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Resilience Leadership, Not Just Another ‘Buzzword’

Judy Romano

Judy Romano

Chief Financial Officer, Commercial & Technology, InterContinental Hotels Group/Transformational Leader/Technology-Driven/Change Agent/High Performing Teams/Board Member/Speaker/Big Thinks Managing Editor

It’s your reaction to change, not the change itself that determines how resilient you will be.

Judy Romano, CFO, Commercial & Technology, IHG Tweet
Resilience Leadership is important for taking on large challenges.

Since the beginning of this century, human resilience has been tested on more than one occasion.  In 2001, the attack on US soil resulted in significant deaths.  First responders, medical staff and many others rose to the occasion and saved lives under incredibly difficult circumstances often times putting their own lives at risk.  The global crisis of 2008 challenged all of us to pivot our careers; many of us adapted to never stop learning and committed to developing new skills as unemployment soared.

Fast forward to 2020, we have been faced with a global pandemic impacting everyone, every industry and economy; testing times, again… What do these events have in common?  Human resilience, coming through against the odds.

As the world changes around us and we are faced with dilemmas on how to adapt to change, organizations are faced with very similar challenges:  How do they create a culture of resilience that would best position them to overcome disruption and setbacks?

According to Professor George Kohlrieser, it all begins with hiring high-performing leaders with a demonstrated track record of resiliency.

As a leader, I have a strong belief that leadership starts from within, a healthy body and healthy mind.  To manage during challenging times, inspire people to overcome their fears and anxiety, and keep their energy level up, I have to lead by example.   Leaders have the responsibility to get their teams through uncertainty without losing focus and dropping productivity.

When people feel disrupted, they lose, on average, 80% of their capacity to process information according to behavioral science research.  Valerie Bolden-Barrett found in her research for HBR that “41% felt less productive, 33% felt less engaged and 15% said stress made them look for a new job”.  This is a very high price to pay and must be avoided. 

So, can you avert being part of this statistic? Yes, you can, by focusing on resilience leadership:

  1. Delegation and Trusting the Team: Getting through any challenge requires all-hands-on-deck, laser focus and commitment from every employee.
  2. Visible Leadership: Frequent and authentic communication is essential.  Setting up short, frequent team stand-up meetings have served me well during the current pandemic.  Even when there is no news to share, employees will perceive the absence of being seen as “something is about to happen.”  Avoid this at most any cost.
  3. Keeping a Positive Outlook: Employees look to their leaders for reassurance that “things will be ok.”  By maintaining a high energy level and enthusiasm, morale will be driven to remain positive.
  4. Remaining Focused on Accountability: Don’t make promises you cannot keep, keep your word at all times.  It is also essential to ensure that focus on compliance, ethics and risk management remains high.  These are non-negotiable, no matter the circumstances.

How do resilient leaders maintain high employee engagement during uncertainty?  Creating a strong bond with the team is important and investing time to understand employees individually is essential.  This investment pays high dividends; employees remain committed and highly engaged regardless of the circumstances.  I have experienced this first-hand in global leadership roles, leading teams through adversity.

My leadership style has always been caring about employees with an understanding that there is a line not to be crossed.  Having empathy is not to be confused with rescuing people, according to Professor Kohlrieser.   I learned this painful lesson early on in my career and it has stayed with me ever since.  Still being a fairly new manager, I was faced with a dilemma – remaining objective when making a very difficult choice or allowing personal facts to influence my decision-making.  I had an employee whose performance was not meeting expectations.  I took the decision to release him from employment knowing that he needed health insurance for his daughter’s chronic health condition.  I was aware of that and have given him multiple opportunities to turn things around.  His performance did not improve, and I was left with no choice but to make the tough decision.  My role as his manager was not to rescue him but to lead him.     

That said, a leader recognizing the signs of stress and offering help is critical.  What are the signs and how do we help employees cope?  Having created a safe and trusted environment with individuals on my team has proven to be extremely beneficial.  

As a leader, I knew that I succeeded when I got a text from a key employee asking to talk to me one day in the early hours.  She opened up and shared with me the feeling of being overwhelmed and losing control.  I was grateful as her call signaled to me that she felt safe sharing with me her innermost fear.  We discussed the circumstances, talked about options, agreed on the next steps, one of which included focusing on her physical and mental well-being.  Weeks later, I saw a changed employee who has regained her confidence, and her output/productivity has never been better.   

Not dealing with stress in a timely manner could have a serious health impact like depression and anxiety.  We all have the responsibility to stay close to our team members and ask questions about their physical and mental well-being.

Resilient organizations have the responsibility to invest in their leadership and also their employees at all levels.  Being prepared for the unexpected will help employees remain highly engaged, committed and productive.  In times of disruption and change, leaders must be visible, communicate frequently, maintain high energy levels, create a safe and trusted environment, and be accessible to employees.  In the absence of this, diminished productivity, reduced efficiency, and employee burnout would be inevitable.

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