Skills and competencies

Adaptability and flexibility: the skills that equip you for any challenge

21 Jun 2023, 15:37

What do employers mean when they seek adaptability and flexibility in their graduate hires? And how do they assess these qualities during interviews and assessment days?

Abstract colorful silhouette of a gymnast bending backward in a flexible pose against a geometric background

Any employer you can think of will seek flexible and adaptable employees, and a requirement for you to be flexible may be stated explicitly on a graduate job advert. For example, it may say that you need to be geographically mobile or relocate during the graduate programme – or it may include a catch-all phrase such as ‘to carry out any reasonable additional duties’ when describing the remit of the role. However, the requirement for you to take an adaptable approach to work may merely be implied. If the person specification includes any of the following phrases, it is a clue that being adaptable will be a marked advantage:

  • Responds positively to change
  • A ‘can do’ attitude and approach
  • Driven by new challenges
  • Using your initiative.

If the employer seeks ambitious or highly motivated candidates, read this as ‘recruiter code’ for wanting candidates to stay longer at work if circumstances demand it (such as an urgent deadline).

How employers define adaptability and flexibility in practice

Here are some examples of how you might need to be flexible in your graduate job:

  • Adapting to and working around any unexpected changes of circumstances or workload – this could be an unexpected problem, the input of new information, a change in business priorities or a change in brief from a client.
  • Modifying a planned course of action in response to new information or new circumstances.
  • Changing the communication style used with (for example) a colleague or client to achieve the best results.
  • Taking on additional roles outside of core duties in order to help out a colleague or to aid the business in achieving an objective.
  • (Sometimes) the willingness to undertake long hours, to stay longer if a client or the job requires it, and/or to pick up extra hours or change shifts at short notice.
  • (Sometimes) the willingness to relocate or travel to different locations for the job.
  • (For employers offering rotational graduate programmes) the willingness and/or appetite to try out different roles and teams – even ones that don’t initially appeal.

Being able to take a flexible approach to work situations is also essential for good leadership and managing ambiguity .

Jobs and professions that particularly value adaptability and flexibility

All professionals will benefit from having a degree of flexibility and adaptability, but it is particularly prized in some professions and workplaces. For example:

  • Flexibility and adaptability is a necessity in City careers, such as investment banking and commercial law , due to the expected long hours and the requirement to provide a high level of customer service to clients.
  • There may well be an expectation for you to ‘drop everything’ on behalf of a client in other client-focused roles, too, such as property and management consulting .
  • Graduate managers will need to adjust strategies and plans in relation to changing circumstances in order to get the job done (whatever that job might be).
  • HR professionals will need to change their communication styles and use a range of different approaches and arguments when providing advice to employees.
  • Teachers will need to adapt their teaching methods according to the learning needs of their students.
  • Working in certain healthcare roles , such as being a junior doctor in the NHS, often require a commitment to the job above and beyond other professions.
  • If you work at a smaller employer or at a start-up, there may be more of an expectation for you to be flexible in terms of the tasks that you take on: job descriptions tend to be more fluid and people tend to ‘pitch in’ to get things done.

How recruiters could gauge flexibility and adaptability in the application stage

How recruiters judge your adaptability and flexibility will in part depend on how they define it and what element of flexibility they place most importance on. For example, during the online application stage, they may assess your ability to modify a planned course of action through a situational judgement test or in-tray/e-tray exercise – but they might estimate your ability to cope with unpredictable hours by reviewing your CV to see if you fitted in part-time work and extracurricular activities around studying.

Interview questions that test your adaptability and flexibility

In an interview, your flexibility and adaptability could be gauged by a range of different questions. If the role or sector requires a great deal of flexibility in terms of working hours or in decision making, you are likely to be asked what you know about the job, in part to see if your expectations are realistic. For example:

  • Please explain what you’ll be doing day-to-day.
  • What do you think the biggest challenge of the job will be?

If the role involves frequently changing strategies and plans in view of changing circumstances or the requirement to think on your feet, you could be asked a direct question about a time when you’ve done this . For example:

  • Describe a time when something didn’t work out as you had planned. What did you do and what did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to change your priorities or planned course of action because of an unexpected event.

Alternatively, you might be asked a more general question about how you have overcome a problem or obstacle:

  • What has been the hardest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
  • How do you deal with setbacks?
  • Tell us about a time when you took several attempts to solve a problem.

With all of these questions, you should give examples and follow the STAR technique outlined in this article.

How recruiters might judge your adaptability at an assessment centre

Recruiters may also assess how you adapt plans when required by observing what you do with new information learned during assessment centre exercises. For example, in a case study exercise you may be given an initial business problem or scenario to work through. During your discussions, the assessors may present you with new information that might alter the solutions you were devising. Similarly, if you take part in small-talk or networking sessions in which you can ask assessors and graduate employees questions, they might look to see whether you can pick up on the information given and adapt your questions accordingly or whether you just run through your set of prepared questions.

How to develop your flexibility and adaptability as a student

Being able to adapt to and thrive in different and changing situations is more an approach to life than a skill. However, there are ways for you to cultivate it:

  • Becoming an expert at managing your time . It may seem counterintuitive but to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate changing circumstances or to help out a colleague, you need to be sufficiently ‘on it’ with regards to your own workload.
  • Building your resilience and enhancing your emotional intelligence . People with higher levels of resilience and emotional intelligence are often better at coping with change.
  • Fitting in a part-time job alongside your studies, particularly if it involves irregular shifts. Particularly if you take up a zero-hour contract, which is often what is offered if you undertake delivery/courier jobs (eg delivering food by bike), you will need to be adaptable and flexible!
  • Undertaking an internship that has a leadership or management focus and/or is in a fast-moving sector. This should give you a gentle introduction to a working environment in which a flexible approach is essential and it will also give you the opportunity to observe the ways in which experienced professionals handle their workloads.
  • Putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, such as going travelling on a gap year or exploring a new interest or hobby. Being in new situations often require you to let go of preconceived plans.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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