Why Adopting an Agile Learning Mindset Is Crucial for Your Career

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan speaks Jan. 5 at the leadership summit during Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco. Later in the week, McGowan presented the session “Letting Go and Learning Fast to Thrive.”  (Jacob Slaton Photography)

In the new world of work, according to futurist Heather McGowan, employers will no longer hire for skills, which will constantly be evolving, but instead, they will hire people for their ability to learn. Where technical skills once were most in demand, human skills — things like flexibility, adaptability, time management, and prioritization — are “bubbling to the top,” she said.

Those who thrive in the future “will be those with the ability to learn, unlearn, and adapt,” said McGowan, a professor at the Centre for the New Workforce at the Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, Australia. In her presentation at Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco, “Letting Go and Learning Fast to Thrive,” McGowan identified four qualities that make up what she termed an “agile learning mindset.”


Agency means understanding that learning and navigating your career is your responsibility — according to information from the World Economic Forum, a young person graduating today will have 17 different jobs across five different industries, McGowan said.

Agency also will mean moving away from being defined and limited by our job titles, and instead defining ourselves by our purpose and the value we create — “which is much more difficult, but could be much more inspiring,” McGowan said.


As technology makes it possible to automate more tasks, work increasingly is being broken into parts that can be done anywhere in the world, McGowan said. “The rise of gig work is this atomization of work, but the domain we need more people to work in is VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That’s humans doing what humans do best augmented by technology,” she said. Ask yourself: “How do you deal with ambiguous situations? How do you deal with new information and unstructured problems?”

Learning Agility

Learning agility is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn — while understanding how you learn and how you contribute that learning to a team. “If you’re not learning every day, your job is moving away from you.”


There is a 50-percent rise in collaborative work in companies, McGowan said. Given that, you’ll need to be self-aware in order to know such things as how you play on a team, she said. “What are your strengths? What are you good at? What should you seek out in somebody else who you’re working with?”

You also need to know how your work fits into the broader organization, she said. “That’s market awareness. It used to be that you didn’t have to know how your company made money. You just needed to know what to do to execute in your job.” But at Netflix, which began as a company that shipped DVDs and now is a movie production company creating original content, “employees needed to know how to pivot, and how they contributed to that value creation,” she said. Market awareness “is a new skill we’re not talking enough about.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

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