Adaptability: An overlooked, and underrated, compliance skill

Written by Jon Prentice on Monday August 8, 2022

In biology, adaptation is the degree to which an organism successfully responds to changes in its environment, and the subsequent evolutionary benefit this confers.

It’s easy to see how this advantageous trait can be extended beyond natural science. In the workplace, for instance, adaptability helps foster better relationships with colleagues and clients, allows one to accept and implement change more quickly, and demonstrates flexibility, maturity and intelligence.

It is particularly important for compliance professionals and, if cultivated with diligence and care, can help better protect our firms from future risks.

EY, for example, sees adaptability as ‘a soft skill that means being able to rapidly learn new skills and behaviours in response to changing circumstances’.[1] This simple definition neatly captures its value: our world is fast-changing, and so to ensure that we thrive within it, we have to be respond effectively, utilising adaptability for its many benefits, both individually and for the firms in which we work.

The question, then, is how we do so.

Adaptability skills [2]

Ability to learn

Adaptable individuals are quick learners. They are good at putting that learning into practice, proficient in identifying trends and patterns, and often better able to recollect past discoveries so as to make decisions quickly.

Those that practice adaptability are always looking for ways to improve and so are also willing learners. Whether it is a positive or negative change, those skilled in adaptability are not discouraged by failure, which they see as part of the learning process.


Adaptable people don’t merely accept failure and will constantly seek ways of achieving their objectives no matter the obstacles. Always striving for better ways to work or solve problems, they see challenges as exciting and try to stay positive and focused despite challenges.


The adaptable often distinguish themselves through their resourcefulness, being able to find new resources and formulate more efficient techniques to overcome adversity. When confronted with insufficient funding or depleted staffing levels, adaptable staff will diverge from the ‘traditional’ way of conducting business in order to achieve their goals in a more frugal manner.


Those that are adaptable are by their nature curious. They love searching for new ways of working, and are fascinated by novel ideas, activities and outcomes. Curious individuals are keen to investigate and are not afraid of new ideas or suggestions, or of receiving constructive criticism.

Why is adaptability so important to compliance?

In short, because those issues that affect compliance appear rapidly, and are usually difficult. And failure to address these issues in a quick and effective manner might, for firms, lead to large fines, reputational damage or worse.

Interestingly, the ability to adapt well has been central to mitigating some of the biggest compliance challenges of the last decade.


Compliance teams faced the logistical headache of helping firms adapt to sudden, mass remote working. Though other industries were required to do the same, compliance is a high-risk sector, where missing a vital piece of information, a simple transaction or delaying a review can result in potentially severe consequences.

In addition, criminal activity – in particular online fraud and scams – intensified during the pandemic. With more people working from home, fraudsters quickly altered their methods to target victims, leading to a surge in serious crime. Adapting to this has helped stop fraud figures from being even higher.


The growth of cryptocurrencies has changed the way that many view traditional currencies, including criminals. Criminal activity historically conducted through traditional financial institutions is now often undertaken via crypto, and it is the job of compliance practitioners to adapt to these changes in criminal methods whilst identifying transactions of concern, trends and solutions.


Sanctions have been at the forefront of news and media outlets throughout much of 2022. Whilst compliance professionals will be very familiar with sanctions, they have nevertheless had to adapt almost immediately to sanctions developments – not only regulatory updates but also the emergence of newly sanctioned individuals and entities.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example: practically overnight, compliance professionals had to react to the sanctioning of scores of Russian individuals and entities by different bodies and jurisdictions.  


RegTech has disrupted the regulatory environment profoundly, changing the ways many firms conduct their regulatory compliance operations. With many compliance-related tasks now being automated, compliance practitioners have had to adapt and obtain new skills, working alongside supplementary technology to meet business goals.

Though there has been much talk of whether AI will replace traditional compliance professionals, it will be interesting to see what the future holds in this space and to what extent compliance professionals will have to further adapt.

Regulatory change

Significant regulatory activity has also had a major impact on how compliance professionals operate. Processes and procedures have been adapted in order to comply with new regulations, with compliance professionals also having to ensure that their firms aren’t at risk during the transition period. 

How to cultivate adaptability

Like any soft skill, adaptability can be improved. Exactly how depends on the individual, and their specific strengths and areas of development. Here are some common tips which are universally applicable.[3]

Work on problem-solving skills

Adaptability and problem solving go hand in hand. Problem solving helps you resolve issues as they arise, and can be broken down into four steps:

  1. identify the problem
  2. establish multiple solutions for resolving the issue
  3. define the best solution, and
  4. implement the solution to resolve the issue.

This methodology can be used to address almost any problem. By clearly identifying an issue, one can strategically arrive at a solution, and the more experience you have of problem solving, the easier it becomes to solve the next one. Over time and with enough practice, issues will become easier to grapple with.

Learn to embrace change

Routine is useful, but it can easily become a self-built prison. With the world constantly evolving it is imperative to accept change to keep up. By doing so, new ways of working emerge and being open to, and even embracing, change, can help you become a more productive and creative professional.

Have an open mind

Being adaptable is about being able to look at things differently, and not closing one’s mind to new opportunities. To be more open minded, ask high-level questions and establish the ‘why?’ of any given situation. Practice active listening when learning something new, and try to think about situations from all possible angles before looking to solve the problem.

Don’t be overconfident

Confidence in one’s ability is no bad thing, but it is not always the most useful trait when looking at it from an adaptability perspective, leading as it does to sclerotic processes and thought patterns. Being able to ‘step outside of yourself’ opens new perspectives and ways of doing things, making you more agile and responsive to developments.

Leave your comfort zone

Comfort zones are attractive precisely because they are so comfortable. Yet working only in ways with which you are familiar exposes you and your firm to the risk of being unprepared for inevitable change. Slowly exposing yourself to new and challenging situations can help you to think in different ways and increase flexibility – both of which bolster one’s ability to adapt.

Cultivating adaptability is an organic activity that will take time, patience and focus. The payoff? A better-protected firm, a healthier approach to change, enhanced career prospects, and a skill that can be drawn upon in one’s personal life.

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[1] Mark Wheatley, ‘How adaptability skills can help to tackle novel problems’, EY, 19 June 2021: – accessed July 2022

[2] Alison Doyle, ‘Important Adaptability Skills for Workplace Success’, The Balance Careers, 23 August 2021:,What%20Are%20Adaptability%20Skills%3F,employers%20seek%20when%20hiring%20candidates – accessed July 2022

[3] Alicia Raeburn, ‘6 ways to develop adaptability in the workplace and embrace change’, Asana, 7 March 2022: – accessed July 2022


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