Building adaptability: what I learned from losing Cate Blanchett’s car keys

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One of my first jobs was a junior marketing role at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. If you don’t know Belvoir, it’s a remarkable company that occupies a little corner of the inner city, and has at one time or another been home to some of Australia’s finest creative talent.

Like most theatre companies, we ran on the smell of an oily rag and the energy of passionate, overly committed and occasionally crazy people. 

When I wasn’t collating copy, or faxing weekly ads to the paper, I answered the company phone, took the mail, and stuffed invitations into envelopes. I often worked on the bar at night pouring red wine into lipstick stained glasses before ushering patrons to their seats. In the midst of rehearsals for The Seagull I could be found moving actors’ cars from one hour parking spots (unfortunately I lost Cate Blanchett’s only key to her vintage Morris Minor - luckily, she was very gracious about it). During The Alchemist, I raced up the road every day after work to get a grateful Geoffrey Rush’s nightly Vietnamese takeaway order. 

Whilst my career thankfully progressed from underling to leader, I think my time at Belvoir St is one of many experiences that’s helped me develop the skillthat’s served me best in my working life – adaptability.

Over time, I’ve become what I’d call a career chameleon. Yes, I’ve always worked in and around marketing, strategy and leadership roles, but in all kinds of companies, and doing lots of different things. 

There was a time when I was acutely aware of this. And not always in a good way. 

Increasingly though, the intertwined worlds of work and technology are demanding we become more flexible and more adaptable, and a growing number of us are intentionally aspiring to be career chameleons. 

According to the Foundation for Young Australians Smart Work report; today’s 15-year-olds are likely to make 17 changes in employers across five different careers. And it’s not just young people. In Britain, an Investec survey found that more than half of the working population were planning to change career in the next five years.

I’m seeing echoes of this in my own peer group with more of us making a change, as we look for greater purpose, satisfaction or flexibility in what we’re doing.

So what does it mean to be a successful career chameleon?

It means you need to know what’s important to you, what you’re good at, and how to effectively communicate the value you bring to both people and organisations.

1. Know your values
Understanding your personal values can be very grounding, particularly when you’re being tested by a decision, or feel unsure about where you’re heading. These kinds of transition moments can send a career chameleon rushing back to psychological safety. 

Along with beliefs, values are the primary factor in conscious human decision-making. As Robert Barrett describes, values are “the energetic motivators of our aspirations and intentions”.

Helping you define your values is one of the first things I do with people I’m coaching. Because knowing what’s important as you navigate different roles, career opportunities and organisational systems can really help you stay the course and make clear decisions, particularly when you’re under pressure. 

2. Get clear on your strengths
Ask yourself what you’re really, really good at. There are some great online tools that can help, but perhaps the simplest way is through reflection. Often there’s a correlation between what we most enjoy and feel most satisfied by, and what our strengths are. Sometimes the best way is to ask other people. Think about feedback you’ve had from colleagues or team members over time. What do others say about you?  

If you’re more of a left brain person, you might appreciate the survey approach. 

The VIA survey provides a useful snapshot of your character strengths. It’s free, but if you want more detail on your results, you can pay a small fee and get the full report. Interestingly, weaknesses are often our strengths overplayed, and this is a useful insight to reflect on once you have your report.   

The Gallup Clifton Strengths Finder is commonly used by organisations to help employees identify areas where they have the greatest potential to develop their strengths. It’s intended as a tool for self awareness and discussion, with the ultimate goal of supporting a path to personal growth. 

3. Write your own narrative
As a friend lamented recently, he left the world of corporate HR after being disillusioned with the fact too many of his colleagues still recruit for titles rather than skills or potential impact. In other words, they look for people who’ve held similar positions in other organisations. 

Which means while the nature of work is changing and less linear careers are becoming more commonplace, to be a career chameleon you must know your story, and be able to tell it well.

Often when asked about your career in interview situations, there is a tendency to start prattling on about where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Instead you need to weave together a tight, compelling narrative around your strengths, experience and impact. 

Tell the story as if you’re the architect rather than the builder.   

One way to do this is to identify three themes that characterise your career and highlight your best professional self. These could be anything from leading for changeto creative problem solving, customer obsessed ormentoring– you get the idea. Write one or two sentences that support these themes. This will help translate your impact to a potential employer and give you a way of communicating ‘brand you’ in just a few minutes. Don’t be surprised to see the person you’re sharing it with writing them down. 

Remember the old marketing maxim that people buy on emotion, and justify on reason. And it’s no different in the world of careers. 

Once you have your narrative, behave like the world’s best brands and say it consistently and in your own unique way – whether that’s on Linkedin or in a coffee conversation.

 
4. Keep evolving your adaptability
Don’t stop building your adaptability quotient. A career chameleon must have (in the words of Carol Dweck) a growth mindset:

“A “growth mindset…thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities”

Grasping this concept of ‘not yet’ rather than ‘not ever’ and possessing a genuine passion and commitment to continuous adult learning (or what Wired founder Kevin Kelly calls being an ‘eternal newbie’ is essential. It creates professional relevance, fuels your ambition, and imbues you with confidence.  

Read, and don’t stop reading. Get micro credentialled at any relevant opportunity. Task yourself with experiments. Invent interesting side projects. And importantly, keep networking. 

Or in the words of Herminia Ibarra, ‘shift your connections’. This is absolutely imperative for non traditional careerists. But that’s for another post.