Resilience has emerged as a defining characteristic among leaders of high performing businesses. The ability to respond to market disruption, changing consumer demands and new technologies are key to ensuring the future success of an organisation.
This was a major discussion point during Criticaleye’s recent CEO Retreat, held in partnership with Cognizant and Eton Bridge Partners. Chief executives were joined by Chairs, non-executives and other C-suite leaders from across the business spectrum to consider operational, strategic, cultural and personal resilience in detail.
Andrew Murphy, Chief Operating Officer at the John Lewis Partnership, talked up the importance of strategic resilience in the context of preparing for the future in the current moment, even when things are going well. “It’s very often at the period of your maximum success that you're probably overlooking the thing to focus on for the future,” he said.
It might be fair to suggest that prior to the pandemic, there was a degree of complacency among business leaders with regards to crisis management and business continuity. However, it’s clear that the Covid-19 experience has triggered a refreshed focus on building out greater strategic resilience before the next crisis arrives.
“From my entire 30-year career, I had a belief about what was possible and what was reasonable. The pandemic meant I had to completely reassemble that,” Andrew recalled. “Acting with that degree of conviction, but without the urgency of a truly existential threat and shared mission that Covid brought, is really difficult. But I think that will be my mindset now for the rest of my career.”
For Sheila Khama, Non-executive Director at Tullow Oil and a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, resilience is about adaptation. “I think it’s the ability to adapt, but not in the moment. Adapting in the absence of something that is imminent – in the absence of an emergency. [It’s about] imagining the dangers that haven't yet happened, and investing sufficiently so that value can then be extracted when it happens. My sense is that leaders who are able to see that, and can adapt to that mindset, perform much better.”
The idea of maintaining a flexible approach to strategy and ‘stress testing’ was further built out by Rohit Gupta, Senior Vice President and UK&I Managing Director for Cognizant: “I think you need to have an open mind when you’re looking at creating a strategy which is flexible,” he said. “There still has to be a roadmap that you're sticking to, but you need the ability to also react. You cannot foresee everything, but through the process of stress testing you can better react to things you haven’t catered for.”
There was also much talk about the role of purpose in strengthening group-wide resilience. Without a clearly articulated purpose, a business will struggle to retain and attract key talent, running the risk of falling behind competitors and potentially losing customers. “I think purpose could be the most strategic part of the business that’s not changing on a daily basis,” Rohit said.
“I spoke recently about how social value and purpose can help in attracting and engaging employees. Our data shows that the volunteering initiatives we’ve been running in the last two years have increased our retention rate. Our purpose is our North Star. It’s something everyone in the company needs to value and demonstrate every day.”
This ‘North Star’ analogy was echoed by Sheila: “Your purpose allows you to attract partners, whether it is in the supply space or your employees, because what you're looking for is likeness of mind. What you're looking for is a North Star that speaks to everyone. And your purpose is that North Star. [It’s] your basic guiding principles, operationally and strategically.”
It’s crucial for a company to demonstrate what it exists for in a broader sense, rather than just the financial nuts and bolts, said Andrew. “The challenge is you also have to take that beyond simply an expression of ‘purpose’ and articulate very clearly a means to deliver it through a business strategy and tangible deliverables,” he explained.
The Board plays an indispensable role in building out resilience at the top level of the organisations they work with. Matthew Blagg, Criticaleye CEO, said: “You’ve really got to know the business intimately and what high performance looks like in the context of where it currently sits. If the Board hasn’t got that bit right and there is a lack of alignment between the Board and the executive, then I think you’ve got a troubling period ahead.”
A proactive Board also understands what is happening on the ground, without stepping on the toes of the executive team, which is fundamental in building trust and resilient relationships. “I think a good Board also uses and deploys the Chair effectively and the relationship between the Chair and the CEO to strengthen trust,” Sheila said.
“Because if information isn’t coming through to the Board it might be because you have an overambitious CEO who might perceive themselves to be potentially leading the Board. And it’s the Chair’s ability to see that and nip it in the bud as quickly as possible that’s important to maintaining trust.”
The subject of personal resilience also came to the fore in discussions at the Retreat, particularly given the broad feeling that executives have been leading businesses through a state of ‘permacrisis’ during the last several years.
Andrew hailed the role of ‘personal support networks’ – friends, family, hobbies – in helping him get through the recent challenges thrusted upon his professional life, while Sheila explained the process of learning her values and the limits of what she is capable of. Matthew recognised that the world is only becoming more complex and therefore leadership teams will have to learn to “thrive throughout ambiguity and be prepared to challenge themselves faster and more than before”.
Jacob Ambrose Willson, Senior Editor, Criticaleye