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7 practical ways to lift your adaptability skills

Masterclass teaches how to get better at adapting to change


When our world is rocked by something negative (like the pandemic), we go on a rollercoaster of emotional responses. These responses may include feeling immobilised, angry, in denial, or depressed. 

But even a terrible pandemic has its positives. People reported ‘greater community’, ‘quality time with family’, ‘opportunity for hybrid work’, ‘a more connected team’, and ‘a chance to take a step back.’  

Looking at positives when faced with change is one way to improve your adaptability quotient (AQ) says international executive coach John Spence, who led our masterclass on the subject. Let’s see what else John suggests for improving adaptability.

IQ, EQ, and AQ

First up, why do we need to improve adaptability in the workplace? John says being competent in your job is simply not enough to succeed or lead in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

He says 3 quotients IQ, EQ and AQ are needed now.

·       IQ is intelligence quotient and pertains to competence in the job role and in leadership characteristics.

·       EQ is emotional intelligence, and covers self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

·       AQ stands for adaptability (or agility) quotient. It is our aptitude for successfully navigating change.

Research shows up to 80% of people will leave a job because of the behaviour or characteristics of their immediate supervisor. But people can learn to change and adapt by working with 5 elements of AQ. Keep reading to see them listed out.

Team exercise: List out the skills and behaviours of your best boss and your worst boss. Then mark every characteristic as either IQ or EQ. What is the ratio of IQ to EQ? John says it can be more than 1:2 and as high as 1:10 (in other words, EQ makes the difference).

5 elements to the adaptability quotient:

1.   Learning agility

Put simply, you must be a voracious learner. Dedicate yourself to learning.

2.   Flexibility

Be prepared to ‘unlearn’ (or rethink) as you learn. Do old rules still apply? Question old ways and habits. ‘What can I do to make the changes we need?’

3.   Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is a key aspect of EQ (read the summary of our Vertical Growth masterclass on self-awareness with Michael Bunting).

Psychologist Daniel Goleman was first responsible for the pairing of emotional intelligence with business leadership. In his New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, he stated EQ was a highly valued skill in the workplace and one of strongest indicators of performance. 

4.   Innovation

Critical thinking, great problem solving, and a psychologically safe workplace (where people can take prudent risks and celebrate ‘micro-failures’ without punishment).

5.   Resilience

This is your ‘nimblocity’ – your ability to be nimble, to be highly resilient when change comes, and your ability to bounce back. 

7 ways to improve your AQ

As John told our masterclass, “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.”

In a moment we’ll look at how to improve adaptability at organisational level, but first how do you improve AQ in individuals? What can you do to make yourself more agile, more adaptable to change? John lists 7 ways……

Embrace change

Embrace, even proactively seek change, and be open to new ideas and perspectives.

Growth mindset

Develop a growth mindset and continuously learn new skills and knowledge. Be courageous enough to ask for help.

Stay flexible

Stay flexible and be able to adjust to changing circumstances.

Seek out others

Build a strong network of diverse relationships and seek out diverse experiences.

Practice scenario planning

Practice problem-solving and critical thinking to find creative solutions to challenges.

Work on your soft skills

Cultivate emotional intelligence and self-awareness to better understand and manage your reactions to change.

Be a glass half-full person

Maintain a positive attitude and focus on opportunities instead of obstacles.


Team exercise: 

Out of 10, score how well each of you do on continuously learning new skills and knowledge, seeking out diverse people and experiences, improving self-awareness, and maintaining a positive attitude to focus on opportunities instead of obstacles. Go through the whole list and score yourselves!

6 ways to improve AQ in organisations

It’s one thing to have a number of AQ A-players in a business, but to succeed you must ensure the whole organisation is increasing its ability to adapt.

In a VUCA world John suggests countering volatility with vision, meeting uncertainty with understanding, reacting to complexity with clarity, and fighting ambiguity with agility.

John names 6 ways to improve AQ in organisations:

1.     Foster a culture of continuous improvement.

2.     Promote cross-functional collaboration (don’t stick to siloed departments)

3.     Foster a culture of experimentation.

4.     Promote continuous learning.

5.     Encourage transparency and open communication.

6.     Foster a culture of empowerment.

Team exercise: From one to 10, score yourself! How does your organisation do on these 6 things?

4 steps to alleviate change resistance

54% of HR leads surveyed by Gartner reported that their people were suffering from ‘change fatigue.’

Getting change management right in a post-pandemic world is a challenge.

The Kotter Change Model lists steps for managing change. John Spence says there are 4 that are important for alleviating change resistance:

1.     Create an irresistible case for change.

2.     Paint a vivid and compelling vision of the future.

3.     Create a sense of urgency.

4.     Form a powerful coalition of ‘change champions’


A rollercoaster of emotional responses to change. Image credit: John Spence

Build up and exercise your AQ muscles

How you choose to react to something, what you focus on, what your mindset is, and what your response will be are going to help or hinder your ability to adapt.

So, build up your AQ muscles with these exercises:

1.     Recognise when you are telling yourself a distorted story. Are you making this story up? Can you make up a positive story instead?

2.     Reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth.

3.     Cultivate a belief in your ability to cope. John shared the story of losing everything in a hurricane and how he developed greater self-belief in his ability to cope as a result of the tragedy. 

4.     Focus on events you can control. It’s not what happens, it’s how you react to what happens.

5.     Recognise your strengths. All of us have strengths.

6.     Develop strong relationships. A Harvard Business School study following students for 67 years found strong personal relationships was the single element that made them feel if life was successful.

7.     Consider your purpose. It is easier to have IQ, EQ, and AQ when it is driven from ‘This is what I’m put here to do.’ ‘This is how it impacts people.’

Personal challenge:

Ask yourself, what were positives that came out of the pandemic? Think of a time when were you greatly challenged - how was your ability to cope? Who in your circle would you trust your life and family with?


In times of chaos it is important your organisation sends lots of signals of safety, belonging, and appreciation.

But if you want to make a start on becoming more adaptable John suggests starting on learning.

“Be a living example of a lifelong learner,” he says. “If you read 12 business books a year (or equivalent electronic media courses and teachings), you are in the top 1% of the business community.”

At the end of the day,

“You become what you focus on and who you surround yourself with.” 

John's book recommendations for the masterclass were: “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman.

Improve Your Skills the Easy Way

Specifically curated for CEOs and top-tier managers and executives, our Senior Leadership Program in October 2023 distills the wisdom of the world’s most respected researchers and authors, such as Jim Collins, on the essential skills for leadership excellence.

Facilitator John Spence’s approach, which revolves around making the complex easy, will empower CEOs to not just learn, but to develop actionable strategies.

If you're a CEO, or aspire to be one, our Senior Leadership Program promises a transformative experience. Because, as Indra Nooyi aptly put it, the success of the leader reflects the success of the entire organisation.

"The distance between number one and number two is always a constant. If you want to improve the organization, you have to improve yourself and the organization gets pulled up with you."

Image: Photo of John and graph both from John Spence


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