The Business Of Resilient Leadership
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This episode examines the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the valuable lessons it provides business leaders on how to build and nurture a culture of resilience and innovation within their organisations
The way in which leaders from both public and private sectors have managed through the complex societal and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as a case study of resilient leadership for years to come.
In this episode of the AGSM 'Business Of ...' leadership podcast, we turn our attention to what resilience looks like in the context of organisational culture. What was once an idea grounded in stoicism and endurance is now better shaped on principles of empathy and vulnerability - at all levels of leadership.
Host Emma Lo Russo is joined by Martin Stewart-Weeks, principal of Public Purpose Pty Ltd, and Doctor Jeffrey Tobias, founder and Managing Director of The Strategy Group and Adjunct Professor and Fellow at the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School. Martin and Jeffrey discuss how the response to COVID-19 has built empathy, competence and trust in the government, and the learnings for other sectors.
Melanie Fisher, General Manager at Alta Corporate Psychology and Adjunct Faculty at the AGSM shares insight into how a healthy organisational culture is tethered to leadership at all levels, and its role in making businesses more resilient in the face of challenges.
Finally, we hear from Professor Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Associate Dean Research at UNSW Business School. Frederik shares his experience working with businesses to build a culture of resilience and innovation.
- Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
- Martin Stewart-Weeks, Independent consultant, Public Purpose Pty Ltd
- Dr. Jeffrey Tobias, Adjunct Faculty member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Founder of The Strategy Group
- Melanie Fisher, Adjunct Faculty member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and psychologist
- Professor Frederik Anseel, UNSW School of Management and Associate Dean Research, UNSW Business School, UNSW Sydney
Emma Lo Russo: Welcome to The Business Of…
I’m your host Emma Lo Russo, and this leadership podcast is brought to you by the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School.
In this episode, we turn our attention to the subject of resilience: it’s an essential life skill that has also become an essential leadership skill. The way in which leaders from both public and private sectors have managed through the societal and economic challenges of COVID-19 will serve as a case study of resilient leadership for years to come.
Australia’s capacity to manage the pandemic has challenged many of us. Examining our response to the crisis and its outcomes provides valuable lessons for business leaders on how to shape a culture of resilience within their organisations.
We begin this episode by hearing from two strategic thinkers with a wealth of consulting experience in both the public and private sectors: Martin Stewart-Weeks is principal of Public Purpose Pty Ltd, an advisory practise working at the intersection of government, policy, technology and innovation. and Doctor Jeffrey Tobias, who is founder and Managing DIrector of The Strategy Group and Adjunct Professor and Fellow at the AGSM.
I also speak with Melanie Fisher, General Manager at Alta Corporate Psychology and Adjunct Faculty at the AGSM.
Finally, we’ll hear from organisational psychologist Professor Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Associate Dean Research at the UNSW Business School.
But first, let’s hear from Martin Stewart-Weeks and Doctor Jeffrey Tobias.
It’s fantastic to have the chance to talk to you today, Jeffrey and Martin. In the past few months, we’ve witnessed some extraordinary acts of leadership from government and we’ve seen this at all levels, national, state and local. What’s your view of what’s going on inside government right now?
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Yeah, that’s such a great question. And I think we’re all getting intrigued by that because I think in one form or another, pretty much every citizen has really been somewhat taken aback, I suspect by how governments have been responding. At one level, you’d have to say government is doing what it always does in a really good crisis, which is to respond very well and very rapidly. But I think in this one, because it’s been so deep and so intense and so unusual, I think we’ve seen a couple of really significant things emerge.
The first is that, as government always should but doesn’t always, it started the conversation about what it should be doing by asking questions about what’s happening to people and businesses. If you like it’s taken a position that says we have to understand how this is impacting this incredible set of circumstances, people and families and communities and businesses, so we start there. So it’s an empathy kind of response.
And I think most people like that from government. It doesn’t always happen. And then the second thing we’ve seen is an astonishing display for the most part, we can all perhaps have some quibbles about certain aspects of the response, but an astonishing display of competence under great pressure. A lot of stuff has got done pretty well, very, very quickly. If you put those two things together, an empathy response starting from how is this affecting you, how can we help you families, childcare, businesses. And then when we find out what is hurting and how we can help we then do something pretty competently about it.
Strangely enough, we think, “Well, these people know what they’re doing. We trust them. That’s great. That’s exactly what we want. That’s kind of what we want in government.” And I think that’s what’s been happening by and large for the last two or three months.
Jeffrey Tobias: What’s different about this is COVID-19 has not only impacted the citizens for which policy is designed, but it has impacted every one of the government people themselves. Their families, they’ve been in lockdown, they’ve been working from home, their kids, their relatives, they’ve had to be on Zoom. And maybe it’s the people in government rather than “we’re designing policy for some other entity out there somewhere that we don’t really have a connection for”, suddenly they’re in the middle of this and going, “Well, what are we... Actually I’m one of those citizens. What are we going to do?”
History will tell us whether that’s a catalyst, but it’s an interesting thought where most of the time, they’re not the beneficiary of the policy or outcome.
We’ve been discussing the three elements here; empathy, competence and trust significantly and it’s been interesting to not only focus on the empathy but if you look at traditionally people who have felt the government hasn’t been able to execute, everyone said, “Well, look at this,” or, “Look at that. Government has touched it. It’s going to fail.” And in this instance, we’ve seen the reversal where again, somehow and history will really show us this perhaps, but what’s been different? How come government was able to get things up so quickly? In a relatively successful way to get the tax office to make all the changes they needed to do? The computer system didn’t collapse when JobKeeper was processed. What’s different here?
