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Resilience comes from culture and leadership, not management courses

Management consultants are currently making a healthy living advising corporate leaders to create a distributed workforce so the issues faced during the Covid pandemic will not be repeated. Their advice is focused on resilience. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Design a resilient business.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.” Even the alternative definitions talk about the ability of an object to return to its original shape after being stretched or bent.

But this isn’t how resilience is talked about in modern boardrooms. Resilience – when used as leadership speak – has become associated with the ability to withstand rapid change or shocks. It’s an important distinction. There is a difference between the ability to flex and recover from change and the ability to just withstand it.

Management consultants are currently making a healthy living advising corporate leaders to create a distributed workforce so the issues faced during the Covid pandemic will not be repeated. Their advice is focused on resilience. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Design a resilient business.

This focus on avoiding disruptive events and forced change can be seen as victim-blaming. Leaders are searching for the ability to manage future disruption, but they are really just finding reasons to justify why they were not ready for the unexpected events that caused chaos in their business. You cannot predict every possible event, but you can design a business that is ready to adapt to a new situation.

Look at the recent failure of made.com and the number of redundancies. The central strategy of this furniture business was a focus on very low inventory and wastage. When Covid caused complete chaos in global supply chains it created an existential crisis for Made, because the business model was designed around just-in-time delivery. Suddenly, the business saw a decline in consumer demand just as it became impossible to ship products around the world.

What could this business have done to have been more resilient? The simple answer is that they needed more cash, because the only way to manage the supply chain crisis would be to tie up more capital in storing stock. The founder Brent Hoberman, who left the business after the 2021 IPO, commented on LinkedIn: “Cash is always king.”

Made.com could only remain viable while the global logistics industry was functioning normally. Introduce a global pandemic, increased costs, and endless delays, then the business model no longer works. The company could have been saved, but only if it changed its approach to be more like a regular retailer.

This is one of the challenges faced by corporate leaders that embrace the idea of resilience. Sometimes change is inevitable. A strategy that is designed to always ensure your business returns to ‘normal’ after a period of disruption will often fail. The former EMEA CEO of Twitter, Bruce Daisley, recently published a book called Fortitude in which he examines many of these issues with a focus on corporate resilience. He said: “The whole book is about resilience, and resilience has got so much hokum talked about it, it’s got so much babble talked about it. I think I say in the book, never in the history of resilience has anyone been more resilient by being told to be more resilient.”

Bruce Daisley uses his book to directly challenge our approach to resilience. In particular, he believes that most leaders are treating the symptoms and not the cure. A good example is employee burnout. Everyone is working longer hours. They feel they must be available at all times. They feel a need to check their email and messages in the evening and at weekends. The result is a stressed and burned out team, but what is the typical corporate response? A training session on how to handle burnout.

The book Fortitude describes how Jurgen Klopp approached his new job as manager of Liverpool Football Club when he was appointed in 2015. The first thing he did was to learn the names of around 100 people who worked at the club. The cleaners. The people who provided players with their kit. The team that worked in the club cafe. Everyone. He arranged a meeting with the players and said to his team: ‘From now on, this is Beryl, this is Glenn…’

Jurgen Klopp acknowledged that for a high performance football team to function, there is an even larger team supporting them at the club. They became one team on first-name terms. They built greater team strength and fortitude through this solidarity.

But what does fortitude really mean to leaders as we head into 2023? Why should board level executives and HR directors be focused on the reality of the search for greater resilience?

Because change is all around. Consumer and employee expectations are constantly evolving. Who could have predicted three years ago that so many employees now expect the option to work from home as a right? A company that offers no flexibility today isn’t seen as normal, it’s seen as an employer to be avoided.

Attracting the best talent now requires an approach to leadership that embraces agility and flexibility, but also the fortitude Bruce Daisley has described. The ability to absorb business shocks – and change as required – is a culture that has to run throughout a business – you aren’t going to learn this on a management training course.

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