As a third of the world has gone into lock-down mode, I can’t help but wonder how our ancestors survived and bounced back from so many other pandemics, wars, famines, crises, you name it. The reality is that humans have a huge capacity for survival, which leads to revival. This applies to both individuals as well as organisations. At times of crisis, it’s not the most intelligent nor the most ambitious who survive, but the most resilient. In other words, those with the capacity to be strong under a stressful and changing environment. That’s true in a war, in the coronavirus world and in the boardroom.
Claiming to be resilient is easy, but resilience is something you realise you have after you’ve overcome a difficult period. The key question is, what exactly is resilience and how can we build it? Resilience is composed of many factors, and in this blog, I will address some of the key ones: managing your risks, understanding your core values, and having wisdom.
Risk management: No one can predict the future, but we can all prepare for the worst whilst hoping for the best. Being able to prepare for the worst involves being able to foresee it to some degree. And if you’re able to visualise it, you should be able to get prepared for it.
Anticipation is the reason why financial institutions run yearly stress tests to assess whether they are fit enough to face an economic downturn. Stress tests typically consist of analysing financial instruments under different negative scenarios such as a sharp drop in GDP, increase in unemployment, or increase in oil prices. Despite the diverse notices given by Ebola and Zika, pandemics are not scrutinised in such scenarios. But as a stroke of luck, the 2019 stress tests conducted on UK Banks were simulating the effects of a worst-case no-deal Brexit. We’ll have to wait and see how much worse of a hit this pandemic will cause.
This risk mitigation exercise should be cascaded down to every single department within an organisation. At times of economic boom, conducting a risk assessment can be seen, by some, as a dull and pointless exercise which requires man hours for no clear outcome. In my past role, as financial crime prevention manager at Lloyds Banking Group, part of our deliverables included conducting a thorough yearly risk assessment, which consists of thinking through and documenting the risks that may possibly occur due to financial crime. An exercise like this, when done well, can help organisations put the right controls in place before adversity knocks at their door.
Strong values: In times of difficulties, typically one comes across with two types of people: those who wonder, “Why me?” and those who try to find meaning and purpose out of the new situation. How could you use today’s hardship to thrive once this health crisis is over? What concrete goals should you be working towards to achieve that success? This imaginary bridge between today and a brighter future is what will help to better manage today’s distress. And this is one of the reasons why people and organisations with a strong sense of meaning survive better throughout stressful times.
More often than not, values are ignored or even laughed at by top management. This leads to HR coming up with some random set of value statements just because they feel they have to. This was the case with Enron, whose values were communication, respect, integrity, and excellence. These are statements which sound politically correct but are meaningless at heart and which can quickly lead to problems within your corporate culture.
A core value should be based on principles that guide all the organisation’s actions and which can never be compromised. Some famous and strong corporate values are: “Do the right thing”, as opposed to don’t do evil with your skills at Google; “HP Way”, with Hewlett-Packard embracing the distinctiveness in which they conduct business; “Adult choice” at Phillip Morris, justifying why it’s okay to sell unhealthy products, and “Commitment to each other” at Deloitte, creating a borderless collegiality among its staff members.
To create such strong corporate values, the management team needs to do some profound reflection about what exactly differentiates them from their competitors. Forget about statements that look nice and instead think of concrete employee behaviours that are inherent to the business model. As seen by the example of Phillip Morris, values don’t have to be politically correct, nor should they be seen as a marketing tool. Instead, they have to be authentic and strongly believed in by the top management team. The strength of this belief is what will set you apart from your competitors and is what will help you thrive through a crisis.
Attitude of Wisdom: If there’s one thing we can learn from the coronavirus, it’s that little things can suddenly become humungous, the ordinary can quickly become ghastly and a tiny microbe can turn to murder. Applying wisdom in situations of uncertainty is critical for our survival. Wisdom is the union of knowledge and experience, and you can only keep on learning when you apply existing knowledge to a new reality. The problem with organic growth of wisdom is that it takes years of knowledge applied to years of experience to materialise. To accelerate this process, organisations should make use of the wisdom of the coach. In other words, they should integrate managerial coaching training as part of their learning and development process. Numerous studies have shown that managers who are able to coach their team members can have a positive effect on increasing organisational and individual learning, improving manager-employee relationships, boosting job satisfaction and performance, and achieving positive results for the organisation.
The concept of “manager as coach” has indeed become a popular organisational development strategy. The challenge of using managerial coaching effectively is that many organisations urge their employees to exhibit coaching behaviours without providing the proper training in such skills. Whilst knowing how to coach is important, willingness to coach and be coached is the other main challenge. How can organisations actually influence their managers to display this type of leadership? Well, the answer lies in the question. Experience tells us that once we know how to do something and see the benefits it yields, we’re more motivated to do it.
As an example, last year, a small tech company noticed a sharp increase in their employee turnover. After a rather negative employee survey, where employees had complained about being micro-managed and the lack of responsibility given to them despite their seniority level, the top management realised a change was needed. I was then invited to run workshops on managerial coaching. At the beginning of the training, several individuals expressed that their command-and-control leadership style was what this company needed, oblivious to the survey results. After the workshops, I spent some time shadowing different teams and observing their internal meetings to help reinforce the new behaviours. The result was incredibly positive, as most managers, including the ones who showed reluctance at the beginning, were clearly exhibiting the newly learned coaching skills. A new survey, conducted a few months after the intervention, revealed that employee engagement had increased significantly.
Our enemy today is not a nation, a person, a religion or an ideology. It’s a disease, which has become a global pandemic. But thinking that this will be over and life will be back to normal overnight is unrealistic. Individuals and organisations are likely to suffer medium- to long-term consequences of this crisis. In order to mitigate that suffering, we need to be able to apply resilience in the form of managing our risks, reinforcing our core values, and applying our manager’s wisdom to today’s problems.