The Importance of Agility

Given the dramatic changes in how work gets prioritized, communicated and carried out, HR's challenge is to feed leadership pipelines with people who can adapt "on a dime."

Thursday, February 7, 2013
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The world we live in today is aptly summarized by the acronym "VUCA," says Victoria Swisher: Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Upheaval in Syria, Libya, Egypt and other troubled countries continues to roil the Middle East, bringing down established, if corrupt and brutal, governments. New methods of extracting oil and natural gas are sharply reducing energy costs in some countries, such as the United States, while the price of energy in other regions continues to soar, forcing companies to rethink where to base their manufacturing operations. The rise of mobile computing is changing the landscape in many industries, with new opportunities and potential perils existing side by side.

It's an unsettled, changing world, one in which adaptability and flexibility are more important than ever. So, perhaps, it's past time for HR leaders at large, global companies (see charts of the Top 100 companies on pages 20 and 22) to ask themselves: Are our managers up for the challenge? Are we doing everything we can to ensure they're getting the developmental opportunities they need in order to thrive in uncharted waters?

"The global landscape is so complex, the regulatory climate changing so rapidly, the intensity of all this has increased [the need for] people who can respond quickly and operate in an environment that is ambiguous," says Diana O'Brien, the Cincinnati-based managing partner for talent development at Deloitte's corporate university, which serves the New York-based professional-services firm's 50,000 U.S. employees.

It all seems to boil down to one word, says Swisher, senior director of intellectual property development at Los Angeles-based Korn/Ferry International: agility. Specifically, learning agility, she adds.

"All of those attributes that describe the business world of today are tailor-made for someone with learning agility," says Swisher, who's authored a new book, Becoming an Agile Leader. "The hallmark of someone with learning agility is that they learn lessons from diverse experiences and are able to distill those down to rules of thumb so that, when they're put in an unfamiliar situation, they aren't stumped by it. It's almost become a price of entry for success now, especially in leadership and executive roles."

As noted in a recent Korn/Ferry Institute white paper titled Using Learning Agility to Identify High Potentials Around the World, studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful executives from unsuccessful ones. Learning agility is used to describe those with openness, willingness to learn, curiosity about the world, a willingness to experience new things, good people skills and a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Cultural agility is yet another hallmark of successful leaders in today's era, says Paula Caligiuri, author of a 2012 book titled Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals.

The differences between a culturally agile person and someone who is not are readily apparent, says Caligiuri.

"They tend to ask more questions than most people would, they're more interested in exploring things that are new and exciting, they tend to have a high level of civility and they don't get anxious easily," she says. "They have a long fuse and know how to roll with things a bit."

Culturally agile professionals are "able to work effectively regardless of cultural context," says Caligiuri, a professor of human resource management at Rutgers University.

That context can be geographic or organizational -- so long as the person understands the rules of the culture so they can interpret them more readily, she says.

A common drawback for many executives is that it's all too easy sometimes to come to the mistaken conclusion that cultural differences aren't really an issue.

"The more executives travel, the more some of them will say, 'I don't see the differences,' " Caligiuri says. "The problem is, they'll often see the people at corporate headquarters who dress the same way they do and may have attended the same schools, but they can't see the true, deep-rooted cultural values below the surface, or the more pronounced cultural differences that exist deeper down in the organization, or out in the field."

Given that so many large U.S.-based companies now derive at least half or more of their annual revenues from outside the United States, this sort of insularity can pose a risk, says Caligiuri.

"Companies are looking to non-domestic markets for future growth, and they need people capable of leading those initiatives," she says.

A Core Competency

People who are learning-agile usually exhibit the following six characteristics, according to a recent white paper titled Learning About Learning Agility from the Center for Creative Leadership and Columbia University's Teachers College: They're unafraid to challenge the status quo, they remain calm in the face of difficulty, they take time to reflect on their experiences, they purposefully put themselves in challenging situations, they're open to learning and they resist the temptation to become defensive in the face of adversity.

Or, as the paper's authors write, they're "individuals who are continually able to give up skills, perspectives and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are." HR leaders who want their organizations to thrive in the future, they note, must focus on finding and developing these individuals. 

