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Learning Agile leaders poised to maximize changes underway in Asia

March 2012 In a world of constant change, complexity, and ambiguity, Learning Agility is highly prized in organizational leaders. Faced with a short supply and strong competition for executive talent, corporations need to put in place systems to identify and nurture learning agile talent early and put future leaders on purpose-built career tracks that develop this critical characteristic.

In today’s volatile, fast-paced marketplace, there is one professional attribute that has become highly prized: Learning Agility. Individuals exhibiting high levels of learning agility can adapt quickly in unfamiliar situations, even thrive amid chaos. They are f lexible and resourceful; in times of uncertainty, they take charge, and figure out the best next steps on the f ly. In Asia’s business climate, Learning Agility is mission-critical. The region’s economy is changing in many ways at once; companies here are reinventing manufacturing, spreading technology, innovating for a new consumer base, and marketing to a burgeoning middle class. At the same time, Asia is a complex, multi-nation market with sectors at varying levels of maturity. “We live in a world of constant change, complexity, and ambiguity. Learning Agility is absolutely critical in this kind of environment,” said Pushp Deep Gupta, Managing Principal of Korn/Ferry International’s Asia Pacific Leadership and Talent Consulting practice at Korn/Ferry’s Leadership Transformation Conference in Singapore last August. There’s one catch: demand is high and supply of Asian leaders with this “X factor” is low.

Learning Agility: Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience and then apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations. People who are high in Learning Agility: >

Seek out experiences to learn from.


Enjoy complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences.


Get more out of those experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them.


Perform better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire.

Consider the challenges faced by Asia’s fast-growing healthcare sector. Hospitals and healthcare companies struggle to find executives and managers with both commercial experience and medical skills. “In Asia, there is a lack of capability to run hospitals and development. It’s a very immature business,” said Ronald Ling, Managing Director of PwC’s Asian Healthcare consulting practice. “Specialists must have an appreciation of business, plus softer skills, like teamwork, and problem-solving in ambiguous situations. In places like Vietnam or China, it’s not always clear what the problem is, never mind the solution. There is a short supply and strong competition for this kind of talent.” Corporations need to put in place systems to pinpoint high ‘learning agile’ talent early on in their career, and put these future leaders into purpose-built situations that will develop this critical characteristic.

Figure 1

Factors of Learning Agility Learning Agility is a critical indicator of potential and should be used to differentiate talent. Korn/Ferry’s new self-assessment viaEDGE™ provides scores on:

A person who is learning agile has more lessons, more tools, and more solutions to draw on when faced with new business challenges.

> People agility—skilled communicator who can work with diverse types of people

> Mental agility—ability to examine problems in unique and unusual ways > Self-Awareness— extent to which an individual knows his or her true strengths and weaknesses

Learning agility

> Change agility—likes to experiment and comfortable with change > Results agility—delivers results in challenging firsttime situations

A growing number of companies in Asia are starting to do just that. Novartis, one of the world’s leading healthcare companies, sees this particular quality as the bedrock of future success. “We have very ambitious growth targets in Asia, a diverse workforce – but a double-digit attrition rate and a shallow talent pipeline for key roles,” said Claudia Dornhoefer, Head of Asia Pacific HR at Novartis Consumer Health. “We are also struggling to find the talent that locally knows the business but has a global mindset.” Multinationals and Asian firms, meanwhile, are fishing in the same talent pool. “We are only able to grow our business if we are able to grow our people,” she added.


Novartis put a detailed talent management program in place to assess its workforce and develop highly-personalized development plans with very specific milestones. “We made a deliberate decision to focus on Learning Agility, because we believe people who are better in first-time situations will help grow our company,” Dornhoefer said.

Figure 2

Performance/Potential Matrix Korn/Ferry’s assessment tool evaluates employees’ ability to achieve superior results over a long period of time and across different environments (long-term performance), and to their ability to effectively deal with first-time and changing situations (Learning Agility). The cell groupings by color help identify the development paths based on where a person is placed on the matrix.


High professional

Long-term performance

• Consistently produces exceptional results and high performance ratings. • Knows current job extremely well. • May not effectively adapt to new situations.

Solid Professional • Consistently meets expectations. • Knows current job well. • May not effectively adapt to new situations.

Low performer • Not delivering on results as expected. • Does not adapt to change well and may be a blocked personal learner.

High professional plus • Consistently produces exceptional results and high performance ratings. • Knows the job well and continuously enhances skills. • Adapts to new situations if necessary.

Consistent star • Clearest example of superior performance and potential. • Has the ability to take on major stretch assignments in new areas. • Will challenge the organization to provide growth opportunities fast enough.

Key performer • Consistently meets expectations. • Knows current job well and enhances skills as appropriate. • Can adapt to new situations as necessary.

Future star • Consistently meets expectations. • Knows the job well and enhances skills as appropriate. • Has the ability to take on new and different challenges on a consistent basis.

Inconsistent performer • Delivers results inconsistently. • Knows the job, and may be a passive learner. • May adapt to new situations if necessary.

Diamond in the rough • Delivers results erratically. • Has demonstrated potential but is not living up to it.

