How leaders can become more resilient

CBI president and Tesco chair John Allan focuses on adaptability, proper planning and teamwork.

by John Allan
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2018

I first sat on a board in 1986 but it was at least 15 years before I heard the word resilience used at that level. It wasn’t something we thought about. Now, leaders ignore resilience at their peril. It is a priority - and it requires thoughtful and committed leadership, planning, innovation and specialist skills.

I was recently invited by Resilience First to speak on leadership in resilience to their members. Afterwards, I was asked if boards are now sufficiently mature and evolved around this issue. Sadly, I had to say no. It’s improving, but there is still a long way to go.

There are three things leaders can do to improve their visibility of risks and ensure their organisations are better prepared to withstand them and recover well.

Step one: know your risks

My definition of resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threat, or significant sources of stress. An important component of creating resilience for organisations is understanding and managing risk and how this manifests.

No board member can be an expert on everything: but you do need to have some understanding of the different issues and areas where you are vulnerable.

I make it my business to ensure my boards are educated, for example getting cyber experts in to explain issues simply to us. This means we at least know the geography of the issue: we may not be able to climb "Everest" ourselves, but at as a minimum we know where it is.

My other golden rule is to go to the floor: speak to staff, customers, suppliers and other people who know or use your organisation. They will tell you where the risks lie.

Step two: look ahead, plan ahead

We tend to think of resilience in relation to traumatic, sudden events. An example of that is Brexit: crashing out of the EU without a deal would be quite a traumatic event. I know there is a huge amount of planning and preparation going on for that scenario.

But everyone is spending so much time thinking about what will happen on March 30 that I wonder how much thought is going into the longer-term.

Planning for difficult issues is something all organisations need to take the time to do. And it’s not enough just to have a plan: you need to take it off the shelf and put it through its paces from time to time. Otherwise, how will you know if it works?

Step three: we’re better together

Companies also need to be prepared to work together. Many risks can only, or much more effectively, be handled through collective action. And, of course, the same is true of communities, whether they are local, regional, national or multinational.

I believe business has a major contribution to make towards improving community resilience and should feel a moral imperative to do so. Nine out of 10 people want business leaders to take a proactive stance in relation to hard-to-crack social issues.

An example of this is business and schools: there is a substantial benefit to both in working together, over both the short and long term, with significant gain for society in doing so.

Partnerships are the way forward. I once worked for a chair who said "no-one knows everything, but everyone knows something" and collectively we are far more effective and resilient.

John Allan CBE is president of the CBI and chair of Tesco and Barratt Developments. Resilience First is an initiative to improve urban resilience for business communities in the UK and beyond.

Image credit: Messala Ciualla/Pexels


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