In my mid 30’s I joined a French automotive component Group. At the time it was rapidly growing beyond its traditional supply positions with the French and German car OEMs to become a truly global business.

Every year all employees were put through an annual appraisal and judged to be “Adaptable” or “Inadaptable”. The career path of both cohorts was equally brutal. The “Adaptables” were rapidly promoted and stretched; often to burn out. The “Inadaptables” were firmly advised to move on. The Group took pride in a cadre labour turnover rate of 25%!

The criteria for being judged “Adaptable” were never explicitly clear but they certainly included an adherence to the corporate culture, a willingness to do whatever one was instructed to do and, of course, making the numbers.

As the Group expanded through acquisition, other nationalities joined and many found the indigenous culture somewhat Napoleonic. In particular, those in the fast moving electronic sectors found a business model managed by command from HQs in France a drawback when trying to “delight” customers not used to such decision making constraints.

Group cadre were all graduates of top schools and given plenty of training (the annual training budget was 4% Group sales). There was no shortage of intellectual ability or analytical skill. Provided the customer and competition played the game by conventional rules, the Group won most bid opportunities.

The trouble in my Division was one of fast changing technology and a mentality almost trained to deny the upcoming paradigm shift. Our market share was >60% in Europe and >35% in North America. By any conventional analysis we were the technology leader…..what could we possibly learn from the emerging Japanese competition?

Too often in management, groups of individuals are trained and tested to conduct business according to the prevailing corporate competences, creed and culture.  Anyone who questions the status quo risks becoming regarded as “inadaptable” and treated with as much respect as a dead racoon.

I was reminded of the potential straight jacket of Group culture when reading General Stanley McChrystal’s excellent book “Team of Teams” on his command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq in 2003. The Allied Forces had huge superiority in equipment, numbers and training. On paper his forces should have been easy winners. But on the ground they lacked the enemy’s speed and flexibility. To win they had to unlearn a great deal of what they thought they knew about how war and their own structures worked. The enemy was playing a different game with a different set of rules.

“The pursuit of efficiency – getting more with the least investment of energy, time or money – was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimising for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competence.”

So when hiring, is a long track record with one employer a good indicator of future success or should you go for someone who has demonstrated the ability to add value in a series of demanding roles with several different employers?

I would suggest that the former has learnt only how to succeed within the rules of a long established corporate environment whilst the other candidate knows how to listen, learn, adapt, influence and lead. Traits we will all need in the increasing complexities of the 21st century.

“Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” , General Stanley McChrystal. 

With thanks to Gillian Blandin-Ellis, Blandin-Ellis HR Consulting, for the “must read” recommendation.

Verve4growth – Adaptability