Low Low

Learning Agility


It took several years to get the system firing on all cylinders. “What we learned was that people felt very frustrated about the development piece. We were able to assess talent, but not able to say what you need to do to get to the next stage,” she said. So the company developed a program called ‘Grow with Purpose,’ which implemented differentiated development plans for staff; high-risk assignments and developmentoriented jobs were carefully planned and assigned to foster and leverage Learning Agility. The critical thing for managers was to determine how much ‘stretch’ they could put into a particular person’s career development plan. “Some people can take more, so you put more on their plate; others can manage less, and need a longer time to manage the stretch,” Dornhoefer explained.


For high-potential employees, a complementary coaching system is used to develop the depth and breadth of their leadership skills. Individuals, meanwhile, are encouraged to take charge of their own career: a key part of the ‘Growth With Purpose’ program is regular conversations between staff and managers about job aspirations and how to achieve them. The company also has a blog and encourages people to share their learning stories—a forum that’s become highly popular. “We spent time thinking about how we could get away from ‘accidental learning’ into more structured, planned learning,” said Dornhoefer. Those efforts paid off. The program, which was put in place just over five years ago, has garnered support across the organization. The talent pipeline has bloomed. “Associates now take more charge of their own career,” she added.

Figure 3

Differentiated development paths Korn/Ferry’s differentiated plans provide a menu of development and retention plans based on an employee’s cell placement and grouping; those with performance issues (red), the core performers (blue), the pipeline (yellow) and the strategic few (green).

Long-term performance


Critical knowledge jobs

Reinforce expanding interests

Fast track, high-risk assignments

Build functional specialty

Build future utility

Increase challenging assignments

Performance improvement plan

Careful next assignment

Developmental jobs

Low Low


Learning Agility


Installing Learning Agility ‘thoughtware’ Given the importance of Asia to global business, and the region’s undeniable growth prospects, it is imperative that Learning Agility becomes a pillar of organizations’ talent management efforts. Step one involves building up the literacy around Learning Agility as a measure of potential, as distinct from performance. The next step involves sifting out ‘high potentials’ from the larger group of high performers. Finally, these different categories of talent need to get different development to ensure that the full value of talent is realized. By doing this well, organizations will be ahead of the race in the competition for marketshare and talent.

Using the right tools helps detect and develop the right stuff Learning Agility is an accurate predictor of leadership potential, and should be used to pinpoint people who might be groomed for high levels of responsibility. “The research has proven that if you adapt well to any first-time situation, you will also do well when you’re promoted. Learning Agility is an important asset to future leaders,” says Nicole Gionet, the Asia Pacific head of Human Resources for Alactel-Lucent. That reality prompted Alacatel-Lucent to test drive an assessment tool called Choices™, designed by industrial psychologists at Lominger, a unit of Korn/Ferry. Choices specifically helps identify individuals with this unique skill set by posing a series of questions, many unrelated to a work setting, that gauge reactions to a first-time or unfamiliar situation.

“We wanted to enhance our standards in terms of screening potential leaders. We were not identifying them soon enough in their career, and so not developing them soon enough. That impacts the talent pipeline,” according to Gionet. Korn/Ferry’s newest assessment tool, viaEDGE™, also measures Learning Agility across different sub-sets, including mental agility, people agility, change agility, and results agility. A candidate with high mental agility is comfortable with complexity; a high people agility rating indicates a candidate who is a skilled communicator that can work with diverse people; someone with strong change agility likes to experiment and is comfortable with change; results agility correlates with the ability to deliver results in first-time situations.

viaEDGE™ also measures selfawareness, which studies show is another leading indicator of executive success, and its own form of Learning Agility. “People who are self-aware recognize and understand what needs to be done to improve,” said Ken DeMeuse, Vice President of Global Research at Korn/Ferry International. “This is the person who knows themselves, and recognizes their blinds spots and hidden strengths. That kind of self-awareness is the hallmark of a strong leader.”


About the Korn/Ferry Institute The Korn/Ferry Institute generates forward-thinking research and viewpoints that illuminate how talent advances business strategy. Since its founding in 2008, the institute has published scores of articles, studies and books that explore global best practices in organizational leadership and human capital development.

About Korn/Ferry International Asia Pacific Korn/Ferry International, with a presence throughout the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Korn/Ferry, based in Los Angeles, was the first major global executive search firm to operate in Asia Pacific when it opened its doors in Tokyo in 1973. Today it has eighteen offices in key business centers throughout the region. Korn/Ferry delivers an array of solutions that help clients to attract, engage, develop, and retain their talent. Visit for more information on the Korn/Ferry International family of companies, and for thought leadership, intellectual property and research.

About the Leadership Transformation conference Korn/Ferry’s Leadership Transformation conferences and events present the Firm’s research and viewpoints on how talent advances business strategy. Korn/Ferry hosted the 2011 conference series in Singapore and Scottsdale, Arizona. The first 2012 conference will be in Madrid, Spain. Visit for more information.


© 2012 The Korn/Ferry Institute

Learning Agile leaders poised to maximize changes underway in Asia  

Learning Agile leaders poised to maximize changes underway in Asia

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