Placing resilience at the core of leadership

brown game pieces on white surface

For its 2021 ‘word of the year’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary chose ‘vaccine’ – because, said the announcement, of the exponential rise in searches for the word, the multiple layers of new meaning it had acquired, and the fact that “few words can express so much about one moment in time.”

While the vaccine was the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, ‘resilience’ was the quality that got us through it, on both the personal and professional levels. It’s a word that continues to resonate in a world enduring ongoing geo-political strife, an energy crisis, the accelerating impact of climate change and the challenges the business sector faces as a result of instability.

Organizational resilience was a focus in business management well before Covid-19. Research by McKinsey consultants into the impact of the pandemic on financial performance shows that businesses that were already demonstrating resilient behaviour – like knowledge sharing and bottom-up innovation – proved far less likely to fail.

My own longstanding interest in organizational resilience comes from my experience leading major construction projects, where three particular aspects of resilience are essential: agility, team empowerment and the ability to learn from challenges and turn them into opportunities.

Agility in the face of unexpected change

Despite all the meticulous planning and project management that underpins major projects, unforeseen issues will inevitably arise at some point in the life of such long, complex projects. Without agility – the ability to respond quickly and effectively, then identify and make necessary changes to operations and plans – such bumps in the road risk becoming roadblocks that delay or even derail the project at huge financial and human costs.

Agility was a critical skill, especially during the pandemic, as individuals and organisations alike had to adapt to the unpredictable circumstances that unfolded globally. A good example is the case of the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge, which was finished in 2022, following a series of decisive actions that ensured the completion of this one-of-a-kind project on time. In 2020, as work on the world’s major construction sites was being brought to a halt due to the growing number of Covid cases, the construction of the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, carried on as a result of the agility demonstrated by the Limak team. While working on the project during the pandemic, Limak implemented a very strict and project-specific lockdown policy before the government declared a nationwide lockdown. Despite having over 2,600 employees on location at the time, Limak’s agile response enabled us to pass through the first wave of the pandemic with zero cases of Covid being contracted – a unique achievement in the world of mega projects – whilst for the rest of the pandemic, the cases never exceeded a level that impacted the schedule.

So how can leaders make their organizations more agile? By building a culture in which constant attention is paid to ensuring that things are being done in the most efficient, productive way to achieve project goals and by always clarifying who makes which decisions and where accountability lies. When a business operates in this state of continual alertness, not only does it prevent stasis, but it also enables rapid, targeted response to the unexpected, from minor issues to major crises.

Empowerment as a key to building resilience

An empowered team is what delivers a major construction project on time and on budget. Behind the success of the Çanakkale Project was the empowerment our team members had across all levels of the organisation. By placing empowerment at the core of our project, we saw first-hand how it contributed to our team’s determination, motivation and dedication, despite all the challenges we faced. It reinforced the belief that efficient teams are those that are motivated and empowered to act in response to change and are equipped with the information they need to continually assess, adapt and innovate.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we had little information about the virus, and new findings were emerging daily. This meant that our lockdown policy for the Çanakkale construction site had to be continuously revised and improved according to the new and credible information we were receiving.

Resilience cannot be implemented from the top down, but if team members are empowered, resilience is built across the entire organizational culture. Resilient leadership puts thought into how teams are structured, ensures cross-functionality and communication between teams and sets clear organizational guidelines across all teams.

Turning crises into opportunities

Organizational resilience is not just about surviving unexpected challenges and crises in order to revert to business as usual. A truly resilient organization will learn from the sudden changes born of necessity. As McKinsey puts it, “Resilient organizations don’t just bounce back from misfortune or change: they bounce forward. They absorb the shocks and turn them into opportunities to capture sustainable, inclusive growth.”

The resilient organization will take from a crisis the opportunity to re-assess, innovate and move forward with a better way of doing things.  Working on a mega project during a pandemic was a great opportunity to improve how we communicate internally, not just by being entirely transparent about the decisions that were being made to ensure the project’s completion on time, but also by placing a higher emphasis on listening to each team member’s problems and suggestions. This allowed us to adapt some of our site operations to increase our efficiency and safety.

Putting people’s needs at the centre

Finally, leaders need to focus on building resilience in people as well as organizational structures and operations. In these tumultuous times, multiple studies report high levels of mental health issues like burnout and stress, and maintaining employee well-being are among the top four challenges reported by CEOs in the Deloitte survey.  Talent shortages are a problem in many industries as people reappraise their work-life balance. Organizations must build a supportive and inclusive community to attract and retain talented employees.

Resilience is something that can be learned, and I believe organizations should provide resilience training that explains the science behind how we respond to stress and how we can develop resilience. The benefits to any organization are multiple: supporting employees, highlighting resilience as a valued competency, and building essential resilience traits in leaders and teams across the organisation.

In the current business world, and into the future, there is no more important people skill or organizational competency than resilience.