Jenelle McMaster: Being a Smart Leader Isn’t Enough, You Need AQ

jenelle mcmaster being a smart leader isn't enough you need aq

Continuous learning is touted as a must-have skill in order to ensure we can deal with the fast-changing business landscape. While that’s true, a more nuanced approach needs to be considered. 

“The best thing that we can do is skill ourselves in skilling – learn to become an expert learner,” says Jenelle McMaster, deputy CEO and Markets Leader of EY Oceania. “It’s not just formal learning, but the way in which you approach problems and ask questions. Organisations need to create the motivation, the access, the reward and the recognition for that continuous learning.”

She was speaking at Qantas magazine’s first Think. event for 2024, a dinner at Brasserie 1930 inside the grand heritage hotel Capella Sydney. On the table for discussion was how AQ has joined IQ and EQ as the required workplace skill set.

jenelle mcmaster headshot being a smart leader isn't enough you need aq

“EQ is emotional quotient – your ability to understand and regulate your own emotions, your empathy and awareness of other people and how you problem-solve using social skills. AQ is adaptability quotient – your capacity to adapt,” explained McMaster, who’s spent more than two decades leading transformational change in organisations and is passionate about shifting mindsets.

“It’s resilience, flexibility and a willingness to understand context and move with it. Humans have always been adapting, but today no matter who I speak to – whatever their demographic profile or industry – everyone says something feels different now. There is so much complexity [in the world], that trying to navigate that with just IQ – being smarter and being more technical – isn't enough to understand the landscape. You need the ability to grasp that complexity and adapt to it.”

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McMaster says people who are willing to take risks and are genuinely curious are the ones who can successfully make these adaptive leaps.

“When they ask a question they’re not doing it for the opportunity to validate their own position. They’re willing to park their technical expertise and become the expert learner, saying, ‘But what if this happened, or that happened, what do you think?’ They’re balancing multiple scenarios, trying something out, failing and then coming back at it.” 

As we navigate the rapids of change, McMaster is concerned that the pace of learning is dropping off. 

“The half-life of skills – the point at which half of your skills are obsolete – is shrinking. It’s now at five years and in some areas of tech only about two and a half years. The validity of learnt skills is getting shorter and shorter while our rate of learning is getting slower and slower. This is a divide we cannot afford to have. We have to keep learning continuously to bridge that gap.” 

But as we actively learn, we need to stay open to other ways of doing things.

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“At EY, we did an exercise called ‘Yes, and… ’. Rather than shutting things down with ‘No, because… ’, no matter how crazy the idea was, you would say, ‘yes and’, and build on that. Even if we ended up with something quite ludicrous, the cumulative ‘yes and’s, opened up a world of possibilities.”

Which brings us back to the concept of becoming an expert learner.

“Let go of the idea of being a learned expert and embrace being an expert learner. Ask a different question and challenge yourself to come up with ‘What if?’. If you’re running an organisation, are you genuinely fostering curiosity and exploration? All of our structures reward busy work, getting lots of stuff done, ticking things off, efficiencies. It takes time to be curious and pause and reflect. Are you creating the conditions to allow that to happen?”

Think. is a thought-leadership event and content series, presented by Qantas magazine and in association with LSH Auto Australia – the country’s leading Mercedes-Benz dealer group. Find out more about LSH Auto Australia


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