Velas Coaching

Four ways leaders build resilience

Four ways leaders build resilience

Being a successful leader is an aspiration for everyone and key to that success is to build resilience. Running a company, department, or team is hard. Some leaders are successful right away, others take a bit longer to get traction and others never will. So, why some leaders can do it right away and others can’t?  How some adapt right away to their new culture/position/environment and thrive while others don’t? Well the answer might be surprisingly easy, it is so easy even a caveman could do it.

There is always something to learn from the natural world and how humans have adapted over thousands of years and became the dominant species in the world.  Individuals and the societies they form, are embedded within, and constrained by, the culture, the political structures, the resources.  Yet changes in the behavior of individuals have proven to show results in changes at the broader community and societal scales. This finding is highlighted by a review paper by Ioan Fazey and collaborators from the Institute of Rural Sciences, at the University of Wales in the UK.

His findings on how communities become resilient and adapt to changing circumstances are rooted in four individual traits very relevant to business success today.

1- The ability of individuals to adapt to changing circumstances – What got you here won’t get you there.  

Humans may be the most adaptive species in the face of the earth.   The most significant two adaptations humans underwent were the ability to sweat and run long distances.  So by nature, we are a very adaptive species. CEOs and executives are very high performing individuals, but as many experience right away, the success they had before is no longer possible in their new environment, at least not the way they were used to achieve it in the past.  In his book “What got you here won’t get you there” Marshall Goldsmith highlights a few of the behaviors that stand in the way of success in a new environment for leaders.  And one of the toughest balancing acts in the leadership business is between confidence and too much confidence. Too much confidence might get in the way for individuals to adapt to their new circumstances. To build resilience, we have to have an adapting capacity and sometimes that means changing our behavior.

2- The ability to learn how to learn – Being open to being wrong

Barbara Oakley, in her Ted Talk “Learning how to Learn,” explains two modes of thinking. Focus mode: which is useful when we are familiar with a concept, and we know just how to solve the problem.  Example, a mathematician that is working on a math problem. Diffused mode: a more “relaxed” mode of thinking which allows for creative ways of solving the problem that is new to us. Example, the same mathematician working on a psychology problem.

How does this apply to build resilience and adapting to a new culture?  Think of the high performing leader who knows what to do and how to solve the issues… in his old environment.  He is now faced in a new environment where the problem might be the same, but the variables have changed.  He needs a new approach to solve the problem, perhaps in a way that is new to him. This presents another challenge, which is common in very highly successful people and is highlighted in the book “Why CEOs Fail” the concept of Self-blinding brilliance, just another way to say, “My way is the ONLY way”.    Learning how to learn requires the ability to accept the fact that we might not have all the answers and that our way is not the only way. To build resilience, we have to be flexible about exploring options that might be different and novel.

3- The ability to be resourceful – Don’t reinvent the wheel

Adaptability by itself does not necessarily result in learning and resilience. Leaders also need to see beyond their current environment, build and adapt to the knowledge generated by others. Take team building, for instance, whether you are a CEO or a first line supervisor, the challenges are the same. A recent report by McKinsey and company emphasizes that the most critical component of team building are interpersonal interactions. Google’s project Aristotle, was done when the company embarked on an initiative to study hundreds of Google’s teams. The research yielded 5 behaviors that now has defined what type of training and development Google team leaders undergo. So how can a new CEO or leader take these findings and adapt his/her own leadership style to build a great team in his new environment?. To build resilience, we need to be efficient and spend the least amount of energy in any given problem.

4-The ability to form robust alliances – You can’t do life alone. 

As humans, our first instinct was, and still is, self-preservation. We adapted to our conditions of food gathering by forming mutually beneficial alliances with each other and beyond our own.   From the annals of human history, we know that one of the earliest alliances that modern men did was with hunting wolves (predecessors to domesticated dogs). This alliance was key for modern humans to succeed over our cousins the Neanderthals. But at the heart of this alliance, and any other alliance, there was a mutual benefit for both parties.

This brings us to the business world today. And the first thing we need to remember is that to build resilience and make alliances to work, there must be an understanding of the existence of a mutual need for each other. And since alliances are heavily dependent on relationship building, interpersonal skills are essential. Including understanding the power of influence and perception, vulnerability, authenticity, and power and politics among others, this is paramount. A recent article in HBR by Rebecca Zucker, a highly respected executive coach in Silicon Valley, highlights the need for leaders to focus on results and relationships. Successful leaders recognize that efficiency is not synonymous with effectivity. To build resilience, we need to understand our impact on others.

As I wrote in a previous blog, it appears that half of the US CFOs believe that there is an economic downturn coming.  Moreover, difficulty hiring and retaining qualified individuals is the most cited concern among those interviewed.  Yet these are two legs of a three-legged stool.  The third leg is making sure that those new hires are successful. Wether the downturn materializes or not, the life of a company is long enough that sooner or later it will face challenges that can be crippling which begs the question, what are you doing to build resilience in your leaders? Can you afford not to?

Luis Velasquez MBA, PhD

Luis is a leadership coach, employee engagement expert, and management trainer. Formerly a University professor and research scientist, Luis holds a dual Ph.D. from Michigan State University; and an MBA in Organizational Leadership.

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