How to Use Coaching to Build Learning Agility
Coaching and learning agility have a lot in common. In this article, we’ll take a look at their similarities. We’ll also discuss how both individuals and HR can build learning agility and what role coaching can play in that. Let’s get started!
This article is a round-up of a great conversation I had with Ozlem Sarioglu, a long-term coaching expert and Founder of digital coaching platform Sparkus, during a recent episode of AIHR Live. If you rather watch the video, you can find the entire interview here:
How coaching and learning agility relate
OS: First perhaps a quick reminder of what we mean by learning agility. Learning agility is the ability and willingness to unlearn, learn, and relearn. It’s not just about people’s skill set but also about their mindset.
When we look at the key dimensions of learning agility, one of the key dimensions is self-awareness, it’s for people to be aware of their strengths, what they need to learn, etc. Another dimension is the willingness not to know, to not be that person that knows it all.
These things are very much present in coaching too. People come to a coaching session without knowing something and they try to find their way in that session. Coaching is also about self-awareness and self-reflection. So, when you look at it from that perspective, coaching and learning agility are very much related to each other.
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The importance of being allowed to fail
Generally in corporate life, people are very much focused on success stories. In order to create these success stories, they keep on repeating the things they used to do. But what we need in terms of learning something new and also in terms of innovation, is the willingness to risk things a little bit, to take calculated risks, and to be okay with failing from time to time.
This means there are three elements that relate coaching and learning agility:
- a willingness
- a self-awareness
- a freedom to fail
Tool vs. mindset
OS: When we simply consider learning agility as an ability then we just consider it as a tool. This means that we focus on how to develop skills etc. But in doing so, we skip the important part of making it a mindset, a general idea. This is very similar to coaching.
When we consider coaching and learning, most people would probably look at the formula in the image below (the 70-20-10) as 70% being experience, 20% being social learning – which also includes coaching – and 10% being regular training.
When we look at coaching as a tool, however, we only consider it as a part of the 20%. We say I’m going to hire this person and develop them so I’m going to hire a coach or get them a mentor.
But for social learning to really happen, the individual who is going through the process first needs a certain level of preparation. They need to be aware of what they really need in this process. The other thing is they need to be accountable and not just come into the session, talk, and then go out and do nothing. They need to really take action on their learnings. So that’s one level that requires a certain amount of preparation and accountability.
If you look at the other areas of learning, they are very similar to coaching. The first area is the typical corporate training as we know it; courses, workshops, e-learning, etc. For all that information to really turn into an actual learning it requires purpose. I’ll give a simple example of myself:
When I was in high school, I studied German for just a semester and I couldn’t really learn it. From a learning perspective, I was not a good student. But now that I’m living in Amsterdam I’m learning a very similar language (Dutch) and I love it. The difference is that this time, I have the purpose; I am living here.
So for that training to really happen people need to be aware of their purpose, why am I learning? This is very much related, again, to coaching because in coaching sessions they start with the purpose – like where are you actually heading? Once they found their purpose it becomes a lot easier for people to understand why they are learning something.
The other thing is obviously the growth mindset we mentioned earlier. It requires people to have that willingness to grow, to risk things, to make mistakes. You need to have that growth mindset for the training to turn into learnings.
Then there is the 70% which is the on the job, experience-based learning. This also requires purpose because the experience I’m trying to get has to be somehow linked to my purpose. Otherwise, it will remain just an experience and I don’t really feel the connection. But I also need a reflection, a moment to think about what I’ve learned from a certain experience, because when you talk about experience, it’s happening all the time, it’s in all our connections.
Coaching is not only that session you have one-on-one with a coach. It involves having a level of self-reflection, looking at yourself from a distance, reflecting on your experiences, and having that mindset, that self-awareness. All these elements are embedded in coaching which is very much linked to learning agility because coaching is like a facilitator of learning agility.
How individuals can build their own learning agility
OS: We already mentioned some of the elements that are important earlier:
- One is the willingness to try something new. This could be taking a new job, project, or just looking at the things you used to do from a different perspective. Being more open to that is one level.
- Purpose. People need to know why they are doing what they’re doing. Only you can know where you’re heading in life, what your personal vision is.
Generally, when I observe professionals, they don’t think about this. I’ve seen many coaching clients and when I check what their vision is, it has nothing do to with the new job they just got offered. For that vision building, they can work with a coach, they can journal, write things down, or otherwise express themselves as this helps them to define where they are heading.
- Your place right now. This is about being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and your self-awareness. Going through processes and notice ‘oh I’ve done that well, I have difficulties with that’ etc.
Once you have your personal vision and where you are right now you can start figuring out how to fill that gap. This is when it comes down to what do I need to learn, what do I need to unlearn. The training will come after that, it’s the last part, not the first.
In other words, it starts with us doing our homework, we need to get to better know ourselves, our strengths and what we aspire to.
How can HR build learning agility across the organization?
OS: Often, there can be a clash between HR and the individuals. Individuals just look at HR to give them training (remember, training is the last bit, you have to do your homework first…) and HR expects people to take that responsibility of doing their homework automatically. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t happen automatically.
HR needs to show people the way, provide them with the framework to develop this. Here are 3 ways to do so:
- Safe environment. One thing is to establish a coaching culture and make the organization a safe environment where it is okay to fail. Don’t punish people but tell them that it’s okay to fail from time to time. Don’t only share the success stories but also share the failure stories. HR could give that space, like what was the failure, what did you learn? Having those kinds of conversations in the organization helps a lot.
- Training. Obviously, there are all sorts of training available, providing people with the LMS, with the resources. Maybe HR could be more like the curator of all this information for people.
- Coaching. Coach as many people as possible. People need to define their vision and if you don’t have them do it, they generally don’t make the connection. They don’t spend time on it because they’re already busy with other things. This is also for them to have that coaching mindset, that mindset of what have I learned, what do I need to do more of?
When I say coach as many people as possible, this could be receiving coaching from professional coaches, or from (peer) mentors, or it could mean involving a digital coaching platform, or it can be training managers to be better coaches. Or giving coaching to employees who are not managers who but are running a project.
Looking at coaching from a broader perspective is a good place to start. Giving people the tools to question things personally and creating the necessary frameworks for people to look into all the levels of the 70-20-10.
OS: Often-heard objections when it comes to investing in coaching technology are that there isn’t enough budget or time. Another common argument is the fact that the ROI is difficult to demonstrate since coaching is a bit like a ‘black box’ because it has to be confidential. This is where technology can come into play to help turn an intangible process into a tangible one.
In my experience, bringing in technology can provide people with, among other things, digital coaching exercises to help them with their vision and have a thought process step by step. These exercises can be, for example, creating a vision board or do some online journal writing.
This enables employees to do their self-reflection without even having a coach by their side. Instead, the technology can be their individual navigation tool to find their way. The information they share remains confidential which is important to know otherwise people won’t share. They can, however, choose what they would like to share with their coach before their actual coach comes into play.
The technology can facilitate the process. At SparkUs, we blend it with human interaction. Once the preparation is done, employees can have a discussion with a coach based on the work they’ve already done. This makes the coaching sessions much more effective and impactful, even in the very first session.
This means that you can bring down the coaching sessions per person and scale them to the masses. There are lots of different ways to think about technology in that sense – and about how technology can help in nudging people to do their homework.