Look around and you see all kinds of companies in trouble. For many the future looks bleak indeed, but others see obstacles to surmount, not brick walls. These companies choose to survive whatever comes their way. This point came home to me loud and clear as I read an article on resilience in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. We've all seen the ability to bounce back in individuals and organizations. There's something very admirable about survivors. On the other hand, when you witness individuals and companies fail or fold because a culture of resilience was totally lacking, it sure isn't pretty to see.
The author of the piece, Diane Coutu, says she became intrigued with the subject of resilience as far back as the ninth grade when she first learned of the Holocaust survivors. Later, as an affiliate scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, she returned to the subject. She now finds resilience to be most important because of recent events such as terrorism, war and the economic downturn. As a result she has made a concerted effort to study resilience among individuals and organizations. She wants to know why some people and organizations bounce back from adversity, while others crack.
Coutu isn't alone in her interest. Dean Becker, the president and CEO of Adaptive Learning Systems, a 4-year-old company in King of Prussia, Pa., that develops and delivers programs about resilience training, states, "More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person's level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That's true in the cancer ward, it's true in the Olympics and it's true in the boardroom."
Coutu relates a number of theories about resilience, three of which are common to all. They are an acceptance of reality, a deep belief that life is meaningful and an "uncanny ability to improvise." She believes a person can bounce back from bad times with only two of these qualities, but to be really resilient a person must possess all three.
Coutu backs up her theory with observations from Jim Collins, a management researcher who discovered some interesting things while researching Good to Great, a book about how companies transform themselves from mediocrity to success. Collins had always felt that resilient companies were filled with optimistic people. One day he tried out his idea on James Stockdale, a Navy admiral who had been held prisoner and was tortured by the Viet Cong for eight years. Stockdale's response was somewhat surprising, Collins recalls. "I asked Stockdale who didn't make it out of the camps, and he said, `Oh, that's easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who were going to be out by Easter and then out by the Fourth of July and by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again. You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.' "
Collins found that executives at successful companies shared a steadiness in attitude. He noticed that resilient people have very sober and down-to-earth views of those parts of reality that matter for survival. That doesn't mean optimism doesn't have a place in the equation-it does. However, Coutu finds that for major challenges failed by a company, "a cool, almost pessimistic sense of reality is far more important. Too often too many leaders don't choose to face up to the reality of the situation their organization faces. Facing reality is not comfortable, nor is it inspirational, but if done properly it can save not only a company but hundreds of jobs as well."
Another aspect of resiliency is the search for meaning. Many individuals are able to find some meaning in the most terrible of circumstances. They use this meaning to stabilize their lives as they face up to the almost insurmountable odds they face on a daily basis. A good friend of mine survived colon cancer. When he began his chemotherapy treatments I went with him to the hospital. The mood was somber but I tried to lighten things up with some reminiscences about our hockey-playing days. My dear friend is not big physically but in any athletic contest he always played his heart out and never hesitated to take on much bigger opponents. He survived chemotherapy by facing up to his illness without feeling sorry for himself, never losing his good humor and looking at his bout with cancer as an adventure. He found meaning in fighting his illness.
But resilience is also critical to organizations that for one reason or another face some catastrophe or crisis. Studies have shown that those organizations or companies that survive best are those that have a strong value system. One major company that comes to mind is pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Many of us may remember the infamous Tylenol scare in Chicago, in which someone put cyanide in some pill bottles and several people died. The company didn't hesitate to pull the product off shelves nationwide, losing millions in the process but also protecting its customers. J&J not only survived the Tylenol situation, it thrived because it showed it had the ability to adapt to what could have been a catastrophe.
In times of crisis or simply down times, it is essential that a company be willing to improvise and instill that ethic in its employees. However, discipline is required as well. United Parcel Service of America has succeeded in tough times by allowing its workers the leeway to solve problems on their own. But UPS Chairman Mike Eskew also points to a culture of discipline at his company. "Drivers always put their keys in the same place. They close their doors the same way. They wear their uniforms the same way. We are a company of precision."
Coutu finishes her excellent essay with this thought, "Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair and improvise the nature of resilience, and we will never really understand it."
In today's treacherous, chaotic environment it behooves any company to learn the fundamentals of resiliency, and Coutu's article is a good place to start.