How Adaptability Will Define Your Career

Don’t let sudden changes keep you from staying focused on your goals, writes emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman. Third in a series.

Emotional intelligence remains a key ingredient in the development of corporate leaders. In this series, best-selling author and Korn Ferry columnist Daniel Goleman reveals the 12 key skills behind EI. It is an edited excerpt from his book, Adaptability: A Primer.

The Adaptability Competency means having flexibility in handling change, being able to juggle multiple demands, and adapting to new situations with fresh ideas or innovative approaches. It means you not only can stay focused on your goals, but also can easily adjust how you achieve them. An adaptable leader can meet new challenges as they arise and not be halted by sudden change, remaining comfortable with the uncertainty that leadership can bring.

Take, for example, the firm that originated the BlackBerry smartphone, Research In Motion. The co-CEOs of the company were both engineers. They took pride, justifiably, in features like security and the fabulous keyboard that made the BlackBerry so popular in the first decade of the 21st century. After Apple and Android released smartphone operating systems with their own innovations, BlackBerry started losing market share. But those original CEOs lacked adaptability. Instead of adjusting to the new situation, the co-CEOs just doubled down on the same features that had made BlackBerry an early success. The company did so poorly that they were fired. The company later admitted that it had missed opportunities, such as 4G wireless and touchscreens, which other mobile companies embraced. By the time the firm did make major adjustments, it was too late. Although BlackBerry still has some die-hard fans, the company has only about half the users that it did in 2010.

Here’s what the data tells us about the Adaptability Competency. In follow-ups with MBA students five to 19 years after they graduated, a strength in adaptability predicted their life satisfaction, their career satisfaction, and, in fact, their career success. This was the strongest such predictor of all the emotional and social intelligence competencies.

In a study of financial services sales executives, the more adaptable the individual, the greater their effectiveness is shown by revenue and sales growth. Researchers in India found a positive relationship between emotional intelligence, especially employee adaptability, and how well they did in their jobs. American researchers also found that a leader’s adaptability predicts better overall team performance.

It’s no surprise that, in a constantly changing world, the data shows adaptability is an asset in leadership. It is also at the heart of innovation.

Adaptability also relates to other EI competencies, such as Self-Control and Positive Outlook. Being adaptable means you’re less emotionally triggered by unexpected events. When a problem arises, you don’t dwell on how difficult it is, but rather quickly shift to search for solutions—communicating with your team about next steps and creating a strategy for action. If another surprise comes up, you simply refine the strategy accordingly. This is what effective leadership looks like in almost any industry. Adaptability is an emotional tool to help you stay focused on what matters most.