Thrive or Survive? Enabling Personal Growth in Times of Adversity

Read Time:10 Minute

If we look at events from 1400 to the present, we can discern a common factor—and that is, these are once in a century events that have the power to shape the next one to two decades, in both lives and livelihood. Most people suffer from post-traumatic stress. Research shows that for many individuals, adversity is an opportunity for growth. So, a fair number of people experience post-traumatic growth. How can we achieve this? Gary Hamel says, “You can’t find new land using old map.” We need new leadership to take us forward.

Character is Greater Than Experience
We can approach the present crisis with a fixed mindset (which is one of ignorance, hate and fear) or growth mindset (which is of curiosity, compassion and courage). The choice to learn and grow is ours. When the Tylenol poisoning crisis hit Johnson & Johnson, the CEO James Burke swung into action and decided to withdraw the entire lot, even though only a few batches were affected. They suffered millions of dollars in losses, yet after a few months, their sales began to rise again, because of the trust people had in the company. For Jamshedji Tata, it took 33 years to get permission from the British to build a steel plant in India. Yet, he pursed it. That is what we mean by character.

Five Leadership Lessons
Bounded Optimism: This concept comes from Admiral James Stockdale, who was an American Prisoner of War in Vietnam where he was repeatedly tortured. He observed that fellow POWs who were very optimistic of survival, died. The pessimistic people too died. The ones who survived were those who had faith that they would survive but prepared for the worst. In a crisis like Covid, we saw both extremes of people. A leader must have faith and optimism but that should not stop him from being prepared for any eventuality. He must focus on what he can control. The other important factor, to quote Tom Schwartz is, “Energy, not time is the fundamental currency of performance.” On a Performance Vs. Emotions Quadrant, the Performance Zone is the one in which our performance is high and we have positive emotions. In the Survival Zone, our performance is high but we have negative emotions. If we continue here, we may end up in the Burnout Zone, where we deliver low performance, while having negative emotions. In the Recovery Zone, we have positive emotions and deliver low performance. In this zone, we are relaxed and peaceful. It is not possible for us to always stay in the Performance Zone. The awareness of what gives us energy and what drains our energy helps us to manage our energy levels. So, instead of time management, the new paradigm, i.e., energy management is more important.

Pause, Then Act: Involve others in the decision process. We need to be aware of our triggers. ‘Between stimulus and response, lies our freedom of choice (Viktor Frankl).’ It is between these two that we need to give a pause.

Empathy and Love: Show love, care and gratitude.

Communicate: Have one story, one voice and repeat it many times till it trickles down; communicate in one voice and transparently. There is a difference between a plan and story. A plan is what we show in a PowerPoint and is the shortest path to get from Point A to B. A story is the most interesting path to get from A to B and it gives hope. To explain where you are going, tell people your plan. However, to inspire them, tell them your story.

Have a Network of Teams: Involve more people in the process. Get their inputs and push decisions to the edge. n

Faridun: Why is leadership so important in a crisis?

Dr Jairam: Leadership has to exist across the organisation and not just at the top. It’s about enabling the execution of the agenda. It is about people and excellence. The leader is the custodian of the purpose of organisation. In a crisis, the asymmetry of information causes great uncertainty. The leader’s role is to bring a certain point of view and clarity.

Santhanam: I would like to give a human analogy. We have the Corpus Callosum which connects the Left and Right brains. Leadership is about connecting the emotional state of the people in a crisis, with a rational response or a series of responses. Distributive leadership is central to managing a crisis.

Faridun: What is different in how people lead during turbulence?

Santhanam: It is very important for a leader to give a point of view. It can change depending on the situation. The leader must prepare his team to face multiple scenarios. The leader must encourage people to act swiftly without fear of failure.

Dr Jairam: The leader’s role in a crisis is to assure his team that he is there and that he will back them. When a spacecraft is having problem and the crew hear the voice, “Houston calling,” it gives so much relief to them. The leader’s role is to give that comfort of ‘Houston calling.’ The leader must lead from the front.

Faridun: Is the leader expected to have all the answers?

Santhanam: I don’t think so and it’s a faulty assumption. All that the leader can have is a range of possibilities and a range of possible actions. The company does not expect the leader to have all the answers. However, authentic leadership is needed. Together with his team, the leader can discover all the answers.

Dr Jairam: The leader must have confident vulnerability, than knee-shaking vulnerability. If he has all the answers, then people will become suspicious of him. Super heroes don’t exist in real life. The leader must have the ability to ask deep, probing questions, rather than having all the answers.

Faridun: Why is empathy so important and how can leaders show empathy during times of crises?

Santhanam: If the enterprise wants to be successful, the leader must put himself in the shoes of the employees, customers and various stakeholders. During Covid crisis, 30% of our employees worked at the factory and they worked extraordinarily hard. The rest 70% worked from home and some of them did not have that much work. But it is important for us to take care of this 70%, understanding their vulnerability, as much as we take care of the other 30%. We made sure that there were no pay cuts, and increments were given. These are little things that companies can do and demonstrate empathy.

