Why business leaders need to become resilient realists

Michael Carey: How entrepreneurs respond to setbacks is crucial to long-term success

Entrepreneur Enda O’Coineen’s attempt to become the first Irish person to single-handedly sail around the world is an extreme example of someone always willing to take risks and live on the edge. Photograph:  Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Entrepreneur Enda O’Coineen’s attempt to become the first Irish person to single-handedly sail around the world is an extreme example of someone always willing to take risks and live on the edge. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

 

Entrepreneurs and business leaders are of every shape, coming from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Even at the typical business conference dominated by predictably monotone grey-suited males, the personalities and approach to business is widely diverse.

Spending time with groups of entrepreneurs leads to a realisation that there is no “right way” to build a business, that success is not a result of a cookie-cutter approach to strategy and execution. Management style and approach can vary greatly, even in similar sectors and facing similar challenges.

Some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs systematically apply professional management tools, while others appear to be flaky and unpredictable. Some have decades of business experience, others appear to be too young to legally leave the educational system. Some take an extremely conservative approach to every business decision, others are comfortable with acute uncertainty and happy to take on the consequences of potentially life-changing risks.

The one common trait, however, among the most successful business leaders and entrepreneurs appears to be resilience; a rare bounciness of attitude, a buoyancy that keeps them afloat when storms hit.

Numerous formerly successful business leaders hit heavy weather during the recent economic crisis. Some have even entered bankruptcy and have begun the climb back, using their extensive experience to re-establish their careers.

Such resilience should be applauded and encouraged. As well as taking responsibility to get back on their feet for their own sake, these leaders can make a huge contribution to our economy and society; building new enterprises, providing jobs, generating wealth and economic growth. Their great expertise should not be lost to us as a result of begrudgery.

Take risks

Entrepreneur Enda O’Coineen’s audacious attempt to become the first Irish person to single-handedly sail around the world is an extreme example of someone always willing to take risks and live on the edge.

His boat Kilcullen Voyager was badly damaged two weeks ago when hit by a freak storm just as the boat’s electronic self-steering system failed. His business past is peppered with similarly high-risk business ventures, many of which have proven to be enormously successful. Others ventures have failed, yet he seems to keep bouncing back, taking on new challenges with an extreme sense of optimism and a blind self-belief. His ability to think positively about setbacks helps to avoid a sense of helplessness when adversity hits.

Every day, businesses are faced with huge challenges and uncertainty, headwinds knocking the business off track. When a child falls off her bike, encouraging her to get back on again quickly and cycling on is a crucial approach to maintaining confidence. Similarly, when businesses hit a road bump, or careers seem to go off track, getting back “on the bike” and pushing on is important. Many events are beyond our control, it is the response to these events that determines if a business or a career will be a success.

In our increasingly uncertain world, as challenges up ahead seem to become greater, our ability to stay afloat and recover quickly has probably become the most crucial success factor. A measure of a leader’s “Adversity Quotient”, an ability to recover from setbacks, to keep going in the face of extreme adversity, is becoming an important criterion when recruiting senior talent or selecting business partners. Such resilience is probably more important than relevant sectoral experience or even educational achievements.

Calmer waters

One of the great benefits of starting a business as part of a team rather than trying to go it alone is the combined “team adversity quotient”. When faced with recurrent road bumps, a lonely entrepreneur can easily lose heart. When one team member’s enthusiasm wains, the group effect, the impact of the reliance of others with equally high adversity quotients, will carry the project along and into calmer waters.

Resilience is not, however, simply the same as optimism. It appears that a touch of a pessimistic view of life and a sense of realism about the challenges facing a business is necessary.

An optimist may never really predict or foresee the oncoming problems, and may not see the need to think about how he will survive the setback. When unexpected and unwelcome world events occur, such as the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the most optimistic didn’t even consider what our response might be. In this uncertain world we may need more resilient realists.

Michael Carey is managing director of East Coast Bakehouse and chairman of An Bord Bia. Twitter: @careyonfood

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