Senior Partner, Ventures, at Verraki, a technology and business solution provider, Mr. Kelvin Balogun, speaks on how organisations can build resilience for improved digital skills and what employers need do to enhance resilience among staff in today’s world of digital transformation. Emma Okonji brings the excerpt:
You are passionate about resilience as the most important leadership skill in today’s work place, where technology is at the centre stage. What does it mean to be a resilient leader?
Resilience is the ability to return something to its original form after being stretched or compressed. In the context of a person, it is the capacity to recover quickly from adversity, difficulties, or depression. In the context of businesses, it is the capability to deal with business cycles, the upside-down dynamism of operating in a volatile world that is uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And these words, acting in concert, describe the global environment and of the country in the last few months. When we started this year, no one, without being clairvoyant, could have predicted that the year 2020 that we welcomed a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, would shut down businesses, forcing many organisations globally to rethink the foundation of their business models.
Resilience is a quality of high-performing leaders because it describes how leaders deal with the curveballs that inevitably come towards organisations as they are being led strategically from where they are to a defined destination. Leaders must cultivate in themselves and others, what it takes to advance, adjust, and thrive, even within the operating context changing.
So why is resilience an important factor in leadership role?
It is important because as a leader, you are the primary driver of the emotional balance of the organisation. You are the custodian of the energy level of the organisation. You carry the responsibility of helping to protect the energy of the people in terms of how they show up at work, or how motivated they are in doing whatever they need to do to move the organisation forward. Whenever curveballs come, the energy level is disrupted. For instance, news about a competitor’s success are external to the business but fundamentally can alter the confidence of the organisation, its energy, and the context within which people operate. It is the job of the leader to energise people in a way that enables the organisation to continue to perform and excel. That is why your emotional leadership or your resilience as a leader is extremely important. Resilience is a back-of-the-house type way of defining leadership, embodying all it takes to galvanise an organisation from where it is to a defined goal or vision.
How can people build resilience and why is it important in today’s business where technology is dictating the pace of growth?
For many years, I led fairly significant operations and one of the things I learned as I moved up the organisation, in positions of increasing responsibility, is what organisations look for when they want to put people in roles of increased importance. When I was much younger, I used to think it was your academic depth, or how much knowledge you have or the finesse with which you use to do your work and all that. But what I later learned, when I now occupied a leadership position and needed to promote people into very critical roles was that the most important leadership skill is resilience. Yes, you want people who are competent and can get the job done; yes, you want people that can work well with others, who are compassionate and can lead teams, while engaging and inspiring people as well as themselves. Yes, you want people who can develop destinations that are logical and challenging and can navigate people there. But when it comes to determining who to give a chunk of, for instance, a three billion dollar target, that you have to deliver in a year, you realise it is based on how they stand up in the crossfire of dealing with the day-to-day business. You know that the operating context is going to throw different curveballs to the business. You know there will be bad days and bad news. You know when you introduce a business plan and you say you are going to do this in the next year; something that you rarely say is that this is conditioned on a set of assumptions and that this will be achieved only if all things work as planned. Nothing works as planned, so the task of managing the organisation is how well you deal with those inevitable challenges and surprises that come your way. So you give the job to a soldier that you know will fight the battle, will not disappoint in the face of fire, understands what responsibility is, can motivate his troops, and can face the challenge of being the face of success or failure. That is why resilient leadership is extremely important.
So what changes in the person as he/she moves from level to level?
The first thing that changes is self-awareness. When we start, we have a notion of ourselves that usually is divorced from the reality of who we are and how we impact others. As you go through the crucible of challenges, you learn a lot about yourself from self-reflection and feedback from others. You can almost draw a straight line connecting the increase in your executive self-awareness, to your ability to operate at a much higher level, and your ability to impact the business in a positive sense. The other thing is attention, having flexibility and stability of focus through different situations. What challenging situations always tend to cause is to draw us into those situations, making you lose perspective of everything else. It is important to deal with the situation at hand but still keep the focus of where you are in the context of everything else. Unless you retain that focus, you cannot effectively steer the business. While everybody is focused on the issue that is demanding attention at hand, you need to lift your head and guide your people, to the promised land. So building that stability of focus is a critical part of building resilience.
What leadership role do you expect from a leader in building resilience in their employees?
