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Good Science—Good Practice

Tom Giberson
Oakland University

Suzanne Miklos
OE Strategies


The concept of learning agility has generated practitioner interest over the last 10 years, but there is not a depth of research on the subject. Lomardo and Eichinger (2000) wrote about the relationship between learning agility and leadership potential, and suggest that the ability to effectively learn from new experiences differentiates high potentials who go on to succeed from those who do not. In strategic IT leadership positions for one of our clients, the ability to learn and to help the organization learn is seen as critical to transforming the organization from its very successful past to success in new “normal” business conditions.

Learning agility is a multidimensional construct with elements that relate to problem solving and a number of elements that appear quite similar to emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, understands others, and accepts responsibility (Lombardo and Eichinger, 2000). There are also elements related to results and organizational skills such as political savvy and teambuilding.

Complex constructs can be challenging because there is a tendency for them to become the “secret sauce” for talent management and they are hard to blend into existing competency models and practices because there is an ambitious set of competencies already contained within the model. This can pose a dilemma for practicing talent management professionals who want to add new learning and maintain what has worked well historically. There are also times when we are asked to identify how a popular construct relates to work that we are doing within the organization.

DeRue, Ashford, and Myers (2012) provide a narrower and more precise definition of learning agility. For example, they suggest refining the definition by removing performance or results (an outcome of learning agility). The authors suggest that agility requires both speed and flexibility so that learning can appropriately be applied to a new or novel situation. De Meuse, Dai, and Hallenbeck (2010) suggest that learning agility is about learning the “right lessons” from experience and then applying them to new situations. From this perspective, learning agility is an inductive learning approach that contrasts to the logical–deductive approach typically taught in formal education institutions. Discernment about what lessons apply and what needs to be unlearned is important to successful learning. From a practitioner viewpoint, there are several interesting points that support the assessment and development of leaders.

There are several measures and streams of research that can help identify learning agility. For example, goal orientation research and Openness to Experience are posited to relate to learning agility. Learning goal orientation has been shown to relate to improved performance after feedback and a motivation to learn. Higher levels of Openness to Experience indicate an individual is broadminded, curious, and imaginative (DeRue et al., 2012). Eichinger and Lombardo (2004) found a relationship between learning agility and openness to experience. From these authors’ experience, both learning goal orientation and Openness to Experience can be measured through a number of leadership instruments and interview processes.

DeRue et al. (2012) also posit that cognitive ability (e.g., speed and pattern recognition) fit the working definition of learning agility. They provide two specific cognitive processes that assist in the application of learning. The first is cognitive simulation, which requires thinking through multiple possibilities and supports implicit and explicit learning. The other is counterfactual thinking in which “what if” thinking is engaged to clarify the cause-and- effect relationships and broadens the lessons learned from an experience. As a coach or even an interviewer, reflection based on these two cognitive processes can be integrated into assessment and development of learning. In fact, three behaviors that the authors describe as related to learning agility—seeking feedback, experimentation, and reflection—are typical components of leadership development processes and are integral to coaching. This article offers a definition of learning agility that is translatable into existing assessment and development processes for practitioners who are asked to address the concept.

Norton (2010) reinforces the value of learning agility by suggesting that learning agility along with other competencies related to flexible leadership such as adaptive expertise and acceptance uncertainty create a metacompetency or cluster of competencies. He describes adaptive capacity as representing a number of competencies and as being one of the key overarching competencies needed in leadership along with integrity, voice, and shared meaning (Bennis & Thomas, 2002). He points out that there are behavioral, cognitive, and affective components shared by all of the flexible leadership competencies and that these components can be integrated into selection, development, and reinforcement of leaders.

Oftentimes during coaching sessions with senior executives we’ve echoed Goldsmith’s (2007) suggestion to executives that “what got you here won’t get you there.” In other words, the kinds of behavior and performance that promotes an individual to a particular (often times executive) level are no longer the kinds of behavior and performance that will ensure continued success. Quick rising executive types often are quite good at “working in the business”—relying perhaps on Jacob and Jacques (1987) technical leadership skills—but often have to learn on the job how to “work on the business”—requiring Jacob and Jacques interpersonal and conceptual leadership skills.

This reasoning (and anecdotal observations) suggests that learning agility—or its lack—belongs also within the “derailment” literature. Consistent with this, the Center for Creative Leadership began exploring executive derailment during the 1980s (Lombardo, Ruderman, & McCauley, 1988; McCall & Lombardo, 1983). The authors found, among other things, that a common factor among “derailed” executives was the lack of willingness or ability to change to new circumstances; in other words, they continued to try what had worked in the past, and those lessons no longer applied.

Tying this all together suggests to us that learning agility should be useful in practice. For example, we often rely on individual’s past successes to predict future successes (a la behavioral interviews, for example). However, if the situations the candidate successfully navigated in the past differ from those of the future, past success might be less critical than the candidate’s ability to learn on the job, extract the right lessons, and apply them. We can imagine assessment centers could be used to assess the extent to which candidates could be assessed on learning agility by the extent to which they are able to flex and build on previous roleplays, in baskets, and so on. To the extent that learning agility can be measured directly or indirectly, such measures might be even more critical when an individual is moving vertically to a position having very different responsibilities, wherein past behaviors could actually derail versus ensure success. Finally, whether or not learning agility is something that can be developed could also open up developmental options for otherwise high potential leaders.


Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J (2002). Geeks and geezers: How eras, values and defining moments shape leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
De Meuse, K. P., Dai G., & Hallenbeck, G. S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119–130.
DeRue S. P., Ashford, S., & Myers, C. G. (2012). Learning agility: In search of conceptual clarity and theoretical grounding. Industrial and Organizational Psychology Perspectives on Science and Practice, 5, 258–279.
Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there: How successful people become even more successful. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Jacobs, T. O., & Jaques, E. (1987). Leadership in complex systems. In J. Zeidner (Ed.), Human productivity enhancement (Vol. 2, pp. 7–65). New York, NY: Praeger.
Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39, 321–330.
Lombardo, M. M., Ruderman, M. N., & McCauley, C. D. (1988). Explanations of success and derailment in upper-level management positions. Journal of Business and Psychology, 2, 199–216.
McCall, M. W., Jr., & Lombardo, M. M. (1983). What makes a top executive? Psychology Today, 17, 26–31.
Norton, L. W. (2010). Flexible Leadership, An integrative perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 143–150.