directed assignments should be designed to meet business imperatives and provide a return on the investment in candidates’ time, education, and potential relocation. The Director of Human Resources is a resource available to the individual and his/her manager to identify potential assignments.
Create Leadership Development Curriculum
If any leadership gaps are identified during the multi-rater process, a Leadership Development Curriculum will be designed with the assistance of People Services to close the gap in experience, training, or competency levels.

Create Individual Development Plans

Human Resources, in conjunction with the respective managers and high potential candidates, will create Individual Development Plans (IDP’s) closely linked to business imperatives.  The IDP’s will be tailored to close the gaps identified in the multi-rater feedback process and could consist of global assignments, special projects, mentoring, cross-functional job rotations, etc.
Implement Individual Development Plans
The tailored IDP’s are implemented, with the understanding and commitment that the supervisor and high potential candidate will review the IDP on a semi-annual basis.
Set Quarterly Checkpoint Meetings
The senior management team, and Human Resources will hold a quarterly checkpoint meeting to review and assess the status of the individual development plans.  Appropriate changes will be made at this time to ensure that high potentials are receiving the guidance and education necessary to meet the objectives of the Succession Plan.
Schedule Annual Talent Review Discussion
The senior management team and Human Resources will hold an annual talent review discussion to determine where the candidates’ skills, knowledge, and competency levels are in comparison with determined needs.  The results of this discussion will be a determination of ready now, ready in 6-12 months, and ready in 24-36 months.
Review Human Resources for Alignment
Human Resource systems such as recruitment and selection, strategic rewards and recognition, and career pathing will be assessed to ensure alignment with the Succession Planning process.  Any systems that are misaligned will be adjusted to support the Succession Plan.
Determine Outcomes, Communication Method, and Metrics of the Succession Planning Process
In order to understand whether the plan for leadership continuity is successful, it’s necessary to develop concrete criteria for success.  The primary question at this point should be, “what does success look like?”  Metrics will be established to measure success, and a strategy for communicating success to stakeholders will be created.
Measure Results
Throughout the Succession Planning process, results will be measured using the criteria established at the beginning of the process.  The process outcomes will be shared with stakeholders at every opportunity to promote continued buy-in and ensure a return on investment in the Succession Plan.
Performance Management – 360-degree assessment, coaching and feedback
A multi-rater, or 360, feedback process can be an effective way to build a learning agile culture.  However, the process should be carefully crafted so it doesn’t backfire and result in demoralized staff.
I don’t believe there is a perfect generic feedback instrument and process.  However, a customized “360” or multi-rater process, when planned and executed well, can provide excellent feedback for recipients and foster a motivating environment for employees.
I’ve worked with organizations using this process for 20 years and observed some wonderful advantages to the “360” process… and some pitfalls.  Leaders should guide the process to ensure that the advantages are leveraged.
First, I should clarify what we mean when we refer to the term, “360” feedback.  This is a process in which a person receives feedback about his or her competencies from peers, supervisors, direct reports, and internal and external customers.  It’s a complete picture of the impact one has on those with whom he or she interacts on a frequent basis.  Many companies use a “180” feedback process instead, which allows for feedback from peers, the supervisor, and sometimes direct reports (if applicable).
Advantages to the “360” Process
Let’s face it:  a supervisor can’t be there to observe all the interactions, strengths, and opportunities for improvement for direct reports, especially if the span of control is wide.  So why should we expect the supervisor to be the only person to provide performance feedback?  We shouldn’t.
A major advantage to the “360” process is that it provides an opportunity for all those people with whom a person comes into frequent contact to offer feedback.  A caveat here is that the raters should be people that truly have observed an employee or manager on a frequent basis.  It’s not fair to ask people for input that haven’t had a chance to observe someone’s skills, talents, and abilities on a regular basis.  It’s also not balanced feedback if the recipient selectively chooses people that will only provide superficial and positive comments.
When feedback comes from many sources, it’s more difficult for a person to brush aside constructive criticism and rationalize that “the boss just has it in for me”.  If several people suggest that a manager needs to improve verbal communication skills, for example, chances are high that this is indeed a necessary area for improvement.
Another advantage of the “360” process is that it is designed with a customer focus in mind.  The customers can be internal or external.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult for some employees to understand the impact their daily activities have on other individuals or departments within the company.  However, if they receive direct and frequent feedback on how their actions affect others, people are more likely to be attentive to deadlines and quality requirements.  They learn how to make their organization look good, not just themselves.
We recommend that “360” performance evaluations are coupled with competency-based job descriptions.  When this occurs, an employee or manager is recruited based on core competencies for his or her position AND evaluated on those same competencies.  When coaching leaders, we often hear this complaint:  “My performance evaluation is not even remotely connected to my job description.”  There should be a direct connection, and the “360” process can have a strong impact here.  The core competencies, by the way, should be supportive of the company’s strategic objectives.  In deriving these competencies, the company’s leadership must ask, “what skills, knowledge, and behaviors do we need across the organization to meet the challenges of our mission and vision”?
The “360” evaluation is particularly strong when coupled with an action plan developed by the person receiving feedback and shared with those who provided the feedback.  This action plan demonstrates that the feedback was heard and that, assuming suggestions are reasonable, will be put to use as soon as possible.
Pitfalls in the “360” Process
If you’ve tried the “360” process in your organization without success, it may be for some of the following reasons.
If allowed to do so, people might be tempted to ask only their friends in the company to be the ones who receive feedback instruments.  This would definitely tip the scales in their favor and help ensure that no negative comments are made.  The process must be carefully designed to minimize the possibility that this “handpicking” doesn’t occur.  I recommend that each person receiving feedback send the instrument to at least 10 people, and these people must be those with whom they interact on a frequent basis - even if some of those people could possibly offer negative comments.
One significant pitfall I’ve observed is when companies send out “360” evaluations to raters without advance notice or information about how to use the instrument.  When an organization decides to implement a “360” review process, two sets of participants must be educated on how to effectively use the process:  those receiving feedback and those offering feedback.  Communication should also include objectives of the process and the expected impact on the organization.
I strongly recommend that each person receiving feedback, especially for the first time in this process, has a coach to help assess the comments and ratings and to develop an action plan.  The coach can be the same person who compiles the results – the key is that he or she is viewed as an objective person.  By the way, I also recommend that the instruments are anonymous and are sent directly to the person compiling the results.  The person receiving the feedback should not see the actual completed instruments.
The “360” performance review process can be comprehensive, positive, and effective if time is devoted on the front end to design the process for maximum impact.  The time is well worth taking.
An essential element of building a strong talent pipeline is to identify employees who have demonstrated both sustained high performance and also high potential.  Senior leaders often equate performance and potential, but studies show that only one-third of high-performing employees are also high in potential. [i](Hallenbeck, Jr., George S. Unlocking Potential: Understanding and Applying Tools to Identify and Develop Learning Agility.)  While the remaining leaders are still valuable contributors, they are not necessarily agile in that they can adapt to a wide range of challenges.  This underscores the point that learning agility is a differentiating factor not commonly found in the population at large [ii](DeMeuse, Kenneth, P., Dai, Guangrong, Hallenbeck, George S., & Tang, King Yii, 2012).  
In their groundbreaking book, Lessons of Experience, McCall, Lombardo and Morrison found what that effective managers who got promoted to the next level were not as productive when they depended on the same skill set that got them promoted.  Instead, they should have learned new skills because the context was now different.  As a result, numerous managers and executives have derailed.  Those who were successful, were comfortable with new, different, and challenging situations.  In other words, they learned from their “lessons of experience.” 
Regardless, appropriately identifying who the high performers are vs. the high potentials vs. those with learning agility should be viewed as a good thing allowing these valued employees to be put on an appropriate career path that will benefit them and the organization. 1(Hallenbeck, Jr. George S.)
Identifying learning agility is just the start.  Potential is not static in nature.  A high potential today is not necessarily a high potential tomorrow.  Without new challenges and experiences to inform learning and new opportunities to apply those lessons learned, learning agility can grow stale.”  1(Hallenbeck) It is important to continue to reinforce learning agility.  Additionally, someone who was once thought of as your “Steady Eddie” may now be an emerging leader or may even be misplaced.
Some aspects of learning agility are more difficult to develop than others.  In fact, each individual dimension has a level of developmental difficulty, from easy to hard, associated with it.  People and Change Agility are the two most difficult to develop, while Results Agility is the easiest.
Overall, Learning Agility is not something that is developed easily or quickly.  It’s like a marathon, not a sprint.  It takes time and continued practice.  This is partly due to experience playing a factor.  As a rule of thumb, allow nine months or so for a particular job experience to yield some substantive lessons and roughly an equal amount of time to gain experience with applying those lessons to new challenges. 
To truly sustain a learning agile culture, the key is to have a clear purpose and plan for applying the tools and to the approach utilized as well as learning from the lessons along the way.  The organizational culture must be one that nurtures and reinforces learning.  If it’s working, employees will be sharing information, providing feedback to each other and trying innovative solutions.  This starts at the top with leaders who truly respect the value of learning and are willing to demonstrate that respect and set an example for others through their actions.
Even highly skilled companies with highly honed talent management systems can obtain much value by systematically measuring learning agility.
To sustain a culture of learning agility, I recommend:

  • Promote exercise during the work day.  Lack of blood flow is a common reason for lack of focus and concentration.  Encourage employees to take a walk during lunch or break, spend time in the company gym/fitness center and/or promote fitness challenges such as “10k Steps Challenge.”

  • Encourage less multi-tasking during learning and practicing activities so employees can focus on the material they need to learn.  If learners can focus on the activity at hand, the likelihood of retention of the skill or knowledge is higher.

  • Provide education to employees about the importance of nutrition and eating a good breakfast on the learning process.  We need protein to feed our brain, not to mention the added benefits that come from eating healthy.  A great example is to take a look at your vending machines.  What’s in them?  Candy and Chips?  Or healthier alternatives?

  • Provide education to employees about managing stress, because stress can negatively impact a person’s ability to learn and retain knowledge. Offer and promote an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  EAPs are voluntary, work-based programs that offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services intended to help employees who have personal and/or work-related problems that might adversely impact their job performance, health, and well-being. Having an EAP allows immediate access to a confidential resource to discuss a sensitive situation instead of letting the issue fester and negatively impact their performance.

  • Trainers and managers should be well versed in the three primary ways that people learn:  visual, kinesthetic and auditory.  If one method doesn’t work for a particular employee, try another.  In fact, suggest trainers to incorporate multiple techniques for conducting their sessions. Encourage employees to observe how they learn most effectively so they can select appropriate learning opportunities; monitor their comprehension and retention; and evaluate the learning experience as it relates to their improved knowledge or skills.

  • Provide employees with ample opportunity to use new ideas and knowledge, otherwise, the brain uses the pruning process and stores only new information that it uses regularly.

  • Provide employees with an opportunity to teach others what they’ve learned – this is yet another way to enhance knowledge and retention.
  • Implement a mentor program.  Mentoring programs use the resources your company already has to improve employee satisfaction, develop leadership, and teach new skills.  Mentoring can improve employee satisfaction and retention, enrich new-employee onboarding, make your company more appealing to recruits, and train your leaders. And the best part is - it's free.


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