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Well, I think partly intensity and partly, I suspect an ability to engage the full resources of talent and capability in the government space that I think often doesn’t get used because people are playing games around divisions and distinctions and silos and all those other words. I think most of that has been pretty much nonexistent this time around. And the truth is, the government and the public sector of this country is a very, very large bunch of people. When you put the full talent to work, it’s amazing what you can get done, which of course raises questions about why we can’t do that on a regular basis.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: We’ve kind of got ourselves a bit of a dividend here and it’s kind of, “Wow, gee, that’s great. We’ve sort of got money in the bank if I can put it like that.” The treasurer will tell you we’ve got no money in the bank. But you get my point. The question is, what can we do about it? Because this is kind of... People quite like this.
They like to trust government, if it’s based on solid evidence that they are taking an empathetic approach and they’re being as competent as they possibly can be. People like that. Why the hell would you not want to do that all the time?
Emma Lo Russo: I think one question I’m interested to hear your views on is one of the other areas I think the Australia government did extremely well was the collaboration between national and state level in particular and we didn’t see that, for instance, in other countries. What drove that to be so strong?
Martin Stewart-Weeks: I’m going to be a bit provocative here and suggest that to some extent, we saw a collapse of some of our usual federal state squabbling out of a combination of fear and uncertainty.
I just think governments around the country were saying, “Holy hell.” And perhaps even perhaps words a little bit stronger than that, which I won’t use on AGSM podcast because that would be wrong, but seriously, we’ve never seen anything like this. We don’t know what the hell’s going on. And honestly, fear and uncertainty is not a bad place sometimes to get together with other people who are suffering in the same way.
So I’ve got a feeling that the conditions and intensity of this particular crisis broke some of those walls down instantly because truly, Victoria or New South Wales or South Australia were not going to be able to handle this on their own. Even the big states, we just weren’t and neither was the feds. So to some extent, necessity being the mother of invention, I think it’s kind of, “Oh, well, while we’re at it, why don’t we actually experiment with this thing called a National Cabinet?” I don’t think anyone had ever heard... Apparently, there is constitutional provision for this thing to operate, it’s just that we’ve never done it except since strange enough, the last war.
So everyone said, “Oh, yeah. While we’re at it, we don’t really need all these state federal borders. Let’s do it together.” So I think fear and uncertainty would have been at least one driver that would have got us over some of those old squabbles. I don’t know whether you-
Jeffrey Tobias: I agree totally. We have short memories but if we cast our minds back to February, the outlook was dire. The health professionals, “This is going to ravage the country when our health systems aren’t going to cope.”
Martin Stewart-Weeks: It was very scary. Truly very scary, I agree.
Jeffrey Tobias: And it was interesting also from a commercial perspective to look at the collaboration that happened between Woolworths and Coles. That would not happen.
Woolworths and Coles would sit down and go, “How we’d get toilet paper to the citizens of the country.” But they did.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: It’s a new national mission. Toilet paper mission. There you go. Someone had to do it.
Jeffrey Tobias: I think Martin you’re right. I think the fact that we were in such a level of stress and almost panic about how are we going to... Will we survive this as a country at all? That it broke down the barriers. And I think it also..., if you look at the startup world, the startup entrepreneur is in that level of panic all the time. Because in nine months time, the money is going to run out, the doors get locked, the lights get turned off, all the staff go and they’ve just lost all their investors’ money.
So the startup entrepreneur is about, “We’ve got to do it now. We’ve got to experiment. We’ve got to get on with it. Because my business life, it’s going to end.” So you can see that. Very often, both in the government world and the corporate world, we don’t have that-
Martin Stewart-Weeks: No. Not that intensity.
Jeffrey Tobias: We can, “Let’s have six more meetings in the next six months,” and we’ll discuss it. Getting that speed and urgency and also the ability to say, “Well, let’s experiment. Let’s do some rapid experimentations.”
Martin Stewart-Weeks: And then adjust as we go.
Jeffrey Tobias: Yeah. And I think what’s also interesting is the public was behind it. Was behind, “Yeah. Do whatever you need to do, just do it. Save us.” I think they had the groundswell of the public going, “Yeah, whatever you think best.” Which is also interesting because that was a big transition from what we thought of government beforehand.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Totally.
Emma Lo Russo: Yes, particularly while the fires were on. Let’s touch on then the leadership qualities because if the public were ready for a leader to step in and you’d talk to how quickly they were able to create a response. What are the qualities, what did you see that drove that innovation particularly in that timeframe?
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Yeah. Gosh, that’s such a great question. Let’s start with a fairly obvious thing. The first thing I think we suddenly found in our leaders, the ones that we admired, not just here, but around the world actually is that by and large they were telling the truth. They were basically being pretty straightforward and pretty honest like, “This is pretty the tough guys.”
And I think what you’ll find... I don’t know whether you remember the terrific following that Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, gathered globally for a style and a presentation, which was pretty much I presume in his inimitable New York style was just laying on the line saying, “Shit. This is tough.” I think first things first.
Suddenly and under the kind of intensity that we witnessed, there wasn’t any point prevaricating or trying to play games. You may as well just lay it out here because, second point, it rapidly became clear I think to many government leaders that the only way that we were going to get through this, was by activating and mobilising the support, the cooperation and the energy and commitment of millions of people across the country.
