Resiliency: the secret ingredient in 2010?

Recently I had the fabulous opportunity to build a workshop with a colleague around the topic of Resiliency. It was a topic in which I have personally grown very familiar over the past several years. Yet, frankly, I had not directly translated my personal experiences of ‘bouncing back’ to the criticality of this same capability to teams, organizations, and companies.

So today, we are going to explore the concept of ‘resiliency’ and how embracing change with a resilient attitude and approach can redefine our trajectory and ultimately our outcomes in the face of change!  Let’s start with a story in which many of you may be familiar:

A young man went to his mentor and told him how difficult things at work had become. He did not know how he was going to survive all of the change that was happening around him and demands that were being put on him. Every time he felt he had successfully navigated one change, another even bigger one was fast on its heels. Every time he met one demand, another one was put on his already “full plate.” He was struggling to be upbeat, positive and a team player, and he knew his boss and co-workers were aware of his trouble.

His mentor told him to meet him in the employee break room that afternoon. The young man wondered what could possibly help him that was kept in the break room; nevertheless, he went. His mentor had already arrived with several supplies. He filled three pots with water and placed each on a burner on the break room stove. Soon the pots came to boil.

In the first pot he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs, and in the last he placed a bag of ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out of the water and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in another bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out and placed it in a third bowl.

Turning to the young man, he asked, “Tell me what you see?”

“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” he replied.

The mentor brought him closer and told him to feel the carrots. He did and noted that they were soft.

The mentor then told the young man to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, he observed the hardboiled egg.

Finally, the mentor asked the young man to sip the coffee. The young man smiled as he tasted its rich aroma.

The young man then asked his mentor, “What does all this mean?”

The mentor explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, firm, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were the most unique. They had changed the water.

“So which are you?” asked the mentor. “When change knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?”

“Which am I?” the young man asked himself.

Am I like the carrots that seem strong, but, with challenge, wilt and become weak and lose strength?  Do I become the one who fails to take ownership, makes excuses for being weak and ineffective and looks for others to blame?

Or am I like the egg that begins with a malleable perspective on the inside, but changes with the heat? Did I allow the change to make me hardened?  Am I bitter and refuse to communicate, staying in my shell and disengaging?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water. When the water gets hot, it releases the color, fragrance and flavor. The coffee bean is the one who looks at change and demands as a way of bringing out its best. It sees the uncomfortable nature of change and charges ahead anyway, knowing that the reward is delicious.

I love that story! It goes without saying that last year brought change like many of us have never experienced in our lifetime. It also is fairly safe to assume this decade will continue to introduce change, possible adversity or, if we choose – opportunity. Which one will you choose to be – the carrot, the egg, or the coffee bean?

We can learn a lot from role models – both individuals and organizations – who have taken the inevitable constant of change – and met it with a strong set of eyes. Consider these examples:

  • A dowdily dressed Susan Boyle set an example for people everywhere by refusing to let limitations and other people’s expectations strand her on the sidelines of life. She walked onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent amid boos and laughter but took the world by storm. Her popularity, fueled in part by a video of her riveting performance of I Dreamed a Dream, led to a breakthrough career for this 48-year-old Scottish singer. Her first album has broken all records for a new release and has now gone triple platinum.
  • In the late 1800’s, Helen Keller, born deaf and blind, became the first deaf/blind individual to graduate from university – and ultimately publish over 12 books. She was a noted speaker and activist and ultimately won many awards for activism for people with disabilities.
  • Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who lived for over two years in the back of a storeroom in Nazi Germany to avoid capture and death; and whose resilient spirit and book has been interpreted into many languages and is now one of the most widely distributed books in history.
  • The Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was confined to her home for 14 out of the past 20 years for founding the Democratic party in her country to help free the Burmese people and encourage democracy.
  • Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa was imprisoned for 27 years on Robbins Island due to his efforts to end apartheid. Ultimately he won the Nobel Peace Prize and helped to lead his country into a multi-racial democracy.

These are just a few diverse examples of individuals and leaders who have weathered rough storms to set incredible examples due to their resilient spirits, their ability to ‘bounce back’ and endure despite unimaginable odds. And look at the impact they have had on the world!

What about companies and organizations? The current economic climate is not for the faint of heart. Who will survive the face of change in this decade? Let’s take a look at just a few of top 50 companies from 2009, as referenced in Business Week – who have shown incredible creativity and resiliency in the face of market changes:

  • Coca Cola: In a hard year for fizzy drink makers, COKE gained luster. Credit the über-successful Coke Zero, a no-cal beverage with a more macho image than Diet Coke. It changed to respond to its buyer’s needs and wants.
  • General Electric painted itself green with its “ecomagination” crusade. Now it aims to color itself healthy by pushing health-care solutions in underserved markets. It is virtually re-inventing itself to capitalize on the market movement and momentum toward ‘green.’
  • The downturn heightened the appeal of McDonald’s low-priced fare, particularly in Britain and France, while new McCafé coffee drinks have perked up sales. They are taking the opportunity to expand and broaden their product offering.
  • Hewlett-Packard extended its lead over Dell and weathered the economic downturn better than most tech companies, thanks to its acquisition of services provider EDS. Reinvention – expansion of offerings – and again, changing the game to their benefit.
  • As marketing restrictions tighten in the U.S. – and the ‘health craze’ threatens most tobacco companies, Marlboro continues to push hard in emerging markets from Asia to Russia and win over millions of smokers.
  • American Express was hurt by the financial crisis and so many of their accounts have gone bad. This aspirational company is bolstering loyalty programs and reviewing its card portfolio to get rid of riskier account holders. Amex is capitalizing on the disruption and taking advantage of the situation to improve their long-term ability to rebound.

These are just a few examples. There are many more all over the world. So, what are a few steps you can take – individually and collectively – to embrace resiliency and take advantage of change rather than cower from it?

  • Culture Counts – insure that there is a clear purpose and a core set of values or guiding principles that is customer focused and reflects current reality.
  • No One Left Behind – build a sense of community that lets people know that they are valued and respected. Create an environment characterized by support, trust, and open communications.
  • Invest in What Could Be – balance the traditional focus on performance and productivity with a focus on “what could be.”  Encourage innovation by allocating funds and talent to exploration of new ideas.
  • Draw strength from others – develop supportive and caring relationships that you can rely on during stressful times.
  • Practice self-care – take care of yourself. Your health, fitness and mental well-being give you the strength and balance to deal with difficult situations. Exercise, eat well and schedule time to relax and reflect.
  • Change the frame – reframe the challenge as an opportunity and visualize a positive outcome that converts misfortune into good fortune.  Be a victor not a victim!
  • Finally, as you may recall from a previous blog, we need to remember what we can control. All we can control are our ABC’s –  our attitudes, behaviors and choices. While we cannot change events, we can control how we react. We can accept and embrace the reality of change.

In closing, I want to offer a quote from leadership guru Warren Bennis:

“The leaders I meet, whatever walk of life they are from, whatever institutions they are presiding over, always refer back to the same failure; something that happened to them that was personally difficult, even traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom. That ‘something’ they thought was almost a necessity. It’s as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.”

Our moment is now. You can either cower from or capitalize on the changes you (and I along with you) will face. What choice will you make?