Over the last decade, as brands and businesses, we have experienced unprecedented growth, relatively undemanding economic conditions, and stable trade winds. Business leaders learned to operate out of comfort and complacency, making decisions designed to keep pace with the market – incremental innovations, spin-off product releases, and more. However, in the last few years, the relatively peaceful marketplace has been rocked by a perfect storm of external factors creating turbulence and volatility. The time for comfortable, mediocre decision-making has passed and now is the time for courageous, bold, and resilient leadership to step up.
On June 29th we tackled the challenge head-on and redefined what it means to be resilient on our own terms, by looking at the systems and people that know resilience best. Dana Medema, SVP, Personal Health (North America) at Philips and Jonnie Cahill, CMO at Heineken USA joined us for a candid and dynamic conversation on how to be empathetic and resilient leaders amidst uncertainty.
Here are our top takeaways:
Crisis is Inevitable
A crisis is inevitable – the world is constantly facing significant and increasingly urgent global challenges that affect individuals, organizations, world governments and society at large. While it’s important to acknowledge that there is an infinite variety of future threats on the horizon, it’s up to business leaders to structure their organizations to be able to circumvent disruption.
Butterfly Founder & Group CEO, Bianca Cawthorne kicked off the discussion by challenging the audience to deviate from the status quo:
“It is not the crisis that creates the disruption, rather, it’s businesses’ linear response to those stressors that challenge the system. When a crisis occurs, we all go through the same motions repeatedly, never thinking that maybe we should just try something new or different.”
Following the same standard playbook and making short-term decisions in a time of crisis is a risky decision. It not only hinders your future growth but also creates a negative chain reaction both internally and externally within your industry, it forces business leaders to decide between profit and people & the planet, and often confuses speed and agility.
To drive sustainable growth and create a system where people, planet, and your business thrive, then leaders need to embed true resilience into the heart of the company.
A resilient system is not one that is simply able to return to where it left off before the crisis. Rather, it is one that has transformed, having built the attitudes, beliefs, elasticity, and structures into its DNA to create the new normal. To build on this definition of resilience, we looked at 3 of the most naturally resilient systems that exist in our world: Indigenous people, forests, and the human body.
Community Resilience: Lessons from the Cañari
Community resilience is strengthened by strong relationships and shared value systems. A perfect example of this is the Cañari tribe in the highlands of Southern Ecuador. Having withstood the Incas, the Spaniards, and natural disasters – a large part of their resilience boils down to the ability to preserve and ingrain cultural values and traditions, strengthening bonds and increasing a shared sense of community. Like other Indigenous cultures around the world, they view themselves as a small part of a larger equation – a component of nature rather than a byproduct or external force.
Cafui Awasu, Butterfly New York Associate Consultant, summed up their approach to resilience by saying,
“It’s by living, learning and working in tandem with each other that communities are able to build empathy with people, culture, and the planet. This is what helps them to develop a strong sense of intuition of what might happen next.”
What we can learn from the Canari tribe is that defining your north star and leading with empathy and purpose, serves as an anchor and guide in the midst of volatility:
- Define Your North Star: The value system you develop for your business should be unwavering and should guide the decisions that you make, even more so in a time of crisis. With strong values in place, you’re better equipped to stay the course when threats appear on the horizon.
- Lead with Empathy: A resilient, empathetic leader will not only recognize the impact that uncertainty is having on their people but will support them and help them channel their collective abilities into working together to better approach whatever happens next.
Purposeful Diversification: Wisdom from the Forest
Forests help us think about value creation & resilience on many levels – making the case for a more circular operating system. The competition serves to keep the forest in balance, with plants and animals competing for the same resources, however, in doing so the forest ensures there is not an overbalance in favor of one element or species, rather its biodiversity is what reinforces & improves the system. The cohabitation of such a diverse range of plants and animals makes it much more difficult for threats such as pests and diseases to spread and endanger the balance that has been created. This gives the forest the opportunity to not just survive, but thrive, more resilient to threats and stressors.