Government was not going to fix this. There was no programme, no service, no agency around that was going to fix this.
So all of a sudden, we had to mobilise at a very, very substantial scale. Yes, we had to be honest, but we had to be honest and direct because actually, we wanted people’s cooperation very quickly. If you want to get whatever the population is of this country these days, 20 odd million people to please walk around a metre and a half away from everybody and could you please start doing that right now, there’s a form of leadership that’s involved in getting that cooperation and you can’t bark at people and you can’t yell at them and you’ve got to start by being bloody honest with them about why you want them to do that and so and so on.
So I think there was a substantial lift in a sense of honesty and the levelling with us, which I think people really, really responded to. But I think the other point is, this sense that people in the leadership level had managed to get a good balance between the need to include lots of people relatively rapidly, get feedback, state premieres, lots of people and then cut through time to act.
So we seem to get a slightly better balance between, “Yep, we can have another six meetings about this. But we probably have to have one or two. Yes, we’re in a hurry. But we also want to maximise the chances of getting this right.” So the deliberation versus action balance changed, but I think we got that right. Again, difficult thing for a leader. Under pressure, “Quick! Do something.” And yet at the same time, we do have to act but also we do have to take soundings, we have to be careful that we bring people with us. So those were some of the characteristics I felt that were on the show of the last few months.
Jeffrey Tobias: Look, I agree totally. In the time between when COVID-19 started and today, I don’t think any of the politicians and I say this with respect to AGSM, went off and did leadership training, which then suddenly turned them into a leader. I think building on what Martin said, I think it is a real lesson in leadership.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Let me throw, Emma, if I could just one other thought has occurred to me as we’ve been speaking, because I think it’s another leadership quality that we often forget. And it’s going to be very important in my view in the public space. I also work in the corporate sector as well, although Jeffrey does a lot more work in that sector. I think it’s true for most large organisations. And that is a word that I would bring into the conversation at this point, which is the word is legibility.
If you think about Gladys Berejiklian, and Scott Morrison, Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Cuomo, there’s one thing that all four of them and therefore are often mentioned as and the leaders of Taiwan, Korea, some great examples, one of the things they did was in every single case, as far as I’m aware, they gave daily, lengthy, honest briefings, press briefings and conversations. Not press conferences, as in, we’re here to play games. “I’m here for an hour every morning.” Gladys was out there at 8:30 as far as I recall.
My point about that is it’s not just about making sure that people get a sense that stuff’s happening, you do need that. People have got to be able to read the situation, they’ve got to be able to see what you’re doing. So I think the notion of legibility, the sense of... It’s more than just transparency, but a real sense that you’re taking people into your confidence a little bit saying, “Look, this is what we’re doing. Let me explain to you. This is what we’re doing the JobSeeker. This is what I’m trying to do with the vaccine. It’s going to take this long and I’ve got these people and here’s the sort of facts and figures.”
Emma Lo Russo: So it’s interesting that you touched on the corporate lessons and the impact of this and I want to come back to that, but before we move to that, how do we keep this innovation?
I think it’s less about just talking about it, but it’s more about doing. I can give you a number of examples. One of the projects we did was with Safeway New South Wales and Department of Primary Industry. And that was around quad bike deaths in Australia.
Jeffrey Tobias: More people have died on farms in 2016 than have died in the entire construction and mining industry. And the reason is that something happens on the farm, the farmer jumps onto their quad bike, drives off to the cow that’s and the quad bike tips over and unfortunately there are many deaths.
I think we visited 80 farms to actually understand from the farmers’ perspective, what are the issues that face them and why are so many accidents happening? Because it was very easy for Safeway in New South Wales to send out pamphlets or training material or whatever.
And just one anecdote from that, we were in one farm and the farmer said, “Look, I get all these leaflets saying safety is important, you should be safe, you have to wear helmets, you have to wear helmets.” And he said to us, “When it’s 3:00 AM in the morning, and it’s -5° in the farm and the cows push the fence down, and I’ve got to get out in my quad bike, I’m wearing three beanies to make sure my ears don’t freeze off. I can’t fit a helmet on. There’s no way. Yes, the leaflet says put on a helmet. I can’t wear a helmet.”
Martin Stewart-Weeks: That’s a great story.
Jeffrey Tobias: So yeah. And it’s through those sorts of stories that you start to uncover what empathy really means instead of jumping to the solution. And so we took... We did a lot of work. We then ran Ideation Workshop, brought in lots of different people, we were very big on cognitive diversity. I think people talk about a lot issues, cognitive diversity is really important, and came up with significant recommendations that were enacted. But if we had not actually focused on the empathy bit before coming up with the solutions, we probably would have consulted with two or three peak bodies who’d said, “Well, just send them more leaflets and be done.”
Emma Lo Russo: Let’s look at the... So the environment brought this positive change that we want to sustain in the public sector, but it also brought amazing change in innovation and opportunity born from fear and all the same things that you touched on in the corporate sector. Were there learnings from one experience to the other?
Jeffrey Tobias: So it’s really interesting. Over the past three or four months, we’ve seen quite a number of changes. So the first wave of change in the corporate sector was, we better lay off lots of people, is this business going to survive at all? And as we know, many businesses have shut and have unfortunately permanently shut in the media space, in the restaurant space in the entertainment space, in the art space. It’s been significantly catastrophic.