The company does not expect the leader to have all the answers. However, authentic leadership is needed. Together with his team, the leader can discover all the answers. ~ B Santhanam

Dr Jairam: The level of stress for any individual during a crisis is very high. Everything is uncertain. We need to understand their situation. This is not just required of good leaders but of good human beings. Empathy is a foundational human quality.

Faridun: There is an increasing amount of pressure on those who work from home, leading to stress and anxiety. There are inherent limitations of working from home. How does your organisation handle this?

Santhanam: Once we started WFH mode, in our digital town hall meeting, we said, “We are intruding into your privacy; we respect your home.” During one of our online discussions, a child came into the frame to talk to the father. We immediately stopped our official discussions and engaged with the child for a couple of minutes. It was a spontaneous gesture and made a huge impact. We also made sure, quite early into WFH, to restrict our work between 9:30 and 5:30.

Dr Jairam: Work from home is an opportunity and definitely, it should not be abused. You can’t have a one-size-fits all solution for WFH. You must have a very segmented and flexible approach. It’s okay if employees don’t come on video. On WFH, the jury is still out and no one has a clear formula. There are lots of theories, trials and testing going on.

Faridun: How can we make our students more employable?

If leaders can simulate a crisis situation when the crisis is not there, it helps in managing a crisis in a much better way. ~ Dr Jairam

Santhanam: Thanks to privatisation of engineering education, we have 10x more talented people. We find them significantly better than what we were at that age. A major portion of our digital transformation is done by 25-year-old employees. Our company is in growth phase and we are looking for talent. Post-Covid, there would be a growth phase for many firms and it means a burst of opportunities for youngsters.

Dr Jairam: I also do not agree that our students are not employable. What is important is the value of employment. Government has come out with a huge platform for skilling. Students must make use of them to skill themselves adequately.

Faridun: How is decision-making different in a crisis?

Santhanam: It is based on evaluation of probabilistic scenarios. You don’t put a strong analytical value to a decision. We need to prepare the organisation for the most likely scenarios and explain to people about the various possibilities.

Dr Jairam: In a crisis, many options are not readily available. Plan B mode of working has to be in place. The chances of implementing innovative solutions are high in a crisis, and this gives lot of confidence to the people. If leaders can simulate a crisis situation when the crisis is not there, it helps in managing a crisis in a much better way.

Faridun: How do you handle communication and storytelling in your organisation?

Santhanam: Historically, leaders have used PowerPoint as a tool. It doesn’t capture the imagination of the people nor inspire them. So companies for the last few decades have been focussing on narratives and story-telling. The narrative we used for this crisis was a four-phased action plan. Phase -1 was about Survival. Phase 2 was Revival. Phase 3 was Improvisation and Phase 4 was Thriving. We realised that once we developed this narrative, people at once understood what phase they were in and responded. The thread of stories motivates employees.

Dr Jairam: Story-telling is very important. First, you need to tell the story to yourself standing in front of a mirror and keep repeating it till you get the visceral emotions of that story. Tell that story with credibility. We can take the help of history and draw out the positive aspects from similar situations that happened in the past and share those stories.

Faridun: How can leaders manage their own composure and energy?
Santhanam: In one of our townhall meetings, I got a feedback from my colleague that I sounded anxious. This input really helped me. I moved from a frame of managing anxiety to managing my energy. The shift happened because of the honest and authentic feedback of my colleague. In a crisis, be open and expand your circle of people who can give feedback. One month into the crisis, we realised the huge opportunities and that gave us fresh energy. During the crisis, our employee engagement level was significantly higher.

Dr Jairam: We went through a period of tremendous uncertainty. Then we accepted the reality. We did a series of videos of people talking and sharing their experiences. This helped the employees to regain confidence and understand that things were not as bad as they feared.

Faridun: How can we use such crisis to learn and grow?
Santhanam: During the crisis, we strongly crafted the purpose of the organisation. We are a 350-year-old company and it took us so many years to come out with our purpose. During this phase, we had numerous engagements with our various units across the globe to work on our purpose. It ensured rapid transformation to digital. On March 12, we shutdown our plant and at that time, we had WebEx. On March 15, we had Microsoft Teams by which we could talk to 5000 people. Such digital transformation normally take 18 months to happen in Saint Gobain. People adopted it like duck to water. The customers too adopted digital. We went beyond B2B and looked at B2C models.

Gender diversity was always a challenge for us and we could not attract women employees in our manufacturing set-up. Digitalisation and WFH have changed our mindset about gender diversity in the group. We also reached out to our customers, vendors and partners. All these happened in a very short time.

Dr Jairam: Normally, we look at vertical alignment in an organisation. But the Covid crisis has exposed the criticality of horizontal alignment, across all stakeholders in the larger eco-system. As a result, we completely transformed the way we worked and it brought tremendous value to the organisation.