Organizational Resilience: leadership lessons from COVID-19

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Coronavirus covid-19
Coronavirus covid-19
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Organizational resilience starts at the top. If disaster and recovery have been left to Human Resources, the COVID-19 experience should make you revisit that strategy.

Most businesses picture short-term recovery needs because some catastrophic events are well beyond their horizon. They just don’t think in terms of major earthquakes, tsunamis, large-scale terrorist attacks — or pandemic disease. The challenges presented by the spread of Coronavirus present opportunities to assess and correct your business survival strategy.

Recovery does not equal resilience

Resilience refers to the tensile strength in materials. It explains how far a tree will bend in a hurricane, how well a roof will resist a tornado, how much impact concrete will absorb, and so on. Resilience is a property that ensures survival and the potential for bouncing back.

Traditional business recovery and disaster plans are reactive. They do include valuable follow-up instructions, including whom to contact for different services, how to rescue data and records, where to look for temporary facilities, and more. But reactive practices are not enough.

Plans for emergencies

The plans should include policies and practices to anticipate various emergencies. People should understand their specific roles in adversity. They should have instructions on escape routes and alternatives. Operators should know how to shut down computers and machines. Facilities management must manage utility feeds and emergency response systems. Company officers should have a comprehensive grasp of succession plans. However, even this preparation does not ensure organizational resilience.

Organizational Resilience

Organizational resilience requires a proactive, evolving, and adaptive strategy for leadership. Despite the burdens of an executive office, leaders will make room for the unthinkable. And the spread of Coronavirus offers a model experience for testing some metrics:

  • Human Factors: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused panic hoarding. It is likely to encourage some gouging. Businesses are responding erratically, and trust in institutions at a new low. People need a North Star, some point of reference against which they can measure their security. And, because people spend most of their waking hours at work, the workplace is their reality in good times and bad.

Business leaders can offer guidance and model behavior under crisis. How much leaders can accomplish will vary across business sectors. Their power and effectiveness will vary with company size, infrastructure, and status as local, national, or global. Still, they must be proactively involved with resilience planning.

For example, business officers and managers should collaborate from the floor to the C-suite on human infrastructure needs.

  • Employees must be clear on their roles as essential, nonessential, or somewhere in-between. But you must build some flexibility into those designations. 
  • There must be clear and comprehensive safety measures for employees in essential roles on-premises. First responders, medical practitioners, and those required to interact with the public — they all need and deserve access to protective equipment and practice safety protocols.
  • Managementshoulddefine a trigger point at which tasks switch to work-from-home mode. Work units must know how to make the shift and what is expected of them.
  • Employees want the confidence that benefits and pay will continue; they should know how those systems will be affected.
  • Everyone needs a clear picture of post-event workflows and reporting systems. You might create drills for handling cyberthreats and spreading disease.

Human needs are not fulfilled by fire drills or 3-ring policy binders alone. Workers need drills addressing each of their organizational roles. They want and deserve the sense they are cared for and looked after. Business leadership must address those wants and needs as early as new employee onboarding.

  • Logistics: COVID-19 first impacted supply chains in China in mid-December. If it had not, it may have remained under the radar of global attention. Chinese citizens awoke to draconian measures to restrain and quarantine those affected in hospitals built quickly. If reports are accurate, they contained the disease to one province — except for those entering and leaving the area.
  • The supply chain failures have thrown world financial exchanges into decline. International flights, cruises, and shipping have stopped. Far too many businesses have found themselves unprepared for supporting employees along those chains. COVID-19 presents a novel threat, but businesses have provided instructions to essential employees on how to act in adverse situations. They should extend that information on options to all traveling employees.
  • U.S. food markets and drug stores have been overwhelmed by panicked customers hoarding whole supply lines. Their panic has overburdened retail workers and taxed their inventory technology. Businesses should build rewards and recognition into their communication during a crisis without waiting until it is over.
  • Small service businesses — florists, caterers, family restaurants — struggle to remain open as supplies or customers vanish. If they do not have the liquidity in place, they should give serious consideration to closing for the duration. If they do have the liquidity, they should invest in their employees because their loyalty is crucial to survival.
  • Hospitals and doctor offices are businesses, too. Everything in the medical supply chain has proven unprepared. Despite the quality of U.S. healthcare, this virus has caught it unprepared. Businesses can and should anticipate the gap that presents with well-supplied inventories of all things necessary to support universal health precautions: hand sanitizers, masks, disinfectant, sanitary restrooms, routine cleaning of break and common rooms, and more.

COVID-19 has proven novel in many ways. Most companies have considered what to do if their business suffers a near-terminal event like flooding, earthquake, and fire. Those events have some finality, and people and their businesses pick themselves up and move on. But pandemic affects operations from so many directions without a clear end, so recovery will be less structured.

  • Technology: Businesses run on their technology. Every aspect of a business depends on one high-tech functionality or another. Resilient organizations are confident in their IT infrastructure and connectivity across functions and locations. Typical disaster plans include strategies for IT recovery and patching under duress. However, this assumes engineering mindsets with their rational and reductionist thinking.
  • Crises require more than help desk personnel. Information systems are so broad and deep with a business operation they need constant resilience testing. However, these systems also touch people, and those pain points locate a needy nexus requiring skill, talent, and continuity.
  • Any switch to remote work expects work-from-home employees to continue maximum productivity. That means the regular review of expectations and an inventory of business-supplied technology including devices, internet connection expense, and IT support.
  • A pandemic demands the end to meetings, conferences, and travel. Any business function that can be done by live-streaming or remote contact should maximize those opportunities.

Leadership under adversity

green leafed plant

Well-led businesses survive. Indeed, they strengthen their recovery because their resilience has legs. Resilient organizations are fluid and flexible. They are people and purpose-driven and ready to adapt to change before procedures are taxed.

Optimistic people lead resilient organizations, and optimism is a function of foresight. Their optimism, in turn, provides a positive, consistent, and comforting touchstone for people inside and outside the organization.

This foresight devises collaborative strategies for foreseen and unforeseen events. California businesses should have earthquake preparedness in place. Oklahoma businesses must anticipate tornados. And, southern coastal organizations can expect hurricanes. However, COVID-19 should motivate all businesses to create less fortified and more elastic infrastructure and behavior.

And, they need leaders who are agile enough to call the best shot, encourage positive deviance, and model decisive and empathic behavior while fueling, energizing and enabling critical response.


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Louis Carter
Louis Carter is CEO and founder of Best Practice Institute, social/organizational psychologist, executive coach and author of more than 11 books on leadership and management including his newest book just released by McGraw Hill: In Great Company: How to Spark Peak Performance by Creating an Emotionally Connected Workplace. He has lectured globally in the U.S., Middle East, and Asia on his work and research in organization and leadership development and is an executive coach and advisor to CEOs and C-levels of mid-sized to Fortune 500 organizations. He was named one of Global Gurus Top Organizational Culture Gurus in the world and was chosen to be one of 100 coaches to be in the MG100 (Marshall Goldsmith) out of 14,000 people as one of the top 100 coaches in the world .

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