Are you agile enough to lead the change you want to see?

A few days ago it was a beautiful summer eve in New York. The city was at its best, with blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70s, no humidity, and just a gentle breeze. As a result, it was with some hesitation that I walked up the stairs of Columbia University’s Grace Dodge Hall, a somewhat somber, old red brick building that would fit perfectly onto Hogwarts campus (apologies: my 10-year-old has been sharing all of her Harry Potter stories lately, and some of her preoccupation seems to have rubbed off on her mother).

Fast forward 90 minutes, and I walk back out into the fresh air, feeling inspired. I had just attended a speech by Professor Warner Burke, a guru on organizational change and leadership effectiveness. The message that he delivered with an entertaining Texan twang: Learning agility is the sine qua non when we want to effect change.

Change is hard, even if it involves desired change (for more, see our article “no pain, no gain” here.) No surprise, without the appropriate outlook, approach and support, about two thirds of organizational change efforts fail, and leaders of change are effective only about half of the time.

What then differentiates high performing leaders of change from those that fail? According to extensive research by Burke and his team (and backed up by other high profile studies) it is not what is frequently used in the process of identifying high potentials, factors such as “past performance” and “competence” as well as “other stuff”. The process of changing dynamics can render past experience irrelevant, and it may require few of the skills and competencies that an individual currently possesses. It reminded me of what leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith summarized so well: What got you here won’t get you there.

Now, what about the “other stuff?” Burke went on to explain that “other stuff” is often a selection bias, based on the similarity between individuals. In other words, if your boss feels like you are in many ways similar to her, you are significantly more likely to be considered a high potential. A longitudinal study within AT&T, for example, found that more low potentials were promoted than high potential ones, as long as they worked for the “right bosses”. Not surprisingly, leaders often use the same selection bias of similarity when it comes to building their teams. This helps explain why there are a good number of underperforming teams, as innovation and change is driven by healthy debate and an openness to see the world in a variety of ways.

Successful change agents such as Brian Walker of Hermann Miller, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple are role models when it comes to learning agility. According to Burke’s research, in addition to learning agility, the two other key drivers of successful change leadership are emotional intelligence and optimism (which did not come as a surprise to the psychologists and coaches in the room!).

So, what makes for learning agility?

We know that effective learning has both a cognitive and behavioral component. As we struggle to look into what goes on in other people’s heads, the focus of being able to assess learning agility is to look for the following behavioral components:

  • Feedback seeking.
  • Information gathering.
  • Exposing and learning from failure.
  • Risk taking.
  • Collaborating.
  • Experimenting.
  • Reflecting.
  • Quick study.
  • Swift but not hasty decision-making.

If you are like most of us in the audience that day, then you are probably curious to find out what your particular agility score is… While the full research results and an accompanying assessment will not be available until September, here is a questionnaire Burke shared with those of us who are looking for instant knowledge gratification:

After you have rated yourself on each question, add up your total score for questions 1 through 9. For question 10, revert your number (i.e. if you rated yourself a “5”, give yourself a “1”, if you rated yourself a “4”, give yourself a “2”, “3” stays the same) and then add this to your total score. Why? Question 10 tests our rigidity factor, aka “we have always done things this way”, which is known to get in the way of agility.

If you score 40 or higher then you may well be on your way to mastery. It’s always good to practice some humility though, as we know that for any self-rating assessment a remarkable 80 percent of us tend to overrate ourselves.

And if you are inspired to grow your change agent muscles (as you know now, seeking feedback is a key component of learning agility!), here is an experiment you may wish to try: Why not have your team score you on the same questionnaire, and compare those results with yours? Now take a closer look at where you think you are compared to your team’s perceptions, and you may find where you could stretch yourself a bit more…