Resilience: a key to successful organizations

resilienceResilience—in organizations, structures and the human spirit—was the theme of a TIGERoadshow (Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy) hosted by the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in the City of London on 16 October. Initiatives of Change’s UK business programme collaborated with the St Ethelburga’s Centre and Relume, a leadership development organization, in organizing the event. Throughout the evening participants were encouraged to reflect on why resilience is so important and how it empowers and encourages people to challenge the existing paradigms in business and finance.

The speakers were:

  • Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of five businesses, a renowned businesswoman, a keynote speaker and author of A Bigger Prize and Wilful Blindness, the latter shortlisted by the FT and Goldman Sachs as one of the six best business books of 2011;
  • Claire Breeze, co-founder of the research and advisory firm Relume, and co-author of the Challenger Spirit, who runs a retreat in mindfulness and resilience;
  • Mark Goyder, speaker, author of Living Tomorrow’s Company, broadcaster, and Founding Director of Tomorrow’s Company, an agenda setting think-tank;
  • Wendy Addison, author, development coach, motivational speaker, and founder of Speakout-Speakup.


Margaret Heffernan speaks to a captivated audienceResilience is a favourite theme of Heffernan’s, as she discovered whilst writing Women on Top.  She heard stories about decisions and choices executives had to make under difficult circumstances, such as after 9/11. These choices were between what was good for the balance sheet and what was good for the business. ‘We can’t stop bad things happening to us but all we can do is try to build resilience that would allow us to recover from them,’ she said.

She gave participants insights into what are the attitudes, strategies, behaviour, values, culture and mechanisms that make organisations more resilient. The availability of cash makes a really big difference as well as values, she said. The fundamental issue is around people and cultures, which people generate, inhabit and amplify.

Heffernan highlighted the risks that lay in people. For everything else there are mechanisms which can help in solving issues, but the real risk were in people. She explored who were those people and what do they need? It was a much more challenging problem than it sounded; it was too easy to conclude that we just needed good people. Going out and hiring ethical, moral and courageous people was not enough, she said.

Heffernan shared her belief that both resilience and risk are in the people. The solution is to create conditions in which people can excel. Heffernan spoke about being wilfully blind—a situation created when something goes wrong, lots of people see it but nobody does anything about it. She also spoke about by-stand behaviour which happens when the more people know that something is wrong, the less likely they will intervene. The reason for this is that that everyone assumes that someone else will do something.

Heffernan expressed her concern about organisations that are full of people who are obedient, conformist, passive and silent. This creates the conditions in which many things can go terribly wrong despite it being public knowledge. Nothing happens to stop it, thus making the situation worse.

Organisations are creating competitive cultures which lead to people not wanting to collaborate between themselves, as people are colleagues but also direct competitors. Information is not shared in the workplace. This leads to an organisation not having a healthy information flow, resulting in lack of efficiency and trust.

Heffernan believed that if organizations create situations where people are aware of their ranking, this militates against them sharing information. She told about an experiment by Philip Lombardo, a leading social psychologist, who has done work on teaching children to speak up when there was something they didn’t like. The result of the experiment was if people dare to speak up, fantastic ideas can emerge.

Google was a good example as the company believes that the soul of innovation lies in people expressing even their worst ideas because, in the end, almost all great ideas have a bad start but only when shared and debated can they become great. However nobody is going to do that if they are afraid.

Mark Goyder suggested an interesting place to start thinking about resilience is bereavement, because what you see in bereavement is the ability to bounce back. Sharing the same idea as Heffernan, Goyder mentioned that resilience in organisations is built by people at those 9/11 moments, when they find ways of putting the organisation before themselves. It is these moments that are remembered as they are seen as a great legacy of sacrifice.

Breeze, whose Buddhist name is Genkai, expressed her thoughts about resilience as being a healthy sense of inner and outer regulation. She shared her concerns that, in organizations, resilience is often confused with endurance. Part of our responsibility is to be a witness to what is going on in the organisation rather than standing outside criticizing. Our job is to understand that people are fighting a great battle with themselves and with the systems.

Heffernan stated that around 85 per cent would tow the corporate line and would not whistleblow. She found that in the US the cause of this is a fear of retaliation from co-workers and supervisors, while in Europe the same study revealed the reason for not speaking out is futility, as employees believe that, even if they do voice their concerns, not much is going to change. Heffernan found both causes to be destructive for organisations.

An employee who did whistleblow was Wendy Addison, who told her extraordinary story. Being on the executive board in LeisureNet, a company based in South Africa, she discovered that two CEOs were embezzling millions of Rand into an offshore account in Jersey. When she expressed her concerns, she was fired and sought exile in the UK, due to death threats received from the people who wanted to protect their status quo.

Addison refused to turn a blind eye on the corruption, but there was a moral dilemma as the individuals she was whistleblowing on were not only her colleagues but friends. She chose to speak out. Something she couldn’t easily digest was why, having done the right thing, she lost her job and livelihood. She ended up begging on the streets in order to secure food for herself and her 12-year-old son. During those dark times, Addison re-examined what success meant to her and she realised that celebrating the small things in life is an important part of resilience.

Addison pointed out that part of resilience and survivorship is about reaching out. One of the most powerful lessons she had learnt on the streets was to ask a very significant question: ‘Can you help me?’ Asking for help is one of the most difficult things to do and is an important part of resilience. Nobody survives alone, not in an organisation or in the family.

The event concluded with the idea that the way we do things is as important as what we do and resilience in organizations depends on the honesty and integrity of our operations. Often when people whistleblow, they encourage others and that is how change occurs. Creating the correct conditions in order for people to feel safe is also an important part of the process.

As Margaret Heffernan put it: ‘The risk is in the people when they are silent and the resilience is in the people when they are safe.’

Report by Olesea Mirza
Photos by Talia Smith

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