What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

To be a high-performer and increase your long-term potential, you need a way to deal with the unknown — and fast.

“We all need to learn to adapt and thrive in ambiguous or new situations,” says CCL’s George Hallenbeck, author of the new book, Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience.

“When you don’t know what to do, learning agility is the key.”

Learning-agile individuals are set apart by their willingness and ability to learn from experience and their ability to apply that learning to perform successfully in new and challenging situations.

The ability to learn from experience is also a critical predictor of success as a leader, according to decades of CCL research.

If you are a skilled and agile learner, you will outperform your peers. You learn new information quickly and figure out how to interact effectively with others. You come up with resourceful solutions in circumstances where others have struggled to succeed.

Over time, bosses and organizations recognize you as having the “right stuff” and as high-potential talent. As a result, you are afforded some of the most sought-after opportunities for leadership and career advancement.

“No doubt, learning agility is important for a long career,” says Hallenbeck. “No one gets to rest on past accomplishments. You have to keep asking, what am I capable of doing next?”

4 Keys for Building Career Longevity

To excel at learning from experience and succeed in changing times, work on these 4 things:

1. Be a Seeker. To boost learning agility, you need to seek out new and diverse experiences.

Immerse yourself in situations that broaden your skills and perspective. Explore new pathways.

But don’t just go through the motions. Embrace the challenge of the unfamiliar. If you react to the new learning opportunity by staying close to your comfort zone, you minimize struggle and discomfort — and you also miss out on the corresponding rebound in growth and performance.

The end result is that you are pretty much the way you were before, and the full power of the new experience is lost.

2. Hone your Sensemaking. In today’s high-stakes, complex, ambiguous, and fast-moving situations, you don’t have the luxury of time. You need to dive in and start making things happen.

This means you need to take an active approach to making sense of the new challenges you face. Be curious and willing to experiment. Ask: “Why?” “How?” and “Why not?”

Find another way to understand a problem. Utilize multiple techniques, engage different senses, and tap into your emotions to wrest understanding, insight, and meaning from the experience.

3. Internalize Experiences and Lessons Learned. This process is needed to solidify insight and lessons learned for recall and application later.

Ask for feedback, be open to criticism, and take time to think about what happened and what you are learning. Talk about what is currently working well and what isn’t — or debrief what has already happened. Step back from the busyness and figure out what you are learning from a project, from an interaction, from a new experience. Reflect on feedback so you can see patterns (and changes) over time.

If you don’t process the learning, you may miss important clues to next steps.

4. Adapt and Apply. Through your experiences, you’ve created principles and rules of thumb to guide you. Over time, you get better at applying them to navigate new and challenging situations. Use your intuition, be flexible, and don’t shy away from experimentation as you venture into new territory.

Learning-agile superstars engage in these 4 behaviors at a significantly higher level of skill and commitment than the rest of us — and get great results over and over again.

“We also know that it’s never too soon or too late to boost your learning agility,” says Hallenbeck.

“If you pay attention to and make the most of your experience by seeking, sensemaking, internalizing, and applying, you will do more, learn more — and build the track record you need for a long career.”

Later this year, CCL will offer a new video-based e-course on learning agility. The following resources will give you more information to help you master this important leadership competency:

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