Athletes, fitness enthusiasts and sports coaches know the value of cross-training. Working out different areas, in a variety of ways, over time builds endurance, flexibility and skill. The same applies for learning to lead.

Executives who remain successful and effective over time are those who learn from a variety of experiences. They use that learning to develop a wider range of skills and perspectives, so that they can adapt as change occurs and be effective in an expanded range of situations.

But to get the most from their experiences, leaders need to “cross-learn.” In other words, they need to develop learning agility.

Learning agility is essential; it is one of CCL’s “Fundamental Four” leadership competencies. We address it in various ways in all five of our core leadership programs.

To improve your learning agility:

First pay attention to how, not what. People learn in different ways. But most of us settle in to a preferred style and use the same tactics for learning. Limiting how we learn limits what we learn.

Think about how you seek and absorb information, develop new skills or tackle a task. Which description sounds like you, most of the time?

  • I learn by doing. I prefer to confront a challenge, hands on, and figure it out as I go along. I don’t get bogged down in process or data-gathering. I consider options quickly, come to a decision, meet deadlines.
  • I learn by working things out on my own. I think about past experiences and draw on lessons learned. I imagine the future and think through scenarios. I gather information and data, seeking to know the facts.
  • I learn by watching and working with others. I use observational skills to my advantage. I seek advice, examples, support or instruction from people who have faced a similar challenge. I like taking formal courses or programs.
  • I learn through uncertainty and challenge. I acknowledge the impact of my feelings on what I do and trust my gut. I can spot when worry or fear is causing me to avoid a challenge. I am attuned to others’ feelings, as well.

Next, don’t go with your first choice. CCL research has shown, then, when you’re facing a challenge, you will learn the most if you use a range of learning tactics rather than just one or two behaviors that come naturally. Here are some ways to mix it up:

Action Tactics

  • Rely on yourself, instead of relying on the opinions of others.
  • Commit yourself to making something happen, today.
  • Take on a project with a tight deadline.

Thinking Tactics

  • Look for patterns in similar situations. Ask yourself, “Where have I encountered this before?”
  • Imagine what a situation will look like in the future.
  • Mentally rehearse your actions before a new situation.
  • Ask yourself, “What lessons have I learned this week?” Write them down.

Accessing Others Tactics

  • Find someone who will give you feedback on a problem area in your life.
  • Pick a role model for a particular skill that you value, and interview or observe that person.
  • Ask lots of questions. Listen to the answers.
  • Attend a training course.
  • Don’t assume that your idea is the best one — get input from others.

Feeling Tactics

  • Recall the times that you have been successful in learning something new, even though you were uneasy. What did you do?
  • Recall the times you missed an opportunity to learn something because you were too anxious about it. What did you miss learning?
  • Keep a journal about your learning experience. Note whether your feelings are getting in the way or moving you forward.

Finally, take a risk. Learning — and confidence — comes from taking on a challenge. If you’ve gotten cautious or complacent about trying new behaviors or learning new skills, give yourself a stretch goal. It could be work-related, or not. The key is to do something that scares you a bit, but also gets you excited.

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