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When Rose Sandy left her communications job at Cisco in 2011 to indulge her love of writing, it was the experience of self-publishing her novels which later won her a job, rather than just her previous CV accomplishments.
“I had not only been a writer, but also found the audience, done the marketing and publicity. I had learned the industry’s ins and outs because as an independent publisher you are it and don’t have the machine behind you,” says Ms Sandy, who now runs a publishing division at HarperCollins in the UK.
Publishing the books alone gave her direct experience in being disruptive at a time when companies ranging from publishers to accountancy firms are adapting to new technology and ways of working. It also showed that, long after university, she retained the curiosity and agility to learn, adapt and take calculated risks. Adaptability was key to Ms Sandy being rehired mid-career and it is now what she looks for when hiring.
Even in professions that require a specific skill — like accounting — the speed of disruption means companies are seeking candidates with adaptability. Isabelle Allen, global head of clients and markets at KPMG, says it is becoming a core attribute for successful candidates at the professional services firm. In a world facing an unprecedented pace and scale of innovation, “we need people who thrive on change and are committed to life-long learning, people who are inquisitive and comfortable with ambiguity — who can exercise judgment on issues and solve problems that didn’t even exist two years ago”.
But how can you show you are adaptable when your CV is still fairly bare?
One signpost is the mastery of a second language, because this confers cognitive advantages. Bilingual brains are better at switching between tasks, a number of studies show, says Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. People who speak more than one language are also better at “knowing where others are coming from, why they say what they say”, she adds. “That is a very useful advantage to have in a business environment.”
Some employers, including KPMG, have even suggested that in the future, big companies that receive tens of thousands of graduate applications each year could reduce that pile by first cutting all monolinguists in the same way many of them used to cut all candidates with university marks below a certain level.
Other ways candidates without a professional record can show adaptability include living and working abroad or volunteering closer to home, but in difficult circumstances. This demonstrates empathy, curiosity, a willingness to operate outside one’s comfort zone and an interest in the wider world — key traits in an economy where jobs are changing so quickly that the skills companies need at the time they hire a recruit are often no longer essential two to five years later. For candidates who have overcome hardship, failure or misfortune, being able to tell the story convincingly can be equally effective, recruiters say.
Experience conducting business in a second language can give mid-career CVs a boost, but by then job changers will have had more opportunity to show adaptability in other ways. This might be, for example, through foreign or hardship postings; changes in responsibilities, such as a move from front to back office; or experience integrating new technology or leading a big corporate change programme.
You cannot be adaptable without knowing your strengths and weaknesses and what you bring to a job. These are critical traits in mid-career job candidates, says Pavita Cooper, founder of More Difference, a recruiter and career adviser. She is often struck by how narrowly people define themselves and the gap between how individuals see themselves and the way the market sees them. To come up with the right narrative, she suggests mid-career job seekers start by finding out how former colleagues, clients and others with whom they have worked throughout their career would describe them.
Ms Cooper has words for employees young and old on the importance of adaptability: “Staying current means not only in skills, but also knowing where the world is going.”
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