Adaptability: The (often overlooked) key career skill

How adaptable are you?  Adaptability is an increasingly important aspect of employability.  Here, Careers Consultant Jess Henderson examines some of the evidence and gives advice on how to develop and demonstrate this key attribute.

Whilst adaptability as a career-skill is not a new requirement, a number of recent high-profile reports have served to underline its importance and value in an increasingly dynamic labour market.  This tweet from the National Council for Universities and Business caught my eye

and led me to their recent report Career Portfolios and the Labour Market for Graduates & Postgraduates in the UK Whilst he whole report makes for interesting reading, the following quote in particular resonated with me;

“Graduate and subject knowledge provide the platform for success, but adaptability, speed, mobility and shared expectations are needed for career progression as future needs are difficult to predict”

Adaptability has been making the ‘must-have’ skills lists for some time and is something we have long included in our employability skills advice.  Yet in spite of this, I often see people overlooking it when assessing their skills, in favour of some of the more familiar ones such as communication and team-working abilities. So, I was particularly interested when I noticed three publications in quick succession highlighting its importance, and thought this warranted further attention.

Why is it so important?

For me, the phrase “…as future needs are difficult to predict” is key in the quote above:  Things change and develop and do so increasingly quickly. Indeed change, reinvention, constant improvement and greater efficiency are all sought after and encouraged.  Rapid changes and development will make future skills needs more and more difficult to predict.

The value of adaptability highlighted in the NCUB report was echoed in 2 other recent reports. The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030 from UKCES, envisages four alternative scenarios, and their implications, for the future of work in the UK.  A number of the scenarios focus on the need – at all levels – to be able to adapt more easily, particularly in order to compete in a global marketplace.  This economy-level importance will feed down to organisation-level importance, as highlighted in Adapt to Survive, a report from PwC commissioned by LinkedIn. This report presents the benefits of adaptable talent to organisations, specifically through unlocking additional productivity and decreasing the skills gap. When it’s important to organisations, it’s important to their hiring decisions and so they will increasingly be looking for evidence of adaptability in job applicants.

So, everyone seems to be in agreement that adaptability and agility are really important and are likely to become more so, both at individual and organisational level.  I think it is fair to say that your adaptability will increasingly impact on your chances of success in the job market of the future.  So what does this mean for you now?

  1. You need to prepare yourself for an unknown future

Part of the challenge of thinking about our career is that we are often trying to make decisions that will impact on us at some point in an (unpredictable and unknown) future working world.  The term ‘career planning’ is used a lot.  I agree with the idea, but think the language can be restrictive.  This is because for many people the concept of a plan elicits ideas of things that are rigid and fixed: this causes problems if things change unexpectedly. Others use the term ‘planning’ more loosely, and this is what I personally prefer; rather than creating a fixed plan, try to identify broad interests. From there you can start to explore and identify loose plans but stay flexible and aware that things – both internal and external to you – will change. The best way to prepare yourself for a changeable future is to develop your adaptability and flexibility.

  1. Consider how you can develop, and demonstrate, adaptability

Firstly, consider what adaptability means.  It is not simply the ability to deal with changing circumstances or environments, but relates to much more than this.  For example, it can also include adapting to working with other people who might have different preferences and priorities to your own, adapting how you communicate depending on audiences, and much more. I would suggest you look at the ‘Attributes’ section of our employability Prezi as a lot of these could be described as aspects of adaptability and are all things on which to assess yourself.

However, as a starting point, asking yourself the following questions can give a quick insight into your natural preferences when it comes to adaptability;

  • How do you cope in new situations or with changing circumstances?
  • Have you been able to successfully apply learning or experience from one environment to a completely different situation?
  • How do you feel in uncertain situations?
  • How do you find working with people who approach things differently to you?
  • How do you react if someone doesn’t understand a point you are trying to make?

Some people thrive in such conditions, for others they can be extremely uncomfortable or stressful.  If you are the former, that’s great, but I would still try and practise and expand this behaviour. If you are the latter, then it is worth considering how you can develop this skill or behaviour. Try putting yourself in new situations or environments, push yourself outside of your comfort zone – this is where the learning happens!

If you feel these are areas you could improve upon, the good news is that there are loads of opportunities for you at university to try out new things, work with new people and challenge yourself. See our section “How to develop your skills” for some ideas, or talk to us.


Filed under Advice, Develop your employability

4 responses to “Adaptability: The (often overlooked) key career skill

  1. Jess this is a great blog article which I will share with our students. Have you see this great video The motto at the end: Stay open, take action, keep learning, sums up the need for adapatability in thinking about your future.

  2. Thanks Sue. Yes, I saw that video (also via Tristram’s blog) the other week. I agree that it’s a great message. Jess

  3. Pingback: Employer Panel at Leeds Student Education Conference 2015 #SEC4 | University of Leeds Careers Centre Blog

  4. Pingback: Career planning; change, chance and chaos | University of Leeds Careers Centre Blog

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