James Citrin’s “Big Idea 2014”: The One Crucial Leadership Skill Is Agility

206Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by James Citrin for LinkedIn’s “Big Ideas 2014” series in which LinkedIn Influencers pick one big idea that will shape 2014. To read the complete article and check out others, please click here.

Photo: JMacPherson/Flickr

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We were recently working with the board of directors of a $50 billion company on its CEO search. The criteria we were using to identify and prioritize candidates were not unlike other CEO succession engagements that we’ve led for years – inspiring leadership, proven track record of general management success, experience in the company’s industry or in an adjacent sector, superior operational skills, global experience, etc. However, there was one criterion that towered above the rest – Learning Agility.

In the words of one director, “This industry is changing so rapidly that we cannot rely on what a candidate knows or even has done in their career as a predictor of future success. We need someone who is a ‘learning animal.’ That is someone who is curious, who doesn’t have all the answers, who knows how to elicit alternative perspectives, who can select the most important nuggets of insights from ‘big data,’ and who can keep learning over time as we march into the future.”

This is my big idea for 2014: for all of us to be “learning animals,” or perhaps more professionally stated, to develop and exercise learning agility. There is some hard-wiring that may enable you to have a greater capacity to learn than others, such as your analytical problem solving skills, your powers of pattern recognition, or your ability to be mentally quick. However, there are perhaps just as important attitude factors that will help you develop your learning agility. Have an attitude of youthful – even childlike – curiosity about the wonder of our world. Have the self confidence to ask questions – not to show how smart you are – but genuinely to understand things more deeply. Don’t just ask first-level questions, go two or three levels deeper, probing the whys and hows. Talk to people who have different perspectives than you or people on your team do. Be an active listener and project an openness to receive information and truth, even bad news. This is particularly important and increasingly challenging as you become more senior in your organization when people want to curry your favor and seek your approval.

The successful candidate in our search indeed demonstrated the greatest capacity to learn and this is what put him over the top. Learning agility isn’t a particularly new idea. There have been academic papers and books on the topic for years, such as the 1993 work by Wick and Leon, Learning Edge: How Smart Managers and Smart Companies Stay Ahead. However, it genuinely seems like an idea whose time has come. In an informal analysis of Spencer Stuart CEO position specifications, across the hundreds of CEO searches we do annually, learning agility does not appear to have been mentioned ever as a key selection criterion a decade ago. In the past year, however, it has become omnipresent in our CEO specs.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Jim Citrin leads Spencer Stuart’s North American CEO Practice. During his 19 years with the firm, he has completed more than 500 CEO, Board Director, CFO and other top management searches. He also works with clients on CEO succession issues and served on the Spencer Stuart worldwide Board of Directors from 1999 to 2013. To check out his other articles, please click here.

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