Monday Morning Moan - resilience might not be something to brag about

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer May 31, 2021
Summary:
In all the talk about resilience lately, is anyone asking if resilience a good thing and why must we be resilient? Turns out, what you thought was a good characteristic might be covering up major executive flaws.

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Yes, everyone seems to be emphasizing their resilience, agility, scalability, etc. these days. The pandemic has seemingly unleashed a ton of bottled-up creativity, innovation and more. But, should we be celebrating this?

Let’s set the stage first. What is resilience anyway? Resilience can be something that can snap back into position. The other meaning, to snap back after something adverse has happened, is the main use of the word in this pandemic setting.

Of all of the pandemic-era pieces that have been written about resilience, this one by Laurie Ruettimann is a definite read. Why? Because Ruettimann takes the position that all of this self-congratulatory back-slapping regarding a company’s resiliency is wrong. Did that get your attention?

Here’s one of his soundbites:

When we praise individuals for resiliency, we let powerful people off the hook for creating unequal systems and unhealthy environments that compromise our abilities to exist and thrive in the first place.

As I thought about those words, I realized she’s right. We’re praising executives and colleagues for doing all sorts of Herculean things during the pandemic but many of those could have been avoided all along. Here are some avoidable (and foreseeable) examples:

  • Companies that never equipped workers to work from home (and resisted employee efforts to do so) and then had to scramble to find scarce modems, phones, laptops, etc.
  • Companies that kept their apps on-premises even though remotely accessible cloud apps have been around since the late 1990s.
  • Companies that overconcentrated their suppliers in one country (e.g., China) and were surprised when they had no domestic or nearshore sources of material.
  • Companies that leaned-out their supply chain so much that tiny aberrations in demand caused acute shortages for consumers (e.g., toilet paper, numerous food stuffs, etc.).
  • Restaurants that never bothered to create websites to permit online ordering of takeout food.
  • Restaurants that never considered mechanisms for takeout and meal delivery services.
  • Companies that never bothered to learn who their customers were and then had no way to communicate with them during the pandemic.
  • Buildings that were never designed to provide safe, germ-free air to occupants.
  • Doors and bathrooms that weren’t designed for people to use in a touchless manner.
  • Buildings with too few (and crowded) elevators.
  • Dense, open-office layouts that speed the distribution of germs.
  • Etc.

Too often companies make decisions that optimize short-term earnings and kick down the road any worries or contingencies for potential problems. For many firms whose CEOs know how short the tenure of a CEO can be, they love to gamble with the firm’s long-term future if it enhances corporate short-term earnings and CEO incentive pay.

We’ve had it backwards all along. We need to be congratulating those executives who help us have low/no drama workplaces. We need to thank those who anticipate/foresee potential issues and take steps to mitigate them. Seamless, uninterrupted operations are the cause for celebration not watching hordes of people pitching in for weeks or months trying to right the ship again. The goal should be steady, boring business as usual not frantic heroics.  Metaphorically, we need to thank those ship captains that go their entire career without ever running aground. They avoid bad weather, know their maps, etc. Boring beats heroic resiliency.

There’s a special kind of person many of us saw emerge during the pandemic: the vainglorious hero. I know one CFO who has been going to the office daily even though the company shifted to work from home (WFH) in late March 2020. In this person’s mind, if he can do this, why doesn’t every employee follow suit? It’s as if all the other employees are cowards and this executive is the only brave company person.

Okay, this thinking is wrong on many levels (especially from a public health/safety perspective) but it does explain the vicarious thrill some people get when they think what they’re doing is somehow heroic.  Is this another example of ‘resilient’ behavior? It is and it isn’t. For this executive, it does reflect how he was adapting to the pandemic. Unfortunately, his adaptation was to not change at all. Rigidity is actually the opposite of resiliency. Nostalgia, especially the kind that endangers other people’s health shouldn’t be celebrated.

Time for introspection

It’s time for firms and governments to face facts re: resiliency. Pandemics aren’t new. They’ve been around throughout the history of mankind. The fact that so few organizations had plans for such an event is unconscionable. If you think that’s a bit harsh, remember we live in a world with SARS, Ebola, Hantavirus and more.   We also live in a world with highly interdependent global supply chains where a fire, earthquake, etc. that affects just one key plant can wreak havoc across the planet.

Much of the resiliency out there is due to a lack of planning. Yes, some freak things can happen that might not be foreseeable and we must rise to the occasion. For example, joyriding teenagers somehow managed to jump their VW Jetta over (that’s right, OVER) a 5-strand barbed wire fence on our ranch one evening. We weren’t there to help out but our ever-resilient neighbors on the adjacent ranch came over to help the sheriff’s deputies extricate the car from our pasture (BTW – no one was hurt). I defy anyone to have anticipated that event.

But many of the events this last year were foreseeable and too few firms were ready for it.

If your firm bounces from one crisis to another, it likely:

  • Asks people to work a lot of overtime.
  • Overly rewards people for short-term results at the expense of long-term value creation.
  • Makes people cancel vacations and training so that newfound work gets completed.
  • Has a culture, recruiting and morale problem.
  • Makes dealing with daily emergencies the norm not an exception.
  • Honors employees who sacrifice their personal lives and families in the service of the firm.
  • Isn’t a best place to work.

Your firm’s leaders may also be:

  • Negligent.
  • Taking advantage of employees.
  • Poor planners.
  • Overly focused on the short-term.
  • Etc.

And all of the above begs the question: What’s your firm going to do about it?

My take

Not every executive is aware of their environment (i.e., to be cosmopolitan) and they like going through live blissfully unaware of what’s going on. I’ve actually met people who haven’t read a book since high school or college.  Naïve leaders are toxic to firms. They don’t see and don’t address risks until it’s too late.

If you’re not in charge, there’s not much you can do to make your firm less stressful and resilient. I’ve had some success in my career by creating lots of flexibility in remote work, redundancy in work technology, etc. But my efforts only went as far as my organizational unit.

What you can do is create the conditions where people will want to come to work for years longer than they would have otherwise. That means creating an environment they can depend on and enjoy.

But for many people, the only thing they can do is find a better employer. And, right now, there are lots of firms looking to add to their ranks. Get moving folks!