upleveling Oct 02, 2018

Throughout my career, I’ve been a part of transitions and situations in which adaptability was key. I’ve been on staff at a company that has gone through a merge and survived working for a nonprofit that had a 100% change in leadership. In one position I had a fantastic boss who unexpectedly left, effectively leaving me out of a job. Believe me when I say that adaptability is key if we want to maintain our sanity and have a successful career as assistants.

Why Increased Adaptability Will Make You a Better Assistant

Not everyone can be an assistant. It takes a person with a unique balance of boundaries and adaptability coupled with structure and flexibility to be able to do what we do. We must always be aware of what’s going on, “in the weeds,” while not losing sight of the larger picture. In other words, we must intuitively adapt to any situation at a moment’s notice.   

Benefits of adaptability

The benefits of adaptability are numerous. In our day to day lives as assistants, we are faced with constant shifts and reprioritization. Adaptability allows us to respond to all changes more easily, whether it’s a shift in our own priorities or a larger cultural shift such as a change in leadership. The faster we can adapt the better off we’ll be.

Perhaps my favorite benefit of embracing adaptability is an awareness of all the opportunities that come with change. During the change in leadership at the nonprofit I mentioned earlier, I was able to step into a new role and learn about things that interested me. If I had been fearful or resistant (even though I did grieve) to this transition I may very well have missed the opportunity to take on a new challenge. I’m not going to say that adapting to change is always easy. In my case, I genuinely admired my boss who lost his job during the transition. He honored my opinion and I had his respect. Sometimes if we don’t look up when things are hard we won’t see the silver lining around the cloud. Developing increased adaptability allows us to get through this thing called life (Prince anyone?) with increased optimism and the awareness of opportunities.

Just as companies who adjust to the changing needs of their clientele and overall marketplace tend to become more valuable, employees who adapt and pivot to the ever-changing demands of their roles become more needed. This is especially true for assistants. A few years ago I worked for Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, Colorado. Upon accepting the position I learned that I  would be managing the cathedral’s crypts as a part of my duties assisting the Sub-Dean (the equivalent of the COO). I became a crypt keeper without realizing they were a “thing”. There is nothing that falls outside of our job descriptions as assistants and we must be adaptable if we are to have any success in our careers.

According to this article, adaptable people are happier people. When you fight change you are fighting with something that is out of your control and the only person this effects is yourself. This is exhausting and often takes so much headspace that it encroaches on our happiness. Even if we make mistakes that land us in less than desirable positions, we always have the option to accept it, learn from it, and move on. Adaptable people realize this and figure out where to go from their current position.

I’m sure we all have that seasoned coworker who has been with the company for 20+ years and has lasted through several shifts in leadership, culture, and job description changes. She is unflappable, happy, and nothing seems to affect her. While she definitely is aware of the changes going on around her, she has a sort of inner peace which is stabilizing for the rest of us. For me, this coworker’s name was Mary. I marveled at her. She was clearly invested in her job and cared for other people, but above all she was adaptable. If Mary is any indication, adaptable people are truly happier people. If only we could all be a little more like Mary.

What we can do to increase our adaptability

If we want to become more adaptable we must bring awareness to our willingness to adapt. Do you find yourself resistant to change? Ask yourself why and be real with yourself. Are you afraid of the new challenges change will bring? Are you grieving the loss of a boss or coworker? Are you concerned about being overloaded if you take on a new project? When you get at the root of what’s holding you back you will be better equipped to address it.

I’ve personally found that attitude is everything. The result of having a “can do” attitude will automatically increase adaptability. In making the conscious decision to approach our jobs from a place of optimism and the belief that we can figure anything out, we will find more creative solutions to issues that arise and ingratiate ourselves to our bosses. In my current position, I’ve had other senior-level executives take notice of my good attitude and mention it to my boss. This is definitely the type of news I’m sure all of us would like to spread about us.

Another technique for increased adaptability is to prepare for multiple outcomes. This technique can go awry so I’m going to lay out some parameters. As with any other task you will want to set time parameters around these brainstorming sessions. Otherwise, we tend to obsess about things that haven’t happened yet, which flies in the face of increased adaptability. The idea here is to prepare for different outcomes not try and predict different outcomes. When we try and predict different outcomes it can be stress-inducing and is absolutely futile. Stay on task and only let yourself create a handful of scenarios and how you plan to handle them. Only allow yourself an hour for this exercise, and when it’s over pat yourself on the back for preparing and move on.

One common challenge and a word of caution

The biggest hangup I’ve noticed in both myself and others with regards to adaptability is managing our expectations. Nobody owes us anything including their adaptability and their good attitude. Sometimes being adaptable means that we must treat others how we would like to be treated, even if they don’t return the courtesy. Whether it’s our boss or pesky coworker being truly adaptable, it means that we must be flexible and we must be the bigger person.

If you’ve ever had a truly terrible boss then you know what I mean! I once had an interim CEO (my boss’s boss) chew me out in a room full of colleagues for not completing a particular task on which I had been working with a colleague. He told me I was being passive-aggressive. When I tried explaining to him that I wasn’t, that we had run into a few hangups and reminded him that my colleague had written him a week earlier with our plan of action, he interrupted with a very emphatic, “YES YOU ARE”. It took my boss stepping in and reiterating what I had been trying to tell him that he finally calmed down and could grasp where we were at with this project. While this CEO was attacking my personal character and handling the situation inappropriately, it would have been much worse if I clung to the expectation that he should have been anything different than he was.

This event led me to look for employment elsewhere, which leads me to my final point; you can be adaptable and maintain your boundaries at the same time. While those closest to me can certainly point out flaws or things to work on, it is unacceptable for someone I barely know to attack my character. With this particular leader, attacking people on staff had become a habit. When it finally happened to me, I decided to leave. I didn’t leave because I believed the CEO owed me anything. I left because I knew it was entirely possible to find a position where I would be able to earn respect and where my contributions would be valued.

Boundaries are different for everyone. Find your own personal balance of adaptability and boundaries and stick to it.

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