With the constant flow of innovation and disruption, speed has become the new normal. But companies that are truly agile know that the ability to respond fast is just one element of the puzzle.

Everyone is talking about agility. Clients constantly tell us that they need to respond quickly to the new threats and opportunities brought forth by the rapid evolution in technology, the aging baby boomers, the growth of emerging markets. The ability to follow through on change—and being agile enough to shift constantly—has become vital for today’s success. But unfortunately, many equate agility with the ability to shift on a dime in response to the upheavals in the market place. When it comes to agility, however, being fast to change is only part of the equation.

Consider the case of a multinational company that had been focused on selling commodity chemicals while giving away the expertise on how to use them for free. The company planned to flip that business model on its head, developing long-term consulting contracts with its customers to capitalise on that highly valued advice. Projections showed that the firm could increase its profits from around 5 percent of sales to around 30 percent of sales. But the reality never quite turned out that way. For two years the sales force never focused on creating consulting contracts—it just kept doing what it had been doing for years, selling as many tons of chemicals as possible. The problem: the company hadn’t made the structural adjustments needed to pull off its grand strategy.

The chemicals company was quick to embark on the new journey but it didn’t make any changes to the compensation system. People were still getting bonuses based on the amount of product they sold, so they kept pushing products, not services. To be fair, company executives knew they had to get to compensation, but they were holding off because they knew that changing that would be complex. In the end, it would take another year to implement an incentive plan to get the sales force to start building consulting relationships with customers.

Brilliant minds are coming up with great ideas and quickly implementing strategies to respond to current market challenges. Yet an overwhelming number of these business innovations, cultural transformations and other great-on-paper ideas fail. According to multiple studies, mergers and acquisitions, some of the most public of big changes, fail to create value anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the time (think AOL Time Warner, Tata Steel and Corus). Specially in M&As, too much speed can be detrimental to success. The truth is simple: Many of these plans start, but the firms and their leaders aren’t agile enough to make them work.

Agile businesses don’t just work faster, they make effective moves—pivoting at the right moment, finding resourcefulness to grow in difficult markets, seizing opportunities when others are uncertain. At Korn Ferry, we define corporate agility as the company’s ability to outperform the competition and drive growth in new, ambiguous situations by learning and adapting when confronted with foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, dilemmas, crises, and complex problems. And what makes a company agile is the level of learning agility among its employees and leaders.

Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new conditions. Agile learners more readily absorb new skills, behaviours, and insights—and then carry those forward to perform successfully. Our research shows that learning agility encompasses five factors:

  • Mental agility: embracing complexity, examining problems in unique ways, making fresh connections, and staying inquisitive.
  • People agility: being open-minded toward others, enjoying interaction with diverse groups, bringing out the best in others.
  • Change agility: willingness to lead transformation efforts, continuously exploring new options.
  • Results agility: delivering results in tough situations, responding to challenge, inspiring others to achieve more than they thought possible.
  • Self-awareness: being reflective, understanding strengths and weaknesses, seeking feedback and personal insight.


People who display these abilities feel prepared and unafraid to challenge the status quo. They remain calm in the face of difficulty, take time to reflect on their experiences, are open to learning and often actively seek out challenging situations. As such, they’re able to identify when change is needed, plan and put processes in place to make it happen. For instance, an agile leader who wants to implement a new strategy would identify the internal systems that deter change and offer employees incentives to follow through and adapt the company structure to the new strategy.

How to become an agile learner

Futurist Alvin Toffler once said, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”

We can cultivate learning agility and train ourselves and the people in our companies to develop the five factors. Perhaps nothing serves as a better teacher, in this department, than a bit of adversity or discomfort. Often, it is in challenging situations and the job you do not want to take that yields the biggest chance to improve learning agility.

Some of these opportunities may come from interstate or overseas assignments, working on a project beyond your current knowledge or skills level, working with a multigenerational team, putting your hand up for horizontal career moves and promotions (by the way, agile learners are promoted twice as often). Reflecting on experiences and failures and the lessons learned from them also helps as does formal coaching.

There is nothing wrong with the need for speed and acting fast is often necessary but learning-agile leaders have more to draw on that just speed. When it comes to rising to new challenges, they have more lessons, more tools, and more solutions in their repertoire. So, next time you feel like stepping on the gas, ask yourself if you are acting like an agile learner.

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