And so if we move to those organisations like the large construction companies or the large banks where they’ve been able to weather the storm, so to speak to this point and further, what we’ve seen is a couple of almost parallel universes. So on the one hand, we’ve seen many organisations who are focused on cost cutting expense, “Will we be able to downsize our office space now because people won’t be coming to the office? They’ll be working remotely.” And the smart organisations have been going, “How do we innovate right now?”
So there’s one company I can’t mention the name, but they’ve got what they call Engine I and Engine II. And so half of the organisation is focused on the cost cutting and the uncertainty of what’s ahead of us. The other half is focused on how are we now going to drive innovation in as fast a way as possible, one, to be able to build and understand what the post-COVID world is, two, from a commercial perspective, take advantage of opportunities that are there at a cheaper price or distressed organisations to merger and that sounds a bit negative but that’s just what they’re doing.
But innovation for the smart companies is definitely on the agenda. Because if you look back at the GFC and you look back at history, those organisations that actually embraced innovation and change ultimately did really, really well. Not all of them, but most of them actually did.
So the restaurant industry has been decimated by COVID.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Totally.
Jeffrey Tobias: However, if you now go to many restaurants, you can now start to see QR codes, so you can scan a QR code now.
So in many ways, we are already now seeing restaurants saying, “Well, how are we going to get this? What’s this QR code? How are we going to do contactless payments?” And if you look at that change that has been forced on them by COVID-19, you then say, “Well, but the technology was there, so what’s the... How come it needs a catastrophe to use it?”
The engine one and engine two is from the large corporates who realised now is the time to invest in innovation, now is the time to reskill the team, now is the time for leaders to actively learn, not passively learn or actively learn from what’s happened. And then the smaller players who are going to be driven to change their business model by necessity because otherwise, they’re not going to survive.
Emma Lo Russo: Taking what you’ve been observing and discussing over the last weeks, what advice would you give business leaders in leading through a crisis and challenge and how do you keep them focused on that opportunity moving forward?
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Well, I’ll just say something very quickly on that because I think Jeffrey does such a lot of this kind of work with such an interesting array of leaders. In a way, if I take the question, my advice to a leader would be to lead in a way that you should always lead, regardless of whether it’s a crisis or not. And that is, essentially, with the things that we’ve already spoken about in this conversation.
Be open and honest, as far as you possibly can. Tell people what the hell’s going on. Be legible. Go and listen. Look, learn, before you lead. Look, listen, learn then lead. But in a way, when you say these things, regular briefings, make sure they get good communication, all that kind of stuff. Make sure the information you give them is trustworthy and sensible. Empathise with them. All that stuff.
We’ve been talking about all these issues. And I say to myself, why is that advice for a crisis? Why the hell isn’t that the way you normally deal with your people? The only thing in a sense that should happen in a crisis is the rhythms and intensity of that work will change. But if you suddenly find yourself as a leader, somehow scrabbling around for a whole different way to lead people because, “Oh, dear. Now I’ve got a crisis,” whereas normally because I couldn’t give a damn about them, you think, “Well, that’s not good.” So to some extent, my best advice to them about if you’re looking for advice about how to lead in a crisis, you’re probably asking the wrong question.
Jeffrey Tobias: It’s a very good point. And look, I echo all that Martin has to say. To be honest, I think transparency, I agree, is essential. Sometimes it’s not easy.
The other asset that leaders can have is situational awareness. So just being very situationally aware of what’s going on at different parts of the ecosystem, what’s going on in the organisation, being very sensitive to how people feel, what they’re talking about, what’s happening in the marketplace, what other are people talking about and then trying to distil all that down into one vision for how we can take this forward and empathise, empathy back to the staff, the team, the public, the customers, listening to their customers.
That’s the other thing that’s happened. Significant pivots of organisations just from empathising with their customers to change. There’s a company that was in car cleaning. The car cleaning company, they’d come to you to clean your car. You’d then realise that no ones going to want him to come and clean car. So what he offered is I’ll give you a... You bring me your car and I will give you a sanitised car, then realised that he could actually move into sanitising buildings and he’s now establishing a huge business around sanitising buildings. So the ability to empathise around what is the value proposition there that’s different, two how do we come up with ideas to make those changes and three, experiments.
And I think if leaders do that and act it, they probably don’t need to do much more. Because, I’ll just finish on this, when I joined Cisco, I joined Cisco as a... I’d run my own business for 20 years. When I ran my own business as a managing director, I’d say, “Let’s all jump left.” And everyone would jump left. You get to Cisco, you say, “Let’s all jump left.” Everyone says, “Well, we’ll think about it.” And then someone gave me a good lesson actually,
Martin Stewart-Weeks: Yeah.
Jeffrey Tobias: He said, “Look, leadership is about this. Everyone’s got a waggon train and everyone wants to hitch their waggon to the successful waggon train. And if you as a leader can convince people to unhitch the waggon from the waggon train they were on and hitch on to yours, then you have succeeded.” And I think that’s true. There’s a lesson in that.
Emma Lo Russo: I think having seen how fast we responded, our government and us as leaders and in such a short time, right, the fact that you made that so accessible, there’s a lot to put to practise to ask and put to play and take those lessons forward. So thank you very much for your time today.
Martin Stewart-Weeks: It’s a pleasure. Thanks.
Jeffrey Tobias: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Emma Lo Russo: Some great perspectives from Martin and Jeffrey there. Using those key lenses of empathy, competence and trust to examine the response to the pandemic, from all levels of government, and the importance of communication has given plenty of food for thought on how they might be applied to business.
