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Learning Agility: The Key to Leader Potential

When I was asked to write a three-part article on the eve of the publication of the book I co-wrote with Dr. Warner Burke, “Learning Agility: The Key to Leadership Potential”, I thought an interesting place to start would be by discussing what has influenced our thinking over the years, mindsets that are reflected in our book.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, I worked for a consulting firm called McBer and Company. The firm’s name was a combination of the names of the two founders – David McClelland and David Berlew. Berlew had left the firm before I arrived, and it was McClelland who made a lasting impression on me.

For those who don’t know of him, McClelland was a former head of Harvard University’s psychology department who is often referred to as the “father of motivation theory”. A motive is a recurrent need, drive or concern that directs behavior. McClelland identified three social motives – the need for achievement, affiliation and power – that account for about 80 percent of our interactions.

He theorized that peoples’ motives are pretty well-fixed by age five, which, as a parent, is kind of scary. I have recently been working with the Hogan Assessment team, and they have tests that measure personality. According to Hogan and its test, your personality is still forming until your early 20s. Both Hogan and McClelland believe that once motivation and personality are established, they really don’t change over time.

I recently visited Hogan’s offices to get certified in administering the Hogan Personality Inventory. As part of that process, you take and receive feedback on yourself. There is some overlap between McClelland’s social motivation test and Hogan’s personality assessment.

It was interesting to me that the results I received 40 years ago on the McClelland test were fairly consistent with my Hogan results. I think of motivation and personality as a person’s “hard drive”. It is possible, but unlikely, to change them.

Warner Burke describes himself as a “Lewinian psychologist”, meaning his thinking as a psychologist was largely influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin, who invented a model to describe change.

Lewin was a systems thinker and, as such, believed that every situation was in a state of equilibrium. Basically, we are in a “fixed” position, with certain forces pushing against where we are in one direction and an equal number of forces pushing us in the opposite direction. As a result, unless something changes in one direction or another, we are going to stay exactly where we are.

So, if you are trying to create change in a certain situation, you would have to increase the forces pushing forward or reduce the forces pushing against. There could also be a combination of promoting and restraining forces that will move something from its current equilibrium.

What does this have to do with learning agility and the book?

Both Warner and I believe there is a component of learning – or more specifically, ability – that is connected to motivation and personality, and therefore unlikely to change. There is another aspect of learning that is behavior-based that we call learning agility. We believe this can be learned, changed and developed.

This is what Warner set out to measure with the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. Warner is an academic and, as such, needs to understand the theory behind something (learning agility) and hopefully contribute to that theory with his research.

That is what we tried to do with the first part of our book.  Chapter One was my attempt to make a case for learning agility. What is learning agility anyway? We define it. At any point in time when learning agility could have become important, why now? We discuss in the first chapter what came before learning agility and why it was unsuccessful. We point out that, particularly today in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, people will find themselves in situations in which they don’t know what to do and need to figure it out.

This, in essence, is the definition of learning agility – finding yourself in an unknown or unfamiliar situation and successfully solving the problem.

The last section of Part One of the book describes the test Warner created to measure learning agility, the Burke Learning Agility Inventory™ (Burke LAI™), and the report or output created when someone completes the test.

In the next part of this series we will talk about our experience with development and how this influenced the second part of the book.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASI•Consult®. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

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