For businesses, the lesson to be learned here is that diversification, when done intentionally, will help to reinforce the system and enable it to thrive:
- Diversify Purposefully: The choice to include diversity as part of your DNA – diversity of thought, opinions, backgrounds, and even business decisions and acquisitions – means that your external purpose and mission will align with the internal strengths of your people and culture. Broader perspectives make it easier to solve complex problems – meaning greater resiliency to threats and more creativity and inspiration in the day-to-day.
As Nicole Whelan, Butterfly London Director, puts it:
“It’s about being able to diversify purposefully. Diversifying spreads risk in our portfolios, it’s basic business sense yet many businesses have gone and invested in things that just don’t seem like a good fit. However, if you’re staying true to your north star, the decisions that we make will naturally ladder up to our overall goals.”
Natural Balance: Guidance from Our Bodies
After any experience, our bodies and brains naturally balance support and agility to help us react and learn from stress, injury, or trauma. The body, arguably the greatest natural system, compensates for injury or trauma through redirection – constantly pivoting and adjusting to ensure other parts of the body can carry the load – and repeated action, over time the new area of the body becomes stronger and is able to successfully compensate. Our brains on the other hand, consistently learn and unlearn, keeping a flexible, elastic state – forming new connections, making existing neural pathways stronger, and curing our emotional responses.
When a crisis hits, it’s important to tap into your innate abilities to learn and unlearn and to design systemic responses for proper responses to crisis:
- Learn & Unlearn: Always stay in a flexible state – don’t go back to your playbook – in unpredictable times, it’s beneficial to “get unpredictable” and develop adaptability and elasticity.
- Design Systemic Responses: Crises are bigger than your sole business and you can’t fix them alone. Building a flexible ecosystem of crisis partners will help you pivot and adjust as needed to volatility.
Our Value System of Resilience
The next time a crisis occurs, remember your north star and stay true to your values and goals – with your actions and people aligned to your purpose, it will be easier to stay on track through volatility because you have certainty about your path forward. Just like the Cañari tribe, by being an empathetic leader, connecting to both people and planet, you’ll be able to act with anticipation rather than scrambling to react.
Rather than implementing temporary stop gaps – learn & unlearn, just as our mind unlearns behaviors that are no longer useful in favor of new ones that are, we keep an elastic mindset so that we absorb the shock and evolve rather than getting derailed. Finally, building a culture that is purposefully diverse and designing system responses to a crisis, means that as an ecosystem, both flexibility and creativity come to the forefront with greater room for problem-solving and a supportive network of partners to pivot as needed through volatility.
By building these principles of resilience into your business model, not only will you be able to withstand volatility, but you will enable your business to thrive.
How are today’s business leaders confronting volatility?
Bianca opened the floor to our guests to share their thoughts on how they’re actively practicing resilience and empathy in their leadership today.
Jonnie reminded us that as brands and businesses, it’s easy to get muddled by trying to follow the crowd and make a quick profit. To him, the mark of a good leader is one that is introspective and thinks about the challenges to come and what kind of leader they want to be.
“As a brand leader and a marketeer, what struck me through COVID was the opportunism of brands who jumped on fundamental societal and human issues to make a quick buck. It was simultaneously the best consumer behavior and also the worst business behavior. We must challenge ourselves to maintain the North Star and accept that these issues are going to come, while also asking yourself what kind of a leader and what kind of a business you want to be.”
Dana agreed that now more than ever business leaders need to not only stay true to core values and put their people and the planet first, but that it’s also time to change the way we instinctively respond to a crisis. Defaulting back to the same way of thinking, especially in unpredictable times, is not sustainable.
“Showing up and thinking that you can use the same playbook that you were using before this massive crisis, is simply not going to work. Thinking that you have all the answers is also not going to work – you need to strongly think and make some choices of things to do that will help better the situation.”
Resilience will enable our businesses to reframe the way that we think about success, and it will better enable us to withstand future shocks through elasticity, adaptability, empathy and strong core values.
It’s our hope that by learning how to embed resilience into our businesses during volatile times, we can not only weather the storm, but learn to thrive.
To catch the best insights from this masterclass, you can watch the full discussion below.