My next guest plants those key ideas firmly in a business context, tying them to organisational culture. Let’s go to my conversation with Melanie Fisher.
Well, I’m very excited to talk to you today, Melanie..I’m curious from your perspective, how do you define a healthy culture?
Melanie Fisher: I really highlight the concept of creating a really psychologically safe environment, building that supportive community at work. I think that’s really paramount to navigating disruption in an organisation and developing that agility.
When people feel safe, they’re much more likely to show up and to bring their best and I really firmly believe that, you don’t just leave your personal life and everything in the door when you come to work, you need to be able to bring your full self and feel safe and connected in doing that I think.
Emma Lo Russo: How does that confidence or that safety that they feel build organisation resilience?
Melanie Fisher: In terms of resiliency, it is very much about feeling safe to do that and to create an environment where people are willing to work in a different way or try something new and they still feel supported and connected. Organisations that go the distance rely on their people to be more agile and weather through a storm, so to speak.
Emma Lo Russo: It’s interesting. Who keeps the leader resilience then and how do they build that same feeling?
Melanie Fisher: The answer to that is, the leader. I think this is a two way process. I always say it’s much like your own oxygen mask first. As a leader, if you’re not feeling at your best and you’re not managing your energy well, it’s very unlikely you’re going to be able to care for other people.
Leadership is much less about directing and managing tasks and the technical aspects of the job, it’s very much around managing people’s energy, keeping them safe and having a focus on being well yourself and operating at your optimum, but also noticing when others are not.
We all know that when we’re experiencing difficulty and not feeling resilient, it’s very hard to pick up on when other people are not going well. I think resilient leaders manage their energy really well. They’re focused on self care, they’re focused on learning and new ways of doing things. They’re also really good at managing their own energy through different tasks. They know when they need to stop and take a break and recharge.
I think resilient leadership isn’t about how much you enjoy something or persevere, it’s about how you stop, reflect and recharge.
I think we’ve seen lots of examples of that recently, where people have adapted their working hours and job roles, they’ve been asked to step into lots of different ways of doing things. Those that felt empowered and connected and supported, and that their leader gave them a clear vision are the ones that really weathered that storm well.
I think we can’t look past having a vision and purpose and meaning and feeling connected as a way to build resilience. I think the last thing is really that, during that time, and to build a resilient culture, it’s really important to acknowledge our accomplishments and what we’ve done well.
Resilient teams and organisations celebrate success, they reflect back on times of change and look at what went really well and find some way to, even if it’s been a really tough journey to experience positive emotions. So, often counterintuitive when we’re under stress, but positive emotion is actually what brings out resilience too. Stepping back and doing that is really important.
Emma Lo Russo: Melanie, I think that’s a really good point because lots of leaders would have gone through very challenging periods given COVID-19 and what they would have experienced. What are the positive outcomes by taking those steps and the celebrations and sharing the vulnerability.
Melanie Fisher: Yeah. I think a lot of the outcomes I’ve seen working with different organisations, it’s just a new level of connectedness and a new respect for people stepping out of traditional roles into different skillsets. I think we’ve seen a lot of agility and leaders are recognising their teams that, hey, actually, we’ve got some different skill sets we can harness here. People in those teams have built their confidence and competence in different roles as well.
But I think one of the really important things we’ve built is connectivity. I think we were forced to do that in a lot of ways that suddenly were not in the same office together, or we’re not able to get on a plane and fly and connect with someone, but we’ve discovered with that global mobility, there’s probably a lot more connections we’ve made through that virtual world and paying attention to that and just seeing those opportunities, I think.
Emma Lo Russo: It’s interesting, right? Because they can’t necessarily have the physical connection, but they’ve adapted different ways to bring that level of intimacy or personalised connection that they may not have previously. What else would you characterise is the big shifts in organisation culture during 2020? What do you think will be taken forward from this?
Melanie Fisher: I think that traditionally still, even though we think in 2020, we’ve innovated past having to watch what someone’s doing all day and micromanage, the reality is the way organisations were structured were still to do that. We wondered what someone in the next pod was doing if they weren’t at their desk.
I have had lots of conversations with leaders recently around what, I don’t know what my staff are doing at home. How do I know if they’re producing what they’re supposed to produce? My answer is always, Are they delivering on their deadlines? Are they meeting their objectives? Are you seeing some tangible work? If the answer is yes, well then they’re producing the way they need to produce. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re working seven hours or five, if they’re delivering effectively and they’re focused, that’s really what we need to focus on.
I think we’re moving past having to see people are there and piling more work on top of them if they don’t look busy, we’re actually thinking about what our objectives and what we need to achieve. We’ve been forced to streamline that whole process during COVID-19. I think that’s been a real benefit because it’s such a challenge for a lot of leaders to step into that.
Emma Lo Russo: What else have you felt you’ve had to adapt or change or you’ve seen that you’ve needed to support that may not have been there before? What are you imagining you’re going to need to deliver moving forward?
Melanie Fisher: I think the whole way that organisations are structured is something that has been a question around, did we actually need all of these processes and systems in place? Was the bureaucracy of this actually necessary or have we survived without it? I think during a crisis situation or just a process of change, sometimes we don’t have the luxury of crossing every T and dotting every I.
