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It’s time to future-proof skill sets for the decade ahead

These tips can help leaders and employees learn and adapt while navigating today’s working environment.
Jacqueline Brassey

Core researcher and practitioner in the field of sustainable human performance helping executives and organizations thrive by promoting improved mental health, well-being, agility, and resilience

Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi

Partners with organizations to provide research-backed expertise on leadership, talent management, learning and development, and future of work topics

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 the working world, and employees will need to acquire new skills to remain successful.

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

Whatever the skills, these tips can help leaders and employees learn and adapt while navigating today’s working environment:

  1. Reframe what “learning” means and the 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 An outdated view of learning links it to test-taking on a class basis.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 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. Employees can learn during a typical workday by engaging with tasks that might test them—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    Moreover, an outdated view of learning may conjure discouraging visions of failing.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 encouraging employees to learn from missteps that may arise, can unlock more openness to learning and embracing challenges. Even a relatively modest undertaking can provide an effective challenge.

  2. Believe in the ability to learn. Curiosity is central to learning and, building on the “growth mindset,” reinforces a belief in an employee’s ability to learn. Pushing employees to consider alternative approaches allows them to confront negative self-talk which, in turn, boosts their openness to learning, confidence, and ability to grow. Furthermore, in the face of challenges, cultivating excitement and curiosity can help them adapt.
  3. Set learning aspirations rooted in a personal “Why?” Self-regulation—an individual’s ability to influence their own behavior—is a powerful driver of effective and deliberate learning. Urge employees to connect with what truly matters to them—this positive energy will drive them forward and equip them to persevere if the going gets tough.

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

  4. Develop a personal learning journey. Employees own their learning journey and can empower themselves. Once they have defined what learning aspirations excite them, help them to break learning goals into manageable undertakings and structure their approach to maximize effectiveness:

    • Plan a learning journey with clear objectives over time.
    • Anticipate roadblocks to the learning plan and take actions to avoid these.
    • Schedule when and where learning will occur, and specify opportunities to practice new approaches—in the weekly executive team meeting, at an industry conference, elsewhere?
    • Incorporate breaks to take time for recovery.
  5. Implement the learning plan with micro habits and continuous feedback. Encourage employees to adopt micro habits that will stretch them without being overwhelming. For example, they may say something in each meeting that strengthens their communication skills. Suggest that they experiment to see what works best. Remind them to regularly reflect on progress—seek and evaluate feedback, and celebrate and adapt the approach along the way.

In today’s uncertain times, adaptability through learning and developing is a critical muscle to build and may be the 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.

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