Resilience was the leadership buzzword of 2020, and for good reason. While some leaders shone and were totally in their element, many learned that they weren’t as resilient as they thought; and their weaknesses were exposed for all to see. On top of that, many found that real resilience is even harder to build into a team! For a CEO, this is a make or break capability, and not one you can be without.
The term ‘resilience’ describes how well equipped someone is to deal with the adversity that inevitably occupies their life. And as a senior executive, because everyone is different you need to be sufficiently in touch with your leaders to know their individual tolerance for adversity.
How do they respond when things go wrong? Do they react with anger, blame, or avoidance? Do they refuse to take accountability, and become paralyzed, unable to make decisions? Or do they map a path forward with strength and confidence, calmly making rational decisions and communicating clearly with their people?
The CEO sets the tone, the pace, and the standard for the organization, so when it comes to resilience, the golden rule is:
Don’t let your people avoid adversity – instead, build it into their day.
The best way to do this is by stretching them – and I don’t mean just overloading them with work – I mean stretching them to be better.
Whilst you need to convey a clear expectation for your people to step up, you also need to put a safety net underneath them when they do. You want people to feel psychologically safe to extend themselves, and give them the confidence that any mistake they make won’t be career suicide.
As CEO, you’re responsible for building the talent and capability in your organization – strong team members who can function independently in their roles, which in turn provides a pipeline of promotable people. But if you don’t stretch your people regularly, your organizational capability will invariably be weak.
Many leaders are afraid to stretch their people, because they fear the backlash of being seen as too demanding, and consequently, not being liked. That’s why it’s so important to understand the positive value of stress!
Stress is often misunderstood: we see it as a negative influence on our teams. In fact, empirical evidence shows that performance actually improves as stress increases – it’s an essential ingredient of high performance. Naturally, there’s a point at which any additional stress becomes counterproductive, and performance begins to decline.
When people are stretched to do difficult things, and feel the deep satisfaction of achievement, their self-esteem and confidence grow quickly. Not stretching your people robs them of that opportunity: if you protect them from stress, they simply don’t improve.
Now, you’ll find that some people you lead are incredibly fragile and lack any sort of resilience, so it’s important that you recognize and identify this as early as you can.
Several years ago, a man working in one of the divisions a few levels down from me made a mistake. It wasn’t a particularly big mistake. It was more like an oversight, but it became a cross-business unit issue that erupted as people looked for a scapegoat.
This man was so completely incapable of handling the stress of potentially being found responsible for making a mistake that he fell to pieces, figuratively speaking. His boss, who was a weak and permissive leader, told him to take as much time off as he needed to, which resulted in him taking two or three days off work on ‘stress leave’.
I couldn’t for the life of me work out how someone could hold down a relatively responsible job, without a base level of resilience that would enable him to deal with a minor issue, which had virtually no long-term bearing on anything.
Maybe something else was going on for him at the time. But the moral of the story is that a great leader will care enough to help her team to build their resilience at an individual level. She’ll also keep an eye out for the signs of individuals being pushed to the edge of burnout.
If you’re not doing this as a leader, you’re going to be forever mopping up the backwash of otherwise benign events, so it really pays to keep your finger on the pulse of the team.
How do you build resilience into your team so that they’re ready for any roadblocks, setbacks, or crises that come their way? Here are six practical ways to help your team keep their cool 24/7:
- Don’t waste your energy on stuff that doesn’t matter. Stop asking people to work on mundane, non-value adding tasks. Be brave enough to push back on the people above you if you see this happening, even if it’s the chairman of the board. Don’t be the irrational boss who piles the work on without any real thought, while giving the Just Do It message. This will help you avoid burning your people out, because any energy they do have for their work can be focused on the right things.
- Cultivate optimistic pragmatism in your organization. This is not optimism. Living in the Pollyanna world of pure optimism can cause unintended consequences. For example, being overly-optimistic in estimating time, money, and resources for a project, or ignoring key risks because you don’t think that they could ever transpire, can have dire consequences. Optimistic pragmatism requires you to adopt a posture that says, Whatever we do and wherever we’re going, I’m controlling this to the greatest extent possible. I’ll make decisions without fear or favor. I believe the team is highly capable, and will prevail through the most difficult challenges.
- Ask your team to step up (in a safe way). Empower them, and hold them accountable. Remember, self-esteem comes from achieving difficult things. Give your people a chance to show you what they’re capable of (and what they’re not capable of). Until you do this you don’t really know how good your team can be. Nothing great was ever achieved from the complacency of the couch, with the third beer in hand while bingeing on Netflix. Stretch your people, and watch their resilience and confidence build over time.
- Stop over-functioning for your people. There are loads of good reasons to do this, not least of which is putting the onus on people to do their own jobs and solve their own problems. This will release their creativity and innovation. When you let them do their work, you can save your energy for your own job. As long as you’re doing your people’s work, you can’t do your own.
- Look forward, always forward. A nanosecond after something occurs, your ability to change it is zero. So, of course understand the root causes of any impactful event, but put your energy into how you move forward. Focus your team on what lies ahead, and don’t catastrophize about what’s happened.
- Practice leaning into adversity. If your very first crack at handling a crisis is something like the Boeing 737 Max 8 disaster, you’ll probably struggle to handle it. You don’t go to the gym on your first day and try to bench press 200 pounds – that would just be silly, right? Start small, and let your team’s confidence grow. If you bite off too much too soon, you’ll teach your people that they’re incapable rather than capable. So, baby steps for your team. Like anything else, give them some time – but not too much time – to show that they’re willing and able to grow their resilience.
If you can manage to do these things, you’ll wake up one day, (although probably not tomorrow) to find a team that can handle sustained pressure, and relishes performing at their best, even when other teams around them prefer to collapse, blame others, or avoid the issues that they should be most trying to tackle head on.
Written by Martin G. Moore.
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