I think efficiency is really something that’s come to mind and a lot of leaders have let go of certain processes that they’ve found weren’t necessary. They’ve also found that people might be performing better and connecting better with the vision or the purpose of their role versus all the superlative stuff they were just doing as part of what they did every day showing up. I think there’s that opportunity, can we restructure roles? Can we give clearer vision around what we need delivered and how do we encourage that learning and diversity in an organisation because people have been forced to switch into different roles now.
But the question is how we retain all of those positive things. I think we don’t want to forget what some of those benefits were and what we’ve learned through this. Holding onto that knowledge when business as usual returns is going to be the challenge.
Emma Lo Russo: What advice do you give to leaders in taking the lessons from what they’ve gone through forward, particularly around leadership?
Melanie Fisher: I think it’s stopping and reflecting.. I think really actually taking the time to stop, sit back, reflect, discuss with your teams what really went well during this? What did you enjoy? What were the benefits? Rather than just focusing on what didn’t work. Because I think when you don’t take your time to focus on those opportunities and really navigate through them and discuss them, you’re missing an even larger opportunity for process change. I think that’s one of the key things, how do we stop and reflect?
I think we’ve struggled for a long time around what are the precursors of high potential. How do we define that in an organisation, is it a particular personality constructs, is it IQ?
I think we’ve really had an opportunity putting the heat on and putting people under pressure to notice who showed up, who remained connected, who worked out of their skillset, who was just during a difficult time really rewarding to deal with. I think those are the people perhaps we think of as the future of our organisation and we put investment into growing and developing them. It gives us a real chance to put whole different lens on how we develop our talent in an organisation as well.
Emma Lo Russo: I love that you just reflected on the people aspect, who showed up, who turned up, who was adaptive? Is resilience and the ability to build this healthy culture and turn up to deliver your best work, is that something fundamentally learned? Is it innate?
Melanie Fisher: I think building a resilient culture is everybody’s responsibility. If you look at the research on organisational culture and resilience versus individual resilience, there’s some very common themes.
When we take resilience as a concept, is there a part of it that’s heritable? Well, perhaps. We’re probably looking in the vicinity of 25 to 40 per cent of our general disposition might lend ourselves to being more resilient. However, what we know from all of the research on not just individual resilience, but resilient organisational cultures, is that it’s not a fixed and stable trait. It’s not something that you measure now and you retain for a period of time. It’s agile, it’s adaptive and it’s something that we need to constantly focus on and build.
We take those learnings and reflect and take on the next part of the journey and adapt as things move on. It’s a constant process of reflection, taking space to recharge, reset our purpose and vision, and that’s on an individual and organisational level.
Emma Lo Russo: I’m curious, do you think we’ve got better at that reflection and learning because we’ve had to ask so many questions in this period?
Melanie Fisher: Well, I think there’s a real benefit to not only people’s wellbeing and connection for asking all of those questions that at first we found difficult to ask and found them they’re intrusive. But I think we get used to that and it becomes the new normal, right? That’s how culture is built. If we lean into that culture of being inquisitive and challenging and reflecting that we continue to do it, but the key thing is we need to see the benefit in that.
If we’re not reflecting that that’s been a positive thing, it’s very hard when things go back to normal to continue it. It’s a constant process of focusing. But we become more comfortable with time I guess. The more we ask those uncomfortable questions, the easier it becomes.
Emma Lo Russo: Given your great exposure to so many organisations, this is just I guess a smaller data set that I’ve observed. But I do feel organisations have asked their employees more about how they’re feeling and what’s required and new ways of working at a frequency and at a rate and depth that they hadn’t before. Do you see that something that will continue to grow or sustain?
Melanie Fisher: Gosh, I really hope so. I hope that we’ve learned and I think at first, looking at my trajectory of work at first, the questions I was getting to organisations is, “Can you come and talk to people about how they’re going and how they’re feeling?” My answer was, “Well, I can, but what would be better is if I come and talk to your leaders about how to do that.” Because that’s how you build that internal mechanism to do that and that’s how people feel connected. It’s great to have someone external come out, but if you can really embed that process, then you’re going to be much, much better off and you’re going to increase that comfort with everything from having crucial performance conversations to mental health conversations, to a range of other conflicts in the workplace.
We’ve had that opportunity so much recently to really connect, check how people are going, check how their workloads are going, check whether their work is meaningful, and that’s all part of building that culture.
Emma Lo Russo: I sincerely hope so. I think you shared so much for leaders to reflect on and take forward. Thank you for your time today, on The Business Of.
Melanie Fisher: My pleasure, Emma. It’s been a pleasure being here with you discussing this today.
Emma Lo Russo: There are a number of actionable take-aways from my discussion with Melanie. Her points around vulnerability in leadership, admitting fault, and its connection to fostering a culture of safety within an organisation are something we can learn from and implement.
My final guest is organisational psychologist Professor Frederik Anseel. He shares how to build a culture of resilience and its importance in setting direction, motivation and innovation and also how to avoid common leadership mistakes.
Hi, Frederik. Welcome to The Business Of. I’m really curious about your area of study and what’s driven it. And you’ve just published a book. So can you share your journey that’s led to your area of the psychology of innovation and what drives a culture of resilience?
Frederik Anseel: Yes. So indeed my background is in psychology and I often have to explain to people that when you’re an organisational psychologist, you do not put people on the couch. So I often compare it more to being like a biologist or an anthropologist, and that you actually go into companies and like you follow a group of monkeys and you sort of immerse yourself among them and you follow them over longer periods of time. And you try to study and understand group behaviour. And from following these groups of people at work, sometimes we even do experiments where we put people in a scanner to observe their brains. Especially when you study innovation and creativity, it helps to understand how the brain is wired. And I always had this sort of an interest in how people bounce back. If you have adverse events, some people bounce back easily and other people really struggle.
