How do you find agile learners, people who can curate information for themselves, use a wide variety of learning methods, and quickly apply new learning to their work? In our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy, we explain the importance of having self-directed, agile learners in our modern organizations.

Look for people who have humility, are curious, are excited about collaboration with others, and who express appreciation for the effort and progress of others. Ask about specific examples of these behaviors in their previous work.

Recruit people with the ability to learn a job and adapt as the job changes, which it will. Tom Friedman in a column he wrote for the NYTimes titled How to Get a Job at Google, quoted Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, as saying,

For every job, though, 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 behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.

Bock is not looking primarily for programmers and search engine experts. He is looking for people who can apply both analysis and synthesis to solving problems and who can do this quickly in the course of their work. He is looking for creativity and ingenuity.

Liz Wiseman, author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, says, “The speed with which we learn will be more critical than the extent of what we know.” She recommends hiring people who are intellectually curious, teachable, playful, and deliberate.

Fundamental to learning is having a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck, some people believe that new competencies can be learned while others believe that talent is fixed and people can’t develop much beyond their current capabilities. This is the difference between a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset. Dweck writes:

People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re too concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.

Hire people who have a growth mindset. Otherwise they will have a psychological barrier to learning and to helping others learn.

Also, hire people who are not afraid to fail and to learn from failure. Taking risks, failing, and learning from that failure is an essential process of development in an organization. Kyle Zimmer, head of First Book, talks about looking for the experience of failure in the people she hires. She says:

We want people who have tried things, and have failed, and have risen above it. Those indicators that you’re a builder are profoundly important. Because if you’re bright, and you’re a builder, and you’ve overcome the winds that blow against anybody trying to build anything, a lot of other things fall away, like defensiveness

And better yet, observe how employees learn and help others learn during a trial period in your company. How do they acquire the knowledge and skills to do their work? Do they seek out information and help from others or do they rely on themselves, only? Are they willing to admit that they don’t know something? Are they willing to admit that something didn’t go well and that they need help to fix the problem? Can they adapt to a culture in which collaborative learning is the norm. Menlo Innovations, a software development firm, has prospective employees do real work for several months before making a decisions as to whether they are a good fit or not.

Here are some questions to get you started in conducting a job interview to identify agile learners. Ask them:

  • What do you know about this company? How did you find out this information?
  • What do you believe about the ability of people to learn?  Which kinds of employees do you think can continue to learn and develop competencies in an organization like this?
  • How do you learn something new? Take me through your steps.
  • What if you were asked to become knowledgeable in an area of our business for which you are not familiar? How would you do that?
  • Tell me about a time when you failed at something. What did you do to contribute to that failure? What did you do after to recover from the experience? What did you learn from that failure
  • In what areas do you need to improve? What goals do you have for your own growth?

New knowledge, new skills, new technologies, new customers, new business partners, new competitors, and new ways of working are coming at us so fast that we need to be continually learning and learning fast. This takes agility. It will be the agile learner that will be successful in our modern companies. We need those learners and we need work environments that support individuals taking responsibility for their own learning.

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