the ceo magazine, hiring,
J.P. Flaum, Managing Partner, Green Peak Partners, and Dr. Becky Winkler, Partner, Green Peak Partners

When it comes to hiring and developing talent, many companies prioritize qualities that are easy to measure and that allow employees’ progress to be tracked in a steady and linear way. Pedigree, professionalism and a polished career path have often indicated an illustrious future – whether at a big company or a new start-up.

But by focusing on these traditional characteristics, companies often do themselves a disservice by ignoring another, more powerful predictor of future success: learning agility. This set of qualities and attributes speaks to an individual’s ability to process experience, stay flexible, grow from mistakes and rise to a diverse array of challenges – key capabilities in today’s increasingly complex business climate.

A study that we conducted with researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Center for Creative Leadership underscores the value of learning-agile leaders and organizations. Private equity-backed C-suite leaders who ranked high for learning agility on an assessment test also outperformed less agile peers as measured by revenue growth, EBITDA performance and “boss ratings” issued by the Board.

The qualities that make up learning agility, such as flexibility, adaptability and resilience, should be valued and highly prized at companies big and small alike. Learning-agile people and companies are particularly good at adapting to rapidly changing conditions, like the emergence of new competitors, sudden shifts in production and distribution and rapid changes in individual roles and responsibilities.

In a nutshell, it is the ability to remain open to new ways of thinking and to continuously learn new skills – a recipe for success in challenging times.

Whether you’re a CEO at a global corporation, or an entrepreneur or investor behind a growth company, learning agile leaders can enable your people and your entire organization to be more adaptive and resilient – and more successful. Leaders seeking to foster learning agility within their organization should keep a few points in mind.

  • Past experience doesn’t always predict future success. While traditional hiring and evaluation favors a linear career progression and long stretches in the same position, companies should remember that doing just one thing may be poor preparation for a landscape where conditions – and people’s responsibilities – change rapidly and unexpectedly.
  • Don’t overvalue pedigree and credentials. While a history of prestigious education and credentials tend to mean safety when it comes to hiring, an Ivy League or similar background doesn’t guarantee better performance than less prestigious schooling. Qualities like ambition and scrappiness – though harder to measure – are better predictors of future success.
  • A polished and professional exterior could be a negative indicator. The “habit of command” is viewed as a predictor of excellence: polish, assurance and perhaps a degree of aggressiveness. But surface polish may signal rigidity, distaste for feedback and an aversion to risk-taking – all of which can prove unproductive.
  • Look for people who have the courage to take risks – and to bounce back when they fail. When someone follows a traditional development path, that person often hasn’t ever made a significant misstep – which means they have given themselves opportunities to get uncomfortable, learn from failure and develop resilience. People who have explored, stumbled, recovered, learned and adapted are better suited to today’s business life than traditional careerists.

In today’s business landscape, companies – both big and small – find themselves in blind alleys, and have to deal with setbacks. Learning-agile managers and employees can navigate those setbacks and allow their organizations to excel.

About the Author

Green Peak Partners is an organizational consulting firm with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle committed to expanding the talent and leadership capability of our client companies at both the individual and team level. For more information, visit


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