What’s the number one skill for the 21st century employee?

By Nick Middleton

I have to admit I’m getting a bit bored of talking about skill shortages, but its the problem the industry faces, and as we have said in the past the war for talent continues unabated. I have been having a lot of conversations recently with companies about the skill sets that they are looking for in candidates, and more often than not these are focused on specific functional skills rather than a broader skill base.

While the conversation has changed over recent years to include the terms adaptability and flexibility these are just a smaller subset of a larger skill set. A skill set that is becoming increasingly important.

In  previous posts we discussed the importance of individuals in helping organisations to navigate the competitive landscape and innovate into the future. Having a diverse skill set is vital in today’s interconnected workforce environment.

It seems like the challenge is only going to become exponentially greater, unless we start to understand what the most important skills are to enable people to provide value in roles that they, or potentially anyone else, have never done before.

What is this elusive skill we’re talking about?

Learning Agility.


In its most basic form learning agility is the ability of a person to learn, and unlearn new skills and knowledge (based on experience) to be able to quickly make decisions.

The quote above from Alvin Toffler sums up learning agility nicely for me. If you are anything like me when studying for exams I had a remarkable ability to cram everything I needed for the exam into my head the night before… and almost instantly forget it all the moment the exam was over. Unsurprisingly, this is not what Toffler meant, and it certainly isn’t learning agility.

Learning agility becomes critical in any role where an individual is tasked with solving an issue with no precedent; a responsibility that is never on a job description but one that employees are increasingly being tasked with.

It determines the success of an IT professional asked to open a new office in a geography where they have little to no experience or knowledge of the marketplace; or when a sales person is asked to develop a social media strategy and metrics to measure the success.

The learning agile among us know what to do when they don’t know what to do. They know the questions to ask, the people to work with to find the answers they need and they are comfortable being uncomfortable.

People with strong learning agility can rapidly study, analyse, and understand new situations and new business problems. They have developed techniques and a passion for “fast learning” and are not afraid to jump into a problem and try to understand its various causes and ramifications quickly.

There are five factors to Learning Agility:

Mental Agility
The ability to examine problems in unique and unusual ways and the motivation to learn.

Self-Awareness
The extent to which an individual knows his or her true strengths and weaknesses

People Agility
A skilled communicator who can work with diverse types of people

Change Agility
Is comfortable with experimenting and embraces change – open to experience

Results Agility
Delivers results in challenging first-time situations

Why does it matter?

In a recent column for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman recounts an interview with Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, where Lazlo states:

“For every job, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioural interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

2011 KornFerry study of sales managers bears this out, learning agility is the leading predictor of success – No. 1 above intelligence and education. The higher an individual’s learning agility, the more promotions he or she received during a 10-year period.

“The Peter Principle, which asserts that employees will continue to get promoted until they reach their highest level of incompetence, has evolved. Today employees don’t need to get promoted to become incompetent. They will become incompetent in their current jobs if they don’t grow, adapt, and evolve.” (Kenneth P. De Meuse, The Korn Ferry Institute)

The concept of learning agility is gaining widespread adoption primarily by the most innovative companies. The question becomes: what are you doing to develop your own learning agility?

This is the number one skill that organisations will be looking for in the coming years. If you can offer these skills you will make yourself indispensable to your employer.

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