Building resilience creates agile leadership

For the first nine years of my professional career I was a high school teacher.  The very first year of that teaching career was like living through a bad reality TV series, except it all happened without any staging. The adage ‘You can’t make this up’ comes to mind. It did mean though that whatever came after this, did not faze me too much.

Imagine this as a scenario in an Outer Suburban Sydney high school (OSH): a new co-educational school opened but without any buildings—they were not ready on time.

Instead, more than 580 year 7 and 8 students are allocated, across three other schools, for the first five months of the school year.

The area is of course, one of Sydney’s lowest in socio-economic terms at the time.

There are 8-streamed classes at OSH in each of those years (think in terms of Year 7A to 7H, Year 8A to 8H).  

Of the 25 staff, 17 are ‘first year out’ teachers mostly aged 20-22.

Of the other staff, the Principal and Deputy had never held roles at that level before, and they had only been at single-sex boys’ schools, having come from tech and trade teaching backgrounds.

Of the remaining teachers allocated to the school, most were ‘volunteered’ by neighboring schools, from those they ‘no longer required’. Thus, they tended to be an eclectic collection of those who had not quite ‘fitted in’ anywhere else to date.

The science teachers had no laboratories. The ‘first year out’ teacher-librarian had no library. Despite this she has to take 16 ‘library classes’ in these temporary classes scattered across the district and 6 ‘music classes’.

I was that teacher-librarian and it was a challenging way to start a teaching career.

We did eventually get our classrooms and resource centre midway through the year, but we had no idea what was coming when. Creativity and a positive outlook were in high demand, but not always there.

For most of us new teachers there was one of two outcomes: the first was early departure from the teaching profession (in some cases accompanied by a nervous breakdown); the second was survival and the building of a level of resilience, even if you didn’t quite know what you were doing at the time.

Life is about how well you bounce

A key attribute most employers are looking for is a good level of resilience, and of course it is critical if you are leading others, in early stage businesses or when a business is in trouble.

I learnt long ago that there are no perfect organisations and no perfect roles. Every organisation has its foibles and challenges. The issue is more how we deal with them and well we ‘bounce’, deal with, or recover from situations.  

If you have not been really ‘tested’ in a role, perhaps with a lousy culture, poor leadership or a difficult business situation, you probably won’t have grown at the rate that others might have. You might be surprised at how negative things can get later on in your career, and find it more challenging to deal with.

We often ask candidates and participants in our work about some of their more challenging work-related situations.  What they choose to share is fascinating, but of more interest to us, is ‘What did you learn from that’?  

I guess I learnt to ‘make do’, to share the challenges we had with the students, and to seek whatever assistance I could from other colleagues or schools. I learnt that you sometimes just need to take action.  I learnt the importance of ‘speaking up’ and making representations ‘up the hierarchy’. It was not about being dramatic, but about raising the issue of ‘fairness’ and not acquiescing in what we were experiencing.

As Christine Kilpatrick, Chief Executive Officer at Melbourne Health has noted: “it is always the people issues that build your resilience.”  

Resilience is always put to good uses

In my current role, working with candidates and organisations, I do my best to explain potential new roles, as they really are—warts and all.

That usually works out well, as the best candidates really do want a challenge.

However, my first two months at Gartner (the first time) represented much more of a challenge than I had realised. But reality came hurtling to greet me in the first two weeks.

The Executive Programs business, a special service for senior clients that I just been appointed to lead, had started the year before.

Most renewals were due in April, a few months away. On about day 8 in my new role, I learned that of the 29 clients spread right across Australia, 27 had indicated their intention not to renew.

This was quite a shock. What had I done taking this on, and why hadn’t anyone explained this to me?  

After taking time to absorb this, we brainstormed what could be done and it became clear that I needed to visit every one of those clients over the next three weeks.

One client in particular, Frank, was known to be unhappy and he was a considerable influencer with other clients. I knew Frank through my MBS work, so thought he would be sympathetic and a good place to start.

In our meeting, I listened hard to him, apologised for what had not been done, suggested some ways I was approaching the role and services, and asked him what it would take to convince him we were serious.  

I then repeated this with the other 28 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) over the next few weeks.

We also quickly organised some workshops that had real content, with some good speakers from outside the company, and started to address a backlog of research queries.

The result was that, come April, we lost only one client, and she impressed upon us that it was a budget issue, not the service. Frank had played his ‘influencer’ role and asked the doubters to give us another chance.

I learnt that amongst my strengths are facing up to the reality of a difficult situation, having the difficult conversations internally and with clients, and then doing what I say I would do.

I could not have done it without a lot of support internally and that required building relationships quickly, including understanding enough about my colleagues to know who could help in areas with which I was quite unfamiliar.

Sometimes, the need for resilience goes much deeper.  

Kathryn Fagg experienced the need for a different type of resilience when there was a fatality in a business that she led.

The impact on her and on the business was profound and emotionally challenging. Staying strong and calm was critical for everyone, while focusing on lessons and changes needed.

As a result, there was a shift in the company and the industry from one where ‘accidents do happen’ to one where ‘all accidents can be prevented’.

Resilience is the ability to persevere and bounce back in the face of challenges. As Vivian Komori, CEO at The Broad Perspective has noted: ‘Life is not about how fast you run, or how high you climb, but how well you bounce’.

Consider sharing one of your more challenging work-related situations in the comments field below. What did you learn from that?

Adapted from: The Agile Executive: Embracing Career Risks and Rewards by Marianne Broadbent

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