Emma Lo Russo: What do we mean when we’re talking about building a resilient company culture? What are the characteristics? What does it look like?
Frederik Anseel: I think there’s a bit of misunderstanding sometimes. What you often have is that business leaders think about being a resilient company, is that you can sort of sustain any shock and that it does not matter what happened in the external environment that you have sort of hardiness, sort of toughness, in the organisation and that you can just keep on going. I don’t think that is what resilience is. And resilience means that if something happens, every company will be impacted and probably productivity, performance will suffer. But resilience is after you had the first shock and performance goes down, how does the trajectory afterwards look like? And so it’s about the recovery phase. And a resilient company is one that will bounce back. It does not matter if that happens very quickly or over a period of time, but it is about how does that recovery trajectory, the bouncing back, how does that look like and do you end up being better than afterwards?
Emma Lo Russo: So what are the characteristics of an organisation that can bounce back, that faces that challenge and is resilient or gets that as an outcome?
Frederik Anseel: So the characteristics are about being able to reinvent oneself and at the same time staying the same, right? The culture of a company is that is how we do things around here. And often it’s about implicit rules, implicit norms, and everybody knows this is how we do business. We do not need to make that explicit every time. Now, if there’s a shock, like we’re now experiencing a lot of turbulence, this implicit norms are completely disrupted. And resilience is that you sort of reinvent the rules of the game for your company while you keep the deep structure the same. For instance, if your company works around trust or your company works around taking responsibility or taking initiative, these things should be the same although everything has changed around you. And so it is reinventing yourself while your DNA remains the same.
Emma Lo Russo: So when do you see this not work? Like where do organisations get it wrong?
Frederik Anseel: Some organisations, they want to move too quickly. For instance, what happens you have COVID-19, extreme turbulence. Most of the companies do not know how the new normal will look like, and they do not know how they will get out of this. But you have a couple of companies and you have some leaders that are very impatient. They already want to know what the new normal looks like, or they want to impose it on people. And so they will say, “Look, this is how we will function right now, and this is the best way to do it.” But you need to give yourself and you need to give your people some time and space to rediscover and to adapt. And as we go along, things will change.
And it is about daring to let go. It’s difficult because a lot of leaders have this, what I call, an illusion of control. They think the identity of leader is, “I need to be in control at every point in time, and that’s the only way that my people will trust me, when I’m in control.” And so they want to define how things are being done. But I think resilience, what is needed for resilience in these times, is that a leader can safely say, “Look, I don’t know how the future will look like, but I’m confident that we’ll find a way to navigate this. And I’m not going to say how the next weeks or months, I can’t predict how that will look like, but I know ways to make sure that we’ll learn, take stock of things and then we’ll discover new rules of new ways of working.”
Emma Lo Russo: What should leaders do to build this culture?
Frederik Anseel: That’s a very good question. And it can be a disappointing question for some leaders because you need to start very early. And I’ve been contacted with a lot of companies and with questions. And if I could come in and help them create that culture, but it’s very difficult to build that while the crisis is happening. So typically, you would want to create this culture long before anything happens. And for instance, indeed, while you’re hiring new people. But also in terms of leadership styles, the sort of role modelling that happens, it is about a constant focus on learning on the one hand. So you need to approach every situation with a sense of, I’m not 100 per cent sure what the solution is, but I’ll find out along the way, and will build in moments of reflection so that we sort of qualify new knowledge.
Emma Lo Russo: So you talked about that reflection and I think the time in building this. But what is that significance of that learning, that’s creating that psychological safety to learn?
Frederik Anseel: So one of my fields of study is indeed how people learn through reflection. And reflection, it’s a very difficult beast because we have a bias for action. We like to be in the business. We like to make decisions and reflection doesn’t sound very well because reflections mean that, for instance, once a week, you take an hour or two hours and you just sit down, maybe take some notes and look back at the week and say “These are some of the decisions I made. Probably not the best goal here. I’ve learned this along the way.” You need to do that in a very structured, determined way.
And so for instance, we did a study during the global financial crisis in the banking sector, and we followed employees and leaders in a large bank going through the crisis. And what we actually found when I talk about this sort of recovery through the crisis is that people that regularly engaged in reflection actually recovered more quickly. But there was one precondition, the reflection needed to be focused on the future. So some people reflect on the past and they always think about the past. And the risk is that you end up ruminating about all the things you’ve done wrong. What we found is that if people actually reflect while looking forward and being very future focused and systematically reflect on what they’ve learned and what that means for the future, those were the people that quickly emerged from the crisis and actually had an upward performance trajectory.
Emma Lo Russo: So your research around those ways of motivation, like what else does it tell us that links to that resilient culture?
Frederik Anseel: There needs to be a belief that you’re making progress. So actually people can deal with frustration and disappointment as long as they feel they’re heading somewhere, and that they feel that they’re making progress. And so one of the challenges for a lot of leaders in a crisis is that you keep that focus towards a sort of end goal that people have a sort of internal compass that they know, “Look, we’re going through turbulence. We’re actually going in all sorts of directions.” But as long as the leaders say, “Look, this is the purpose. This is where we’re going with the company. There might be a lot of things happening, but this is ultimately why we’re here and why we’re making a difference with the company.” And as long as you can keep that clear focus, we see that if people feel that they’re still making progress towards a purpose, that is something that keeps them very motivated to put additional effort to come up with new ideas.
