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Buckle up! It’s time to future-proof your skill set for the decade ahead

Nicolai Nielsen

Supports clients in developing the leadership capacity, capabilities, and culture required to execute their strategies and achieve better business results

If there was ever a time to discard your comfort zone and embrace adaptability, it’s now. Whatever your position and industry, chances are the “critical skills” required for your role have shifted in the past few years, and will continue to do so.

Working remotely and serving customers in new and digitally enhanced ways are just the beginning: the next 10 years will see fundamental changes to our working world, and employees will need to acquire new skills to remain successful. 2020’s COVID-19 crisis has only accelerated this trend.

McKinsey’s research highlights that adaptability – The ability to flexibly and efficiently learn and apply the learning across situations – is the secret sauce to thriving amidst uncertainty. Many, however, struggle with adaptability. One study has found that most employees are passive learners rather than tackling learning with intention. Indeed, our reskilling research indicates that 50% of leaders are facing business problems due to an unforeseen skill gap; the majority believe that upskilling and reskilling are the crux of the solution, yet only 13% feel confident about implementing these.

Whatever skills you choose to enhance – communication, leadership, problem-solving, industry-specific, or other – these tips will help you to learn and adapt as you navigate today’s working environment:

  1. Reframe what “learning” means and your ability to do so. An outdated view of learning links it to test-taking on a class basis. Adaptability demands more deliberate learning, seeking different ways to stretch yourself in both familiar and new contexts.

    Neuroscience shows that the mind can adapt when challenged; the key is to find the sweet spot where sufficient effort investment can realistically lead to the task being accomplished. You can learn during a typical work day by engaging with tasks that might test you – perhaps by trialing different ways to prepare a presentation or convene a meeting.

    Moreover, an outdated view of learning may conjure discouraging visions of failing. Adopting a “growth mindset,” or allowing yourself to learn from missteps that may arise (a concept developed by psychologist Carol Dweck), can unlock more openness to learning and embracing challenges. Even a relatively modest undertaking can provide an effective challenge.

  2. Believe in your ability to learn. Curiosity is central to learning and, building on the “growth mindset,” reinforces a belief in your ability to learn. Pushing yourself with alternative approaches allows you to confront negative self-talk which, in turn, boosts your openness to learning, confidence, and ability to grow. Furthermore, in the face of challenges, cultivating excitement and curiosity can help you adapt.

    Reframe “I’m a terrible presenter” to “This presentation is a great opportunity to try new approaches,” and afterwards, “How can I be even more effective next time by trying another fresh approach?”

  3. Set learning aspirations rooted in a personal “Why?” Self-regulation – your ability to influence your behavior – is a powerful driver of effective and deliberate learning. Is what you want to learn personally meaningful and in alignment with your aspirations? Know what truly matters to you – this positive energy will drive you forward and equip you to persevere if the going gets tough.

    Think of the learning aspiration as the North Star: close enough to guide you, but out of reach. Taking a longer-term view can help give you the space to experiment with new approaches and routines to enhance learning.

  4. Develop your personal learning journey. You own your learning journey and can empower yourself. Once you have defined what learning aspirations excite you, break learning goals into manageable undertakings and structure your approach to maximize effectiveness:
    * Plan your learning journey with clear objectives over time.
    * Anticipate roadblocks to your learning plan and take actions to avoid these.
    * Schedule when and where you will learn, and specify opportunities to practice new approaches – in the weekly executive team meeting, at an industry conference, elsewhere?
    * Incorporate breaks where you will take time for recovery.

  5. Implement your learning plan with micro habits and continuous feedback.
    Adopt micro habits that will stretch you without being overwhelming. For example, say something in each meeting that strengthens your communication skills. Experiment to see what works best. Regularly reflect on your progress; seek and evaluate feedback …and remember to celebrate and adapt your approach along the way.

Before you go…we’d like to salute Benjamin Franklin for his trailblazing approach to learning back in the 1700’s. With more than a nod to the points above, Franklin set personal-growth goals (“What good shall I do this day?”), tracked the results, turned ideas into experiments, reserved an hour a day for deliberate learning, and reflected…“What good have I done today?”

Franklin’s code of conduct was remarkably prescient: in today’s uncertain times, adaptability through learning and developing is a critical muscle to build, and may be your passport to thriving.

The authors would like to thank two members of the Consortium for Learning Innovation for their contributions to this blog post: Amy Elizabeth Fox, CEO of Mobius Executive Leadership, and Srini Pillay, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group.

*This is the first of four blog posts highlighting ways to inspire lifelong learning – at the individual, team, organization and community level. Inspiring Learning for Adaptability is the theme at this year’s Consortium for Learning Innovation, convened by McKinsey.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series, where we will examine adaptability at a team level.

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