When it comes to assessing high-potentials for learning agility, the CCL offers its Learning Agility Assessment Inventory, developed by Teachers College. Korn/Ferry's Lominger division offers its Choices Architect, while the "Leadership Agility 360" tool from Boston-based consulting firm ChangeWise assesses learning agility in the context of leadership potential.

Providing stretch assignments to high-potentials who demonstrate these characteristics early on in their careers is a reliable way for HR to ensure that the organization's leadership pipeline is well-stocked with agile professionals, say Caligiuri and others. Some large companies, such as St. Louis-based agribusiness giant Monsanto, have gone so far as to make agility a core competency. Others, such as Deloitte and Hopkinton, Mass.-based technology giant EMC, have created new training programs designed to spur employees to be more agile in their thinking by getting them to rethink how they approach different people and different situations.

People who score highly in other facets of learning agility "seek feedback, process it and adapt themselves based on their newfound understanding of themselves, situations and problems," the CCL and Columbia University researchers write. Meanwhile, people who avoid learning opportunities when they arise -- those who exhibit defensiveness or who shut down when challenged -- are demonstrating the antithesis of learning agility, they note.

Learning agility has five key elements, says Swisher: self-awareness, mental agility, people agility, change agility and results agility.

At Monsanto, the $13-billion, 22,000-employee company has its own definition of agility: The ability to quickly adapt to changes in the business, being "really comfortable with" ambiguity, and having the ability to act quickly and seize new opportunities when they arise, says Denise Champagne, head of the company's leadership and organizational-effectiveness function.

South America is seen as the region with the greatest growth potential for Monsanto. Brazil, in particular, is a key focus for the company's growth strategy, says Champagne.

The company has begun expanding a program for its high-potentials in which about 40 of them are selected each year to work on action learning projects designed to increase their cultural agility and prepare them for assuming positions of greater responsibility, says Champagne. Previously, the program had been reserved only for managers directly below the executive-level, she says, but it's been expanded to employees working one level lower and will be further expanded to include employees working several layers down.

The reason?

"We need to accelerate leadership development much faster, particularly in countries like Brazil, where we're competing for the same talent with a lot of other companies," says Champagne. "One of the greatest benefits of this program is that, whether it's across the region or the globe, [participants] have the opportunity to learn more about people in different functions."

Program participants work together, in groups of seven or so, on projects submitted by leaders in Monsanto's various business divisions. The projects are based on real-world issues and can include figuring out the best strategy for bringing a new product to market in a certain geographic region, says Champagne.

Determining an actual ROI from the program hasn't been easy, she says, but HR plans to do more analysis, including seeing whether people who go through the program receive higher scores from their subordinates than those who don't.

In the meantime, Champagne says, feedback from leaders about the program has been "over-the-top positive."

At New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical heavyweight has been focused on helping its future leaders master cultural agility for more than 30 years. J&J's International Development Program is designed to help the company furnish its managerial ranks with people who are willing to take on new perspectives, deliver results in an unfamiliar culture, and demonstrate a "global and enterprise mind-set," says Karen Bicking, J&J's global manager for international-development programs.

"It's about thinking globally while also acting locally, and being able to shift your approach or flex your style in a different business," she says.

The IDP is designed specifically to prepare participants for future leadership roles within the company and is differentiated from other international assignments. Each year, between 70 and 80 managers and directors are selected for the IDP, which entails spending one to two years on an international assignment -- working in a different part of J&J on different products. Before and during the assignment, they and their families receive cultural coaching from an outside vendor and are assigned a mentor. In terms of lessons learned, Bicking says, one of the most important is the value of creating a community of assignees who can talk to and learn from one another. Bicking and her colleagues foster this by encouraging participants to get together on a regular basis for dinners and events and participate in special LinkedIn groups that allow assignees to network and exchange tips and advice. 

"Having a community they can interact with on things like how to hit the ground running in a totally new environment, how to help family members adjust -- it's quite valuable to them," she says. 

What Agility Is -- and Isn't 

Today, Swisher says, she sees clients incorporating agility into other areas besides high-potential programs. Companies are now applying it to succession planning and project methodology, identifying roles on teams where agility will be critical and evaluating other roles within their organizations where "the ability to know what to do when you don't know what to do" is going to be a differentiator, she says.

