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4 ways to build resilience, according to CEOs who succeeded despite COVID-19

The CEOs of Siemens and Carbon share their best practices for building resilience in any team or organization.

4 ways to build resilience, according to CEOs who succeeded despite COVID-19
[Source image: kieferpix/iStock]
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After a year like 2020, it’s no wonder people prize resilience. The trait has helped many organizations weather the triple punches of health, economic, and cultural crises. But how does an organization develop and encourage resilience—not just among its workforce but throughout all of its processes?

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Speaking at a workshop during Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies Summit today, Siemens president and CEO Barbara Humpton, who leads a workforce of 40,000 and is at the helm of a concentrated effort to create safer indoor spaces, was joined by Carbon’s president and CEO, Ellen Kullman. Carbon rapidly pivoted last year to develop the Resolution Medical Lattice Swab for COVID-19 testing.

The leaders offered their observations on the concept of “antifragility,” a term that was introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile. It’s defined as “a property of systems in which they increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Both Kullman and Humpton used that as a starting point to detail their own best practices for weathering any storm.

Take a look at where you’ve been

Kullman and Humpton began by culling from their previous work experience various times that tested their mettle. Both were quick to mention that having children played a huge part in their ability to roll with disruption. But from a professional perspective, Kullman, an engineer and a veteran of DuPont, recalled the devastating impact that Hurricane Katrina had on one of its plants in Mississippi and how everyone immediately pulled together to help first responders help other citizens in peril in the aftermath.

Humpton remembered being brought in to lead a struggling team working on GPS at IBM and taking them through to finally delivering on the project. “[You become] better creating more success because of what you experience and learn,” said Kullman.

Understand what’s in your control

For both, these recollections served as valuable lessons in being able to understand what a person and team are capable of when they are under significant stress. “I created a mantra,” said Kullman—”‘Focus on what you can control and create a new trajectory.'” The former, she said, goes a long way to combat the feeling of helplessness during events such as natural disasters that are beyond anyone’s control.

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Humpton agreed about the importance of identifying what you can control. She also pointed out that in addition to IQ and EQ, she likes to lean into DQ. The “disruption quotient” is just as necessary for creating resilience as both intellectual and emotional intelligence. DQ captures “people who are gluttons for change,” she said, who will be able to surf the waves of crisis. “People who said ‘Call me when it is over’ aren’t performing in leadership,” Humpton maintained.

Take a beat

One of the things that people tend to do in challenging times is to react by holding their breath, said Humpton with a sharp and audible inhale. This is when it helps to remember to pause and ask yourself, “Is this something I control or not? If not,” she said, “it’s just news.” Then it’s easier to make a choice about how to react.

Kullman noted that breathing and thinking about how to react is very much a learned trait. She uses it as an opportunity to stay collected. “If you have calmness,” she said, then you can use collaboration skills to enable others to act with thoughtful determination.

For her part, Humpton says being able to stay focused and not reactive allows her to help others get the resources they need to get their jobs done. She likened it to being “in the zone” because “you are applying your best self.”

Internalize lessons

Kullman is a proponent of postmortems, as long as they happen “in calm of day, after the darkness passed.” After a challenging time, she likes to bring teams together to go over what they learned and, more importantly, to ask themselves what they would have done differently if they knew then what they know now. It’s crucial to make it safe to say anything, she underscored, and she noted that leaders needed to show vulnerability to be part of the team, create camaraderie, and change what needs to change going forward.

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Humpton didn’t completely agree with holding debriefs. “It doesn’t help too much to look backward,” she said, particularly when working with engineers. She said they instead looked forward during COVID-19 by creating a document called Agenda 2030, which would serve as a guide for them to start developing what would be needed to address future markets.

Coming through the first and second waves of the pandemic, Humpton said it helped “just to get people thinking creatively about where you go. It’s lessons learned but with a forward-looking spirit to them.” This keeps teams inspired to move on, she said. And it keeps them resilient and flexible. Bottom line, said Humpton, “In a moment of disruption, people want to be helpful, and to know they’re needed and essential.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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