The difference between versatility and adaptability and why it matters when hiring executives.

July 10, 2014 at 2:48 PM

In the world of executive hiring, attributes such as versatility and adaptability are often used interchangeably when describing an executive’s ability to enter a new employer, decipher the situation at hand, and deploy the right set of management tools to be successful.
 
There are however distinctions between versatility and adaptability which occasionally trip up organizations. For example, General Electric-trained executives have long been considered paragons of versatility. They are extensively trained and stress-tested by rotating through business sectors such as jet engines, lighting, chemicals, locomotives, and medical technologies exposing them to a myriad of market dynamics, technologies, geographies and organizational challenges. The resulting versatility which this nurtures enables these executives to be successfully deployed across a wide spectrum of situations.

However, while these executives may move effortlessly between GE businesses and sectors, the businesses themselves tend to all be large, complex, mature manufacturing operations where management efficiency, process and rigour drive results. The technologies and markets may vary widely but the prescribed leadership tool kit (the ‘GE Way’) by which to manage them , does not. But GE executives, and very well-known ones for that matter, have fared less well when inserted into more ‘creative’ businesses where intuitive, artistic and even entrepreneurial skills are needed. The fickle retail sector has proven to be one such industry for these executives. And it has not gone unnoticed within GE itself where divisions such as NBC Universal have far fewer GE transferees (outside of finance and legal) embedded amongst the broadcast/entertainment sector savvy executive team.

And this is where the distinction between flexibility and adaptability (defined as the ability to adjust or modify oneself to suit a new purpose) should be pointed out. When someone is hired into an organization with a mandate to drive growth or scale or affect some manner of turnaround, the context matters. The forces affecting mature, complex manufacturing businesses differ from subsidiaries of services companies, or public sector enterprises, cash strapped start-ups, or family-led businesses. These contextual differences shape the contours of the strategy, tactics and leadership approaches most likely to be effective in those specific situations. Adaptability equips the executive to assess those contours and deploy the appropriate tools for the situation at hand. Adaptability implies that the person and tool kit adjust to the situation, not the other way around. And it is gauged in candidates by looking for evidence of success across various contexts for which no one tool-kit could have proven successful.
 
About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements. 

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777