Emma Lo Russo: So what advice would you give to business leaders to keep their teams engaged in the way that you’re saying, but at that crisis point, in the face of a challenge?
Frederik Anseel: One of the things is it’s more than words. And so I’m currently sort of developing a couple of workshops around what I call behavioural integrity. And behavioural integrity is about, do you show, in your actions, in your decisions, in your behaviour as a leader, do you show what you believe in? And I see a lot of leaders writing very nice emails that they are so impressed by all the work the people are doing. And they are saying, “We are all in this together and I understand where you come from and I understand how difficult it is.” But the problem is that sometimes, during a crisis, it’s more than writing nice emails. You need to make the decisions. Sometimes those decisions can hurt yourself. It’s difficult to make those, but your employees need to see that you make the actions and make difficult choices that help them move forward.
And so that is my invitation to a lot of leaders in this crisis, that while you’re strategizing and you’re under a lot of pressure to make the right decisions, to think about, how do my employees perceive my actions? How do they perceive my decisions? And are the things I say, the emails I write, are they aligned with my actions? Because now in a crisis, people are looking very closely at what you’re saying and what you’re doing. And they’re very good in a crisis to spot every sort of disconnect that what you’re doing and deciding and what you’re saying. And so a lot of leaders are now in the spotlight and need to ensure that they walk the talk, right, and that they’re doing what they’re actually saying.
Emma Lo Russo: You talk about micro-foundations of organisational success. So these must be aspects all the way through. What do you think are the core foundations? What could leaders take in understanding that micro-foundations of organisational success?
Frederik Anseel: So, with the micro-foundations is sort of understanding the psychology. It’s the psychology of how managers work, how people work, and then taking that psychology and the systems you develop. And just one basic example is for instance, let’s look at how a lot of incentive and bonus systems work in companies. For instance, we know that one of the essential recipes for innovation comes from collaboration and information exchange. So new ideas and creativity comes from where ideas clash and new perspectives come together. And that’s what you want. You want to have teams where people freely exchange information. But if you look at what incentive and bonus systems often reward is that individual achievement, individual performance, and actually it often encourages that people sort of protect the information they have because it makes them stronger in the organisation.
And we know and we see that in a lot of our research, that knowledge hiding is actually strong in a lot of companies due to bonus system, incentive systems, because people say, “I’m sitting on a valuable piece of information, so that enhances my market value.” But actually what you want in a company is that information flows freely because the flow of information is almost the currency of innovation. And so you need to think if all the processes, the management style and the people that you hire, if that is aligned with all those processes. That’s what I call the micro-foundations of organisations, is that understanding everything you do, every sort of management, practise, leadership, what sort of decisions you make, what sort of psychological consequences it has on the behaviour of people.
Emma Lo Russo: So in terms of practical things a leader can take out of this, what do you think today, given the challenging times, to get towards this culture of innovation and resilience and learning, which I’m hearing thematically there, right? The safety of learning, the culture of sharing and learning. What would you encourage leaders to do?
Frederik Anseel: So I think, especially in this time, if you’re sitting together with your team, you probably want to explain to them that your goal is to be better after six months, let’s say, or three months, six months, maybe a year. And so you’re explaining, “Look, I know this crisis will hit us in our productivity.” It’s very difficult to say that as a leader. What I’ve heard most from leaders right now is, “How do we maintain our normal level of productivity?” It is actually, that won’t work. You are actually sabotaging your recovery. So actually what you would need to be saying to your team is, “Look, let’s learn.”
So try to accept that everything what we’ll do now with the team, having this remote working, having to reinvent or market, reconnect with our customers, everything will take 20 per cent more time, 20 per cent more effort. Let’s accept this. Let’s recalibrate with our team how we work together. What are the rules of the game here? And let’s just accept that maybe for a while we won’t be necessarily as productive as in previous months, but we’ll recover. That is the idea. And that will give people first, some sense of trust that we know what we’re doing, but also I’ll need to learn a bit. And so people will not be that hard on ourselves, but they’ll come into some sort of a learning mode. They will say, “Okay, it is accepted and I’m trusted that I can learn from this and I also get some time to do so.” And so I think making that message clear and giving a long term perspective will be a very good start in this period to work with your team.
Emma Lo Russo: Frederik that’s amazing. Good advice and great practises and exciting. Where’s your research taking you next?
Frederik Anseel: Actually, I’m very interested and I’m working with a couple of companies to just sort of follow companies and teams throughout that process and see the fluctuations and then try to identify now, what are the teams that recover most quickly? So, I’m really excited about that.
Emma Lo Russo: Perfect time to see, right? Thank you, Frederik.
Frederik Anseel: Thank you.
Emma Lo Russo: I hope you’ve enjoyed listening in to my conversations with our guests on this episode of The Business Of.
It’s interesting to observe the ways our attitudes to resilience have shifted over time. What was, historically, an idea grounded in stoicism and endurance is now better shaped on principles of empathy and vulnerability at all levels of leadership.
For me, it was the point Frederik made concerning motivation that put the realities of our current challenges into perspective. People can deal with frustration and disappointment as long as they feel they’re heading somewhere.
I think as business leaders we can all agree, it’s our responsibility to ‘pull focus’ on that feeling. As business leaders, I think we can all agree, that it is our responsibility to give them that purpose.
Talk to you next time, on The Business Of.