Learning agility isn't like IQ, says Swisher. "It's more about the lessons you take from the experiences that you've had, and your ability to apply those lessons in new situations," she says.

Swisher offers a word of caution: Learning agility isn't necessary for all roles or even all organizations, and does not need to be spread "like peanut butter" through all talent-management practices. Companies that are highly regulated or that have heavy compliance burdens may not be suited for large numbers of new hires that score highly in learning agility, she says. "That's going to create its own set of problems," she says.

As for cultural agility, it doesn't necessarily come from international experience, says Caligiuri.

"We assumed for years that people with international experience are culturally agile -- but that's simply not the case," she says. "It's the quality of experiences they're given that matters. You can learn a lot from working virtually with people from different cultures. We need to push back against this notion that it's about frequent-flier miles or days spent in expat housing -- it's about the quality of the developmental experiences."

Brian Kropp agrees that when it comes to determining what it takes to be successful in a global role, there's a serious misperception out there.

Most business leaders assume that "having a global mind-set" is necessary to be successful in a multinational environment, says Kropp, managing director of CEB, an Arlington, Va.-based consultancy to large companies. "That is, at best, half true," he says. "You can't be a cultural buffoon, obviously, but we see no difference in performance when you go from someone who's culturally OK to culturally great."

The CEB has spent the last few years surveying 14,000 high-level managers with responsibility for multiple regions, and the results appear to contradict conventional wisdom. Rather than having a global mind-set, says Kropp, "what matters much more is the ability to be an effective influencer."

Unfortunately, most companies aren't doing a very good job at developing their people's influencing skills, he says. It's not enough to rotate people through overseas assignments; instead, HR should be putting them into different functional areas, or "fish-out-of-water situations," as he terms it.

"Moving someone from running sales in the United States to running sales in the United Kingdom is not really a different job, when you think about it," he says. "But take someone who's been running a sales department and switch them to running an IT department for a three-year-long project in which they'll be interfacing with every department within the company, in an area in which they have no background and they have to learn to influence people in this different environment -- that's a much more effective way to help people gain this skill."

Of course, companies can't just toss their managers into different scenarios and wait for them to sink or swim, says Kropp. They'll need mentors, including the person they'll be replacing and someone who can offer an outside perspective, he says.

The latter "serves as the 'difference-based mentor' -- they won't have the benefit, or the burden, of similar experiences, so they can ask better questions," says Kropp. "As an example, they might assign someone younger, perhaps a millennial, to talk to them about what millennials think."

Understanding Others

Agility -- of the cultural and learning variety -- is more than the ability to thrive in ambiguous situations. It's also the knack for adapting your own style to the needs of those around you and be open to different perspectives and viewpoints.

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The paradox is that highly successful people -- the sort of driven, task-focused individuals organizations need -- can be at high risk of exhibiting the sort of defensive behavior that derails agility, according to the authors of the white paper from the CCL and Columbia University. In other words, their success makes them less open to outside feedback. 

"Many people crest early," says Stephen A. Miles, former vice chair of executive-search firm Heidrick & Struggles and founder and CEO of New York-based Miles Group. "At some point, they no longer have the urge to learn from other people once they attain a certain level in the organization."

Miles, who was born in Africa and today spends more than half his time outside the United States, says cultural agility and learning agility essentially mean the ability to lead diverse teams. Doing this effectively, he says, requires managers who are able to adjust their leadership style depending on the situation and the people they're leading.

"Different situations require different leadership styles, and the ability to navigate effortlessly between [those different styles] is very important," he says.

Adapting one's style to different contexts is also important when it comes to clients and potential customers. One of the "most important" programs Deloitte has launched for its employees recently is a new course called The Art of Empathy, says O'Brien.

The course is designed to teach students how to understand the different ways in which other people prefer to receive and absorb information. At a company like Deloitte, in which understanding and addressing clients' needs is paramount, the ability to do this is potentially game-changing, she says.

"The course is designed to help you understand what someone else's temperament may be, what they care about and where they're coming from," says O'Brien.

