Ability to learn: what’s required in an executive?


Ability to learn: what’s required in an executive?

  • By Ian Bradley
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For many of my clients, learning starts with a problem – not always a crisis but a problem that brings enough distress that they seek my services in executive coaching. Two all-stars of I/O Psychology, Bennis and Thomas have referred to these transforming events as ”crucibles.”  Perhaps like the chemistry crucible, one hopes that the reagents will react to produce a more effective product.

Success is more likely to occur if the executive can apply past solutions, especially past effective solutions to the current challenging situation. The process –best conceptualized as the ability or agility to learn – was highlighted by John Ryan, CEO for the Center of Creative Leadership in this quote:

To succeed in a world where our work is always changing where challenges are unpredictable and competition abounds, we need to be agile learners

It’s true, but what makes an agile learner? As Professor Scott DeRuet pointed out in a recent issue of the Industrial and Organizational Psychologist, some executives learn valuable lessons. Others in that same experience acquire nothing, or even worse, the wrong lesson.

This agility to learn and to learn the right thing is multi-determined.  Personality factors such as being open to new experience count greatly.  An executive who is closed to new knowledge is not likely to learn much or to be able to adapt in the future.

Having a focus on goal attainment is probably another driver to learn the right lesson.  If one is focused on success, then tools that can potentially bring that success are noted.

Another critical ingredient in the crucible mix is something called “cognitive complexity.”  This term, derived from mainstream from cognitive psychology, refers to the ability to bring multiple conceptualizations to the understanding of a given problem or situation.

Regrettably, many of my clients view their problem situation exclusively through their favourite lens. Some might view the problem through a lens of dominance- perhaps their own execution of domination (…”am I being strong enough?” ) or the resistance of others, ( eg “why do people always fight me?”).  Others executives might focus their understanding of any situation in terms on the competencies or motivation of the key individuals.  How often have you heard a complex problem attributed solely to either a lack of training or willingness to get the job done.

Still other executives prefer to examine challenges from an organizational perspective explaining the difficulty on a lack of inter-departmental communication or internecine rivalries.

However, those executives that are most successful are those who are more cognitively complex. They have the ability to analyze a situation from multiple perspectives switching from one lens to another according to utility of the lens to generate understanding and solutions.

To adopt a somewhat dated metaphor, learning involves the creation of a mental rotadex.  Learning starts with writing the experience – what worked when – on many cards with each card having a specific thematic lens.  Later agility in problem-solving involves a search through the deck to match possible solutions to the current problem.  Complexity is related to the number of cards and their sorting relevance.

Part of my job is to help the executive stand back from the current problem and view it in multiple perspectives. Is the problem best viewed as an organizational problem, a person-to-person interaction difficulty, or is it best defined by lack of skills or competence in key individuals?