Communicate, communicate, and communicate, is the key leadership role. There are three sides to this; what you say, what your body language projects and the actions that you galvanise. What you say is extremely important. When something happens, people want to understand how you feel and what your take on it is as they can only get a glimpse of that from what you say. You have the opportunity to tell them what you see and what it means to you and what you believe about this issue. If you are the head of the team, you are communicating with the team. Communication is a critical way that leaders build resilience in employees.
Projecting confidence is also important because it is a more holistic communication when you project confidence. That is where self-awareness of your body language is important. You have to project an air of comportment, of confidence, of humility. This must be done consciously; you cannot allow your body language to be whimsical or unintentional because everything that you do communicates. When the curveballs come, all the actions and inactions that you take to galvanise action gives your people confidence and a channel for their energy. When you do this, you kill negative energy and you galvanise the organisation to a better place.
What are your thoughts on the role of purpose in resilient leadership?
What keeps us going has to be the ultimate impact that we want to have and the significance of our destination to us, either as an individual or as a collective. Why, for instance, would you take an examination that you have failed again? It is because there’s a larger purpose; you have determined that this is the kind of person you want to become, this is a critical milestone in getting there, so yes, you may have tried and failed but will try again. The purpose is what drives us and you find it at the organisation level. I remember early in my career when I was running Kenya as the Country Manager for Coca-Cola. It was a very bad year and the numbers were poor. It didn’t help that I inherited it that way. During sessions, I would share my extremely negative numbers while some of my colleagues shared better numbers. Those who have held operations roles know how humbling this can be. But that was where I learned resilience. What motivated me was I could always see a light at the end of the tunnel. I realised that if all the things we were working on succeeded, it would create a significant impact and say something very meaningful about us as black leaders. At that time, all my predecessors had been white. I was one of the first wave of African leaders to take over from the white leaders in Africa. So I always said to myself ‘look: imagine when we get this right, what statement this would make’ and I would say that to my team as well. How this would allow us to say to the detractors that we have what it takes to address challenges like this, strategically and do it well, and that we have what it takes to build a world-class organisation. And that drive, that desire to create something of a larger impact drove us through those dark days even when the results were not coming, and this ultimately laid the foundation for what transformed not just Coca-Cola’s operations in Kenya but all of East Africa. So, yes, purpose is at the centre of it, a belief in something larger than the challenges that you are dealing with. Someone asked me how come Nigerians have never collapsed over the challenges they have faced over the last 60 years? Well, there’s a Nigerian phrase ‘no condition is permanent’. People always feel that as crazy as this time, they are just precursors to a much better time and that gives us the energy to withstand the difficulties of the day.
How can leaders share a purpose with their teams in today’s digital world?
There is something a leader-mentor of mine once told me. He said that you see the organisation as an emotional collective, you recognise that as the leader, you are setting the tone for the collective emotion or energy level of the organisation. Some people are very clinical and emotionless but sometimes when things are difficult, people simply want an emotional anchor, a kindred to lift their spirits, help them to move to a better day. In one of my last assignments at Coca-Cola, I was posted to run the sub-Saharan business in South Africa. I was extremely tired and burnt out from the previous assignment but went to start. On the day I got there, while I was yet to unpack at the hotel and still mentally rehearsing the message to my new colleagues and organisation, the South African government announced they would impose a Sugar Tax. This was a significant amount of financial impact, a huge sum gone from my profits even before I could start operations. Of course, it shook the organisation to its core. The organisation, including myself, was extremely confused. My first task was to address a town hall. I initially had a script of inspiring things I was going to say. But when I got there and looked at the staff, I told them the truth about what I had hoped to say. I then shared what the news meant to me at the emotional level, how I moved from despair to pulling myself together, and the resolve that every problem has a solution. Then I asked that we all find the collective resolve to solve it and act in unity. Later on, I got to hear that what I said happened to be the message that was most relevant at that time. My new colleagues didn’t want to hear platitudes, inspiring messages about how this didn’t matter, examples of my strategies, or even what I had done before. They just wanted an emotional anchor, someone that was expressing what they felt yet gave them the confidence to move forward.
Authenticity in leadership is very important. People know that you are not perfect and that you don’t have all the answers. But they expect you to show up, they want to see you represent the finest qualities, and create clarity for the situation at hand as well as the intended destination. They want you to galvanize them around the right set of actions.