What’s the most important characteristic in a CEO?

Korn Ferry, the world’s largest executive search firm, conducted a study to find out exactly that. And what they found was surprising – the one characteristic that correlated most directly to an executive’s success is… drum roll please… “learning agility”.

I’m going to guess the first question that comes to your mind, directly after the eye roll that comes after hearing a quintessential corporate buzzword like “learning agility”, is “what the heck is that”? Well, The Wall Street Journal asked Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison that question, and this is what he said:

“It comes down to people’s willingness to grow, to learn, to have insatiable curiosity,” Burnison told The Journal. “Think about the levers of growth that a CEO has. You can consolidate, or tap [new markets], or innovate. When it comes down to the last two, particularly innovation, you want a workforce that is incredibly curious.”

That makes sense. The companies that thrive in today’s quickly-changing world are companies led by someone is always on top of how the world is changing and then able to adopt their company to those changes.

That raises two more questions, one for employers and one for employees. For employers, how do you find out if a person has a lot of learning agility? And for employees who want to move up, how do you improve your learning agility?

Well, there are answers to both.

How Do You Determine How Much Learning Agility A Person Has?

The Wall Street Journal wanted to know how Burnison determines a person’s learning agility. He said it comes out by asking the right questions during the job interview.

“I like to ask questions that explore somebody’s thinking style,” Burnison told The Journal. “Practically speaking, it would be, ‘hey, we are struggling with this kind of problem, how do you think about it?’ Rather than, a candidate saying, ‘this is what I did for this company or that company.’ It is more to engage in a dialogue and a probing about how we think and how the candidate thinks. That’s what we are trying to get to.”

Hearing Burnison’s answer, it sounds very similar to Warren Buffett’s hiring style. Buffett, much like Burnison, gives candidates hands-on activities, like asking them to give a presentation on the spot or even puzzles, to capture how they think.

People with strong learning agility will be able to answer spur-of-the-moment questions with logical, thought-out answers. People who lack it will regurgitate past experiences, instead of adapting to what the situation calls for.

How Can You Improve Your Learning Agility?

Part of learning agility is innate, there’s no question about that. A smarter person is going to naturally have a more agile mind than a less-intelligent person, much like a great athlete is going to be more physically agile than a less-gifted athlete.

That said, learning agility is both a skill and a mindset. It is a skill in that it can be sharpened through a lifelong dedication to learning and reading, as the more the brain is confronted with new ideas, the more apt it will be to deal with them.

It is also a mindset. Often, when we are confronted with something new, our first instinct is to reject it (I know I do this). It is critical to suppress that instinct and be open-minded about a new concept, rather than making any excuse to justify your existing line of thinking.

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