E. S. Soon | Conversations on High Potential #2 – Learning Agility

Conversations on High Potential #2 – Learning Agility

I have seen high performers who have gone from zero to hero, and then to zero again, in a pretty rapid fashion, all because of the lack of learning agility. They made a one-off runway success and continued to harp on the past without moving on to tackle the new situations with their capability.

Previously in this series, I brought up learning agility as the No. 1 characteristic of a high potential employee (HiPo). Learning Agility is all about adaptation. Research shows that Learning Agility is a reliable indicator of leadership potential.

As an example, if you manage a retail store but your customers are now browsing your merchandise in store but buy from someone else online, what would you do? In the context of learning agility, it’s about being able to apply what you have excelled in retail in the past, and re-calibrate your skills and knowledge and apply them in a new setting in competing with online stores. What consumer patterns can you gather from brick and mortar retail stores that you can apply in this new competitive landscape? It’s also about a person’s speed to learn. How often do you scan the market and formulate strategies to combat new threats and how quickly you are able to anticipate and counter them. It could be shopping on the web today, through mobile devices tomorrow, or through artificial intelligence in not too far a distance. The rapid changes in today’s business and disruptive technology, put learning agility to test significantly.

Learning Agility is not necessarily an academic skill. It has a broader spectrum. The key characteristics of high learning agility established in The Leadership Architect by Lominger, are Mental Agility; People Agility; Change Agility and Results Agility. Learning agility can be observed from many angles ranging from critical thinking to self-awareness, from the ability to take the heat to being flexible, from simply being curious to building a high performing team.

If you are overwhelmed by now so do your management and HR. Organizations have been attempting to get the process of identifying HiPos right. I won’t touch on that complex subject here but I wanted to point you to a whitepaper by the Center for Creative Leadership that suggested five pretty straight-forward actions to be more learning agile. I’ll summarize them here:

  1. Innovate – challenge the status quo, come up with new ideas and make improvements
  2. Perform – read between the lines of the problem and remain calm in the face of difficulty
  3. Reflect – reflect on your experience, failure, and success
  4. Take Risk – take on new, ambiguous, and challenging tasks
  5. Defend – open to learning and resist the temptation to become defensive, and seek feedback

I thought the 5 suggestions listed above were practical and easy to adopt. They are also common characteristics I’ve observed among both HiPos and successful leaders in major organizations. One may say these are not breaking news and everyone has his/her leadership strengths at display to progress upward. True, but don’t forget, the discussion here is on learning agility – the key characteristic of a high potential. The differences in mindset and behaviors between a HiPo and a regular employee are subtle but significant. That is the breaking news.


This series captures many of the conversations I’ve had with managers and employees on the topic of high potential or key talent. Talent management has created a lot of buzz in the last few decades, but to a large extent, most ordinary employees remained pretty oblivious about what goes into it and why it matters to them. High Potentials, commonly known as HiPos by HR professionals, simply put, are considered employees who are more talented or having more potential than the rest of their peers. Now, if the previous sentence put you on the defensive, read on.

I want to share, hopefully in a no holds barred manner, what get discussed behind the scene during a “talent review meeting”, who get selected for a “fast-track” career, and perhaps more importantly, how do you get noticed and selected as a HiPo in your organization? 

Note that HiPo is the short form for High Potential, not to be mistaken with hippo, which is the short form for Hippopotamus, a large herbivorous mammal largely found in sub-Saharan Africa.

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