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As simple as it may sound, falling down and getting back up again is the foundation of professional success.

Four ways to build a resilient organization

As simple as it may sound, falling down and getting back up again is the foundation of professional success

By Brad Hall, Managing Director at Hall & Company

Brad Hall is Managing Director at Hall & Company, an organization that consults on talent development strategy for technology companies. From 2010-2019, Dr. Hall was Huawei’s senior HR expert and personal advisor to the company’s Chief HR Officer, helping design the company’s overall approach to talent management. 

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from failures and adapt when things don’t go as planned. Recent research indicates it’s critical to professional success. 

Resilience is an accurate predictor not only of the likelihood of graduating from high school and college, but also of superior performance in stressful jobs such as sales, the academic Angela Duckworth wrote in her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Other researchers found that being resilient boosts the likelihood of making it through West Point’s tough military training program, more so than strong academic or athletic results.

Clearly, resilience is important. After spending more than nine years advising Huawei’s senior management on talent development strategy, I concluded that there are four levers organizations can use to become more resilient.

Lever 1:  Buy and Build Resilient Talent

Buying resilience

One efficient way to improve organizational resilience is simply to “buy” it by hiring the right people. As a basketball coach might look for a foundation of athleticism when recruiting new players, managers can seek a similar foundation of emotional resilience in employees.

How can they identify this trait? One way is to ask external hires (or internal transfers) the following three questions:

Question 1: Tell me about a time when you had to switch projects before the first project delivered results. How did you feel about the switch?

Right Answer:  “I don’t like to switch to a new project until the first project delivers results.”

Resilient employees despise unfinished business. Once they set their sights on a goal, they will not let up until expectations are met.

Question 2: How and when do you measure performance? 

Right Answer: “I obsessively look at our stated objectives and then measure them against actual results.”

Resilient people continually want feedback. Once they get it, they adjust their approach to improve performance.
Question 3: Tell me about a painful professional failure. 

Right Answer: The candidate should talk about an obstacle or setback, then explain how he quickly recovered and bounced back from it. The real questions you’re asking are, “Does the interviewee accept his mistakes? How quickly does he adjust his approach – and influence his colleagues to adjust theirs?”

Building resilience 

What if you can’t (or don’t want to) go shopping for the ideal candidates? In that case, you have to build resilience in your organization. But how?

Companies can cultivate resilience in their employees in essentially the same way that parents foster it in their children:

  •    Encourage children to leave their comfort zones
  •    Praise effort as well as accomplishment
  •    Teach that trying and failing is okay – but that failing to give one’s best effort is not
  •    Allow children to feel frustration – in other words, don’t immediately step in to help

The conditions that allow parents to raise resilient children also aid managers in strengthening it in their employees.  The laws of human behavior do not change as we age. 

Letting people fail

An important finding in behavioral science is that people gain wisdom through “adversity and diversity.”  Adversity means nasty, painful experience; diversity means many different kinds of experience. 

Every leadership program aims to accelerate employees’ professional growth. The main way to do that is to put colleagues with high potential in adverse and diverse roles. 

Let them fall and pick themselves back up.  Failing, then fighting your way back, are the best ways to accelerate professional growth.

Lever 2:  Use performance management to strengthen resilience

The primary value from performance management comes from clarity: telling people clearly what you want them to do. Management must ensure that employees deeply understand project goals, timing, measurements, responsibilities, and expected results.

In addition, every team member must know the expectations their teammates have of their work. If a team member cannot meet these expectations, colleagues should encourage that person to fight his way back until he can meet them.

Several years ago in Western Europe, Huawei sales teams consisted of a 50-50 blend of Europeans and Chinese. 

Because sales team meetings never precisely defined how each member was expected to contribute to team success, sales teams did not work as an integrated unit. They weren’t really teams at all – they were groups of individuals, each of whom worked hard, but often at cross-purposes. 

The problem was that there was no common understanding of the “plays.”  For example, one play could be, “Strengthening the customer relationship.”  Another play was “Selling the product.”  Another was “Fixing a customer problem.” 

Which play took priority? Who was the leader, and who played supporting roles?

Without clear plays, team members bickered incessantly. For example, one member thought the team’s main purpose was to build market share, while another thought it was to maximize profits.  Members of the “Market share” team worked on the basis of their own assumptions; “Profit” team members thought their behavior completely illogical. 

Finally, a two-day meeting was held to define the plays and assign individual roles. Daily conflict vanished; customer satisfaction improved. 

Lever 3:  Create a resilient culture

Huawei fosters a culture of fen dou, or dedication. Stories of failures turned to success are myriad. Repeating those stories has strengthened Huawei’s culture. 

But “all politics is local” — a common saying in U.S. politics that, in this context, means the culture with the most impact is the one inculcated by each manager. 

For example, managers must set and enforce standards. At AT&T, a VP of Sales made a rule that if a salesperson failed to make their quota for two years running, they would be let go. 

Georgia was a new employee who failed to make her sales target in her first year at the company. In her second year, her biggest account relocated its headquarters to a different country, causing Georgia to miss her quota in Year Two as well. As promised, Georgia lost her job. 

You can argue that this was completely unfair: How could a U.S. sales rep sell to a company that was moved abroad? But that was the rule: commit and deliver, without making excuses.

Brutal though it may seem, that particular rule created a clearly understood performance metric. Rigid adherence to that metric strengthened the company culture – and would eventually lead employees to become more resilient, even in the face of adverse events. 

Some managers, in HR lingo, have a “high need for affiliation.” This means they enjoy deep relationships with people and therefore tend to set standards that they subsequently do not enforce because they feel sorry for employees like Georgia. Surprisingly, Harvard research (McClellan and Boyatzis, 1982) shows that such managers actually create more dissatisfied employees. “Managers with high affiliation motive make judgments about employees that are viewed as unfair by colleagues, thus leading to poor morale and productivity.” At AT&T, supervisors with a high need for affiliation tended not to be promoted.

Level 4:  Align management systems with the target culture

Any organization that wants to maintain a culture of resilience has to align its management systems with the culture it wants to promote. This means that hiring, performance management, promotion, compensation and other aspects of talent development have to be in sync. 

For example, external and internal team members must be selected for resilience, using some of the techniques outlined above. Performance expectations must be deeply understood by all team members. If multiple teams have to work together, then rewards must be set for overall team performance, and key performance metrics harmonized so everyone is pulling on the same oar.   

In my opinion, Huawei is one of the world’s greatest business success stories. When I joined the company, I spoke to the global head of sales and service, William Xu. He said the reason for Huawei’s success was customer focus and dedication: essentially, a stubborn refusal to give up. This one of the reasons explaining how a once-obscure Shenzhen-based startup has turned into the giant it is now.

Huawei has carefully created a culture of resilience and aligned its management systems to it. Other organizations can follow this path – if they are willing to do what is required. 

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