The course is based partly on research conducted by Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, research professor at Rutgers University and author of five books on topics such as personality types, gender differences in the brain, and the evolution of love and marriage.

Through her research, Fisher has identified four broad "brain types," or ways of thinking and behaving, that people fall into (see sidebar). These brain types govern the way people respond to their environment, she adds.

Deloitte approached Fisher about incorporating her research findings into a new course created for its partners and senior leaders, she says.

"They were very interested in understanding how their teams work, the problems that can arise when people with different styles of thinking don't mesh and how to understand their clients on a deeper level," says Fisher.

Once you understand the different ways in which people take in information and process it, you can be a much more effective communicator, she says.

The Art of Empathy is paired with another new course Deloitte developed called The Art of Listening, which is designed to help the firm's partners ask more effective questions, says O'Brien. "If you're dealing with really complex issues, it's easy sometimes to just fly over them. But if I'm able to ask an effective question and have you know that you were understood and that I was able to extract the information I need to help you apply a solution, you're going to have higher trust in me."

The course was developed in part by interviewing well-known interviewers such as talk-show host Charlie Rose to learn how to ask an insightful question and get an interviewee to yield that information, she says.

Approximately 700 partners and directors at Deloitte have taken the courses so far, says O'Brien. Many report feeling better-equipped to understand, influence and appreciate their clients upon their completion, she adds.

"It's your job to help your client solve a problem," says O'Brien. "If you're able to listen to them better and understand the context of their problem, you'll be in a better position to help them -- it will give you an edge in helping to solve the problem."

A lack of cultural agility among managers can result in inadvertently alienating employees from different backgrounds, especially when the managers aren't even aware of inherent biases they may have, says Jackie Glenn, chief diversity officer at EMC.

This is a critical issue at EMC, a global information-technology company with 55,000 employees and sites in 85 countries. Managers need to be aware of the importance of recruiting, developing and retaining skilled workers from all generations and backgrounds, says Glenn.

"We want to ensure that people understand the notion of implicit bias and manage it so it doesn't affect you in the course of managing and developing people," she says.

EMC's efforts in this area grew out of a meeting the company's leaders had with Harvard University professor Charles Ogletree, who's conducted pioneering research into implicit biases and created an online test to measure it.

The training includes an exercise called The Big Decision, in which a group of people seated around the table are given an identical resume but with different names and photographs for each person. The participants are then asked to rate the person's qualifications for the job and decide whether or not they would hire him or her.

"The 'a-ha moment' comes when people in the group realize that they've all come to different conclusions on whether or not they'd hire the person," says Glenn. "People react to a picture they saw, such as a white woman wearing a miniskirt or someone in a wheelchair, or a name like Shania or Shaniqua."

The goal of the exercise is to change people's behavior by recognizing that everyone is biased to one degree or another and that they need to suspend this bias when they come into a different situation, she says.

"They need to ask, 'Is this what I'm really seeing, or am I doing this because of my bias?' " says Glenn.

Participants take Prof. Ogletree's online bias test at a later point after the workshop to see whether they're correcting for any implicit bias, she says.

Although the notion that everyone is biased to some extent may make participants feel initially uncomfortable, says Glenn, this can be mitigated when instructors explain how they deal with their own implicit biases.

"One instructor explained how she's an 'academic snob' -- if she sees a resume, the first thing she'll look at is where the person went to school," she says. "So now, she asks her assistant to block out school names when she's reviewing resumes. When you open up the conversation by putting yourself out there as someone who has an implicit bias, people are more willing to listen to you."

Regardless of how cultural and learning agility is imparted to, or assessed in, employees, they offer a better way of looking at talent than what continues to be the common approach at too many large companies, says Mogens Raun, head of talent development at global financial-services firm Allianz.

 "From what I've experienced with many senior management teams, discussions about talent have been extremely subjective," says Rauns, who -- prior to joining Munich, Germany-based Allianz in 2011 -- held senior HR positions at several global multinational companies. " 'He's got the right stuff,' 'She works long hours' -- it has nothing to do with someone's ability to succeed at the next level. 

"Learning agility is something we all have, you just need to develop it," he says. "You can learn to be a learner."


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