As we square up to what experts predict will be the toughest challenge for a generation, many of us find ourselves drifting through unchartered waters. However, some leaders – and their businesses – appear to be navigating the rapids more ably than others.
Are some people simply better suited, temperamentally, to crisis leadership, or is resilience a quality that can be adopted and adapted to any business?
The long-term viability of businesses – from small-scale owner-operated companies to large corporate entities – has become increasingly connected with their preparedness to weather economic storms.
Having swept in like an unwelcome hurricane, the current health crisis has us in the grip of a compelling global drama.
It has distilled our broader existential anxieties into a single, sharp point of focus, and it has created an urgent need for clarity and direction from our leaders.
In meeting this call, leaders have to be able to practise, model and transmit resilience.
Resilience has traditionally been characterised by an individual’s – or indeed an organisation’s – ability to bounce back from a traumatic event. A more modern reading might instead define resilience as a talent for adapting to prevailing conditions.
For seeing opportunity in adversity.
For digging in when others are bailing out.
For turning unexpected lemons into profitable lemonade.
Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and author believes that far from being an innate gift, resilience can be acquired and improved, just like any other skill.
‘Look around you, right now, and you will notice some people may be coping that little bit better than others. Is that because they are simply made of “stronger stuff”? Not necessarily.’
‘It is absolutely possible to learn resilience,’ Dr Tang says. ‘Like physical fitness, it takes time and a little effort, but its effects are powerful.’
We’re living through testing times. Leaders who can draw on their own resilience reserves while implementing strategies to help their teams and organisations to survive and thrive, will ride out – and perhaps even capitalise on – developments over the coming weeks and months.
We asked a panel of resilience experts for their top tips.
1. Re-affirm your principles
Leaders are more likely to achieve organisational success if they can model resilience at a personal level.
Dr Suzanne Ross is a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Business School. A member of the Resilience at Work global network, Dr Ross uses her expertise to help leaders develop resilience from the ground up.
She recommends that leaders take the time to reconnect with their own values, to make sure that they root any decisions and actions in the context of their broader leadership experience.
‘By reflecting on your sense of purpose and engaging your feelings and emotions, you can reaffirm your values and focus your energies on the things you can control and influence, rather than those you can’t.’
2. Assemble a crack group of mentors and advisers
Yvonne Henderson, Head of Retail Brand and Communications at Gazprom Energy, reiterates the value of self-awareness as an essential part of the toolkit that will enable leaders to respond positively to changes and setbacks.
She also emphasises the importance of building a network of trusted associates – mentors and advisers who can be honest with you.
‘It’s what Brené Brown calls your “square squad”. Having people you can confide in when you’re feeling stressed, frustrated or angry is important because you can let off steam, see the bigger picture and move on.’
‘This is even more important when you’re at home and can’t just grab a coffee or step outside for a walk.’
3. Build agile response mechanisms
Executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, Susy Roberts works with leaders in organisations of all sizes to help them build resilience within themselves and their teams.
She believes that fostering resilience is about anticipating the setbacks and putting the structure and tools in place to address them.
‘It’s never simply a case of acknowledging that you have a fixed set of strengths and weaknesses. It’s about constantly evolving and adapting to the challenges of business and ensuring there is someone who can help identify how you can deal with these issues.’
‘Resilience in leadership is about really developing insight and emotional intelligence that gives you the ability to put together strong teams, and then trusting them to carry out their roles.’
4. Create a culture of safety
Robert Ordever, MD of corporate culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe, agrees that team members must feel safe and valued if leaders are to promote company-wide resilience.
‘Psychological safety is key. This means helping teams to feel safe and appreciated, with a sense of being part of an organisation with a clear purpose and values, well-supported by their leaders and peers.’
‘It creates a powerful recipe for resilience, helping teams to pick themselves up more quickly when disaster strikes.’
Being able to accept accountability – without apportioning blame – is also important.
‘There must also be a focus on supporting risk-taking, making every mistake a learning experience so that individuals know that when they stumble, their colleagues will be there for them.’
“Don’t be afraid to ask your teams for their input – it could change the way you approach business for good.”
5. Give stakeholders a voice
Don’t be afraid to ask your teams for their input – it could change the way you approach business for good. Andy Lothian, CEO of Insights Group, reflects on a turning point in his journey as a leader.
‘When L&D budgets were being slashed in 2008, I used to lie awake at night wondering how on earth we would survive. We didn’t want to lose anyone, so we asked our people what we should do. It was like opening a tap.’
‘We implemented so many of those ideas, and changed lots of our processes, becoming a leaner, smarter, more resilient organisation along the way.’
‘By choosing to be vulnerable and ask for help, we had unknowingly invoked the power of community. We’ve never looked back.’
6. Be your authentic self
Kimberly Cassady, Vice President of Talent at Cornerstone OnDemand emphasises the importance of demonstrating empathy, honesty and patience during stressful times.
‘We’re all adjusting to a new normal and grappling with the anxieties and uncertainties that come with it. While social distancing requires us to separate from other humans, it does not require that we separate ourselves from our humanity.’
Cassady stresses that authenticity is key so that staff know they are safe and supported.
‘Trying to maintain a business-as-usual attitude can give employees the sense that the company is prioritising the business over its employees. It’s okay to show up without makeup on, holding your dog, laughing when kids are running in the background.’
‘If you can be authentic and show your vulnerable side, your employees will thank you for being relatable.’
7. Promote diversity
The ability to be authentic will also have a knock-on effect on the shape of your business in its post-pandemic phase.
For many companies, survival will involve adapting to new ways of working, while there are also likely to be lasting changes in client and consumer behaviour.
Business mentor, entrepreneur and diversity champion Sheryl Miller recommends ditching the stereotypes and focusing instead on building a business that’s fit for the future.
‘The rules of engagement will have changed, in terms of how organisations connect with customers, the importance placed on their product in the societal hierarchy, and the authenticity of an organisation’s branding.’
‘In order to encourage more diverse – and more resilient – teams, leaders need to seek out and champion the diverse thinkers and the introverts, while creating a positive learning environment that still drives performance.’
8. Adapt and survive
“If the business isn’t working, don’t wait for things to get better. Change quickly, even if this means cannibalising your existing business.”
Richard Blanford, founder and chief executive of cloud provider and IT infrastructure company Fordway was forced to re-think his business model after the financial crisis of 2008.
‘If you know what you are good at, you can look at diversifying to build a more sustainable, profitable business. We switched our focus to bring in recurring, rather than project, revenues.’
‘It required fresh investment in infrastructure and staff training, plus a complete rethink of our core processes, but was a logical development of our existing business and has led to our continued growth and success.’
Looking back over this period, Blanford says that doing nothing simply wasn’t an option.
‘My advice would be that if the business isn’t working, don’t wait for things to get better. Change quickly, even if this means cannibalising your existing business.’