diverse career people

I define Learning Agility as the practice of regularly seeking new experiences, applying feedback, and reflecting on lessons learned, to keep growing professionally and personally.

I’ve been fortunate enough to successfully embrace learning agility during critical moments of my career, facilitated by numerous privileges I’ve enjoyed, and the countless known and unknown persons who have made my success possible.

My seasons of professional life are far more comfortable to review in hindsight than they were when I was going through them. I had plenty of motivation and passion for each new challenge, but also considerable uncertainty and fear of failure.

What I’ve learned, holistically, is that however ill-prepared I feel for a new challenge, I can rise to meet it; not necessarily with immediate results, but with positive outcomes and a deep sense of satisfaction across time.

Local Newspaper Reporter (Government Beat)

What I didn’t have: I lacked a journalism-specific degree, extensive experience through internships, and any understanding of the city, county, and state government processes and personalities I was now expected to write about every day.

What I did with the opportunity: I learned on the job, making rapid adjustments day over day, seeking feedback and mentoring from whomever was available. Within a couple of months I was writing more articles on deadline than anyone else on staff.

Trade Magazine Editor (Religious Publishing and Music Industry)

What I didn’t have: I lacked any experience covering the religious niche of the publishing and music industry, was only a recent consumer of its products, and didn’t recognize the names of most of its authors and musicians.

What I did with the opportunity: Before starting the new role, I read every page of the previous year’s worth of magazine editions, taking extensive notes on the types of stories, trends, and personalities I learned about. Upon starting, I built relationships with the publicity and marketing personnel at all the niche record labels and publishing houses, who provided me with context, products, and access to the authors and musicians themselves. Right away, I wrote more articles than anyone was expecting, and after leaving this position to go to graduate school I leveraged my experience and relationships for freelance writing work in this industry that helped supplement my income for more than a decade.

United Methodist Pastor 

What I didn’t have: I lacked formal ministry education and any experience working in a church, and had only been an active church participant for a few years. I also had no public speaking experience, combined with anxiety and difficulties related to verbal communication.

What I did with the opportunity: I left my magazine position and spent three years earning a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from a theological seminary, gaining some experience along the way through internships, before starting full-time work as a pastor. In this role, I experimented with new approaches to preaching, teaching, and leadership development, and become proficient at traditional pastoral duties such as weddings, funerals, and hospital visitations. By the time I’d decided to transition to the business field to focus on leadership development, I’d added public speaking, coaching, mentoring, and consulting skills to a toolbox that already had strong writing abilities and experience.

Financial Advisor

What I didn’t have: I lacked any formal business or financial education, had no experience in financial services, and possessed little knowledge of investing and investment products.

What I did with the opportunity: I studied for and passed every required securities examination within the first few months in the role. I then created my own networking approach by volunteering to give speeches on leadership topics to dozens of civic organizations, meeting potential clients and establishing new friendships while discovering other ways to get involved in the community. I grew my book of business and achieved my financial targets and, once I was ready for the next adventure, networked with a human resources leader who gave me my first full-time leadership development position. (In hindsight, the financial advisor position was a “bridge role” to get me to the leadership development I wanted to do within HR.)

Organizational Development Practitioner (Healthcare Industry) 

What I didn’t have: I lacked HR-specific education or previous experience working in an HR department. I also lacked experience working with physicians, nurses, and administrators in the healthcare field, and was unfamiliar with established leadership development and coaching frameworks and processes.

What I did with the opportunity: I learned on the job, sought and received mentoring from my manager, read dozens of books on the side, and rapidly networked across the organization. Almost immediately, I received positive feedback from my manager, peers, and internal customers. I coached people managers at every level in the organization, including the C-suite, many of whom were later promoted. After two years in this role I was ready for a bigger challenge and moved from Florida to Nashville to take a position with the HR department of a big wireless company.

Sr Leadership Development Consultant, Strategist, and Executive Coach (Wireless Industry)

What I didn’t have: I lacked previous wireless industry experience or experience working with leaders and employees in retail stores and call centers, which were the settings for my leadership development interactions.

What I did with the opportunity: I adapted my existing leadership development and coaching frameworks to fit the new company’s culture and unique needs. I consulted with numerous executives regarding their people development strategies, coached hundreds of leaders at multiple levels, and built an extensive network across the U.S. and beyond. Along the way I earned certifications in facilitation, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), executive coaching, consulting, Franklin Covey, and Situational Leadership II. And in 2019 I sought and landed a new internal HR role that built upon my existing strengths of writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting, but stretched me by requiring me to add instructional design knowledge and skills to my toolbox. And that latest adventure continues to unfold.

What About Your Story?

I wasn’t fully “ready” for any of these aforementioned challenges, but found resources within me and around me that helped me to grow and gradually bring my A-game to each role. In fact, I don’t think any of us are ever “ready enough” for the next big thing we tackle, and maybe that’s the point: doing things that stretch and even scare us, for the satisfaction of learning, new relationships, and accomplishing what we weren’t sure we could do.

Reflect on your own career or life milestones. When did you have to really stretch yourself and apply some learning agility? How did you feel when you accepted the challenge, and what was it like once you realized you’d developed momentum, a comfort level, or even expertise? What “bridge roles” did you take in order to gain certain knowledge and experiences and move closer to your longer-term goal?

And what’s your next “learning agility challenge” going to be?

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.