When Michael Bloomberg became Mayor of New York he was asked ‘what have you achieved in your first 100 days?’ ‘I built my team.’, came the reply. ‘Yes, but what policies or legislation did you change, what did you accomplish?’ ‘I built my team’. He later commented that ‘the press, never got the concept’.
Hiring the right people and building a capable and resilient team is the most important thing any leader can do. Because when fast-moving and complex events take hold there is just too much for a single person to do. This certainly applies to the President or the Prime Minister and to the CEOs of large corporate entities. It also applies equally to small businesses or family offices where key individuals can have a range of responsibilities as part of a tight group. It’s too late to hire and build a team as crisis or setback ensues.
Strategy isn’t just for the big boys.
If my organisation, however small, was under an existential threat then for me that would be pretty strategic. And in that situation I would want to deliver a fitting response: proportionate, rigorous, timely and decisive. But how could I make that happen?
Resilience in a crisis starts with getting the basics right, day to day. I’d need a cohesive team, comprised of people I trust, and who also trust me. That team would need to be focusing on results, assuming collective accountability, happily handling challenge or conflict between us and putting our collective goals ahead of personal aspirations.
Only with that trust, and confidence that the team is coherent and aligned with my clearly laid out strategic direction and shorter term goals, could I give leave the team to get on with the job. I’d want each individual to understand their freedoms and constraints so they could exercise their responsibilities in an accountable way, without reference to me. Of course, if they were unsure they could come and seek advice; but to become fully effective we all need to get used to owning the risks attached to our decisions. That’s what responsibility is all about. This type of delegation certainly focuses peoples’ thinking and gets more minds on the job. It’s proven to be good for innovation and agility too.
Given the choice wouldn’t everybody do this?
Alas not. There are plenty of organisations that crave control and hold decision making at the top. This is neither conducive to efficient working, especially when the pressure comes on, nor to creating a motivated team or workforce. Indeed, it runs counter to the Bloomberg doctrine: build the team. Why worry about building a strong team so you can cope with multiple pressures in a complex crisis if you are not going to delegate the handling of those challenges, at least to a reasonable extent?
Covid-19 has exposed the lack of capability in some over-centralised and under-prepared organisations in a fairly ruthless fashion. The response to the pandemic has exploded the myth of western exceptionalism and has exposed some questionable leadership habits. In those nations where hubris may initially have delayed the response to the virus, both the medical and economic costs have been punishing, few more so than in UK.
The most capable leadership teams are resilient; they prepare for crises by subjecting themselves to stress tests; they design for setbacks by building the collective temperament to deal with them. Many of us have risk registers with those heat maps to get us thinking about scenarios which trigger the necessary contingency planning. This can be a useful approach to mitigating risk, but it is constrained by our imagination. It doesn’t help us with the events we don’t or can’t credibly anticipate.
Genuine resilience stems from the ability to handle the pressures of a crisis by applying method, coupled with mental strength.
Military experience is instructive here. The method is pretty straightforward: first, what problem are we trying to solve, based on access to the best information and assessment? Second, what are our options, evaluated in terms of risk, cost, impact and performance? Third, which option are we going to pick, then implement, doing whatever is necessary to achieve success?
The mental element comes from conditioning through training under pressure. Organisations, like ours at Amicus, can support your business with a range of scenarios that will expose individuals and teams to simulated pressure over a period of a few hours. The experience will alert people to their own personal response and they will also see how the team is likely to behave in a crisis. Their collective capacity to handle setbacks will be considerably enhanced, and the payback will accrue just as much for more routine operations too.
All teams should look at building their capability through enhancing their resilience; it’s up to us as leaders to make sure they do.
Sir Peter Wall and Jennifer Carnegie are co-founders of Amicus limited, which advises executive teams on the cohesion and resilience necessary to ensure optimal performance. Based on real-life events, Operation Phoenix is a crisis response simulation that your team can complete within a half day. Amicus is also expert at developing executive team effectiveness, cohesion and diversity of thought. For more information please get in touch.