Highly successful people use this soft skill, says 'CEO whisperer' Jerry Colonna—avoiding it 'is a prescription' for 'failure'

Jerry Colonna, executive coach and author of 'Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up'
Jerry Colonna

Highly successful people possess a skill that helps them grow personally and professionally, says leadership coach Jerry Colonna: They excel at adapting to change.

That's easier said than done, of course. But you can train yourself by working on your communication and listening skills, says Colonna, a co-founder of leadership coaching firm Reboot who's worked with CEOs at companies like Gimlet Media, Twilio and Soundcloud.

Colonna was even dubbed the "CEO whisperer" by Gimlet's "StartUp" podcast in 2015.

Communication is a great starting point for adaptability, because trying to force people to address issues the way you do "is a prescription for frustration and failure," Colonna said on a recent episode of the "Reboot" podcast, which he hosts with his co-founder Ali Schultz.

"You have to meet each individual team member where they are, not drag them to where you are," he added.

That means finding ways to connect with folks who don't necessarily think the same way as you — constantly reading the room, staying on high alert for shifting variables, to figure out how to best interact with the people and situations around you.

It could be as simple as noticing that a colleague remembers things more effectively when they're written down, and switching to emails or Slack messages for important conversations with them.

Or, you might recognize that one of your peers is struggling with a task, but doesn't want to ask for help — so you could help them find a new strategy or offer to switch roles with them.

Nailing that ability makes you an "adaptive leader," according to Colonna. It's a powerful trait: Adaptability leads to personal growth, psychological and physical wellbeing, and higher levels of overall life satisfaction, according to a 2021 report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Communication is just one aspect. In recent years, large swaths of the American workforce have proven highly adaptable in plenty of other ways, too — like shifting to remote work or navigating the Great Resignation.

Women seem to be more open to change and adaptability than men, consulting firm Korn Ferry found in 2016, but it's a skill that anyone can pick up.

If you want to become less change-averse, try practicing a form of "self-mastery" called deliberate calm, McKinsey experts Jaqueline Brassey and Aaron De Smet advised in a Harvard Business Review article last month.

In practice, it's simple: When you find yourself in a stressful situation, take a moment to think about your reaction instead of simply going off instinct.

If you get some bad feedback from your boss, for example, fight the impulse to panic or get angry. "Take a deep breath, take stock of the situation, and discuss it candidly" with your boss instead, Brassey and De Smet wrote.

Doing this regularly can help shape how you respond to situations without being "governed by [your] old habits," Brassey and De Smet noted, adding: "It helps us to learn and adapt to novel challenges when the stakes are highest."

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I quit my $35K job to grow my side hustle — now it brings in $141 million a year
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