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What is Resilience and how can we improve it? A summary of Wavelength’s Reconnect 3 event from Diana

Reconnect 3, the final event for the Wavelength Connect 2014 Members. And what an event it was! The theme of the day was Resilience. As the Members get ready to fly the Connect Nest and head out into the big wide world putting everything they have learned into practise, they will certainly need it!

As I sit here planning what to write I fear I will not be able to do justice to such an insightful day those of us lucky enough to attend experienced. We heard from four guest speakers, including me, who each came from diverse backgrounds and had a unique story to tell. They each had different advice to impart about different types of resilience – personal, team, organisational.

We got off to a sombre start with Steve McGuirk, County Fire Officer and CEO, who told us the story of a horrific fire which resulted in the tragic death of a firefighter. He talked about how vital it is in a crisis to take time out to think and to make sure you are ready to portray the image that is expected of you. He achieved both these by driving home from his family barbeque, where he had received the call, to get his uniform.

There are certain rituals organisations and communities use to help survive disasters. In this case a service was performed on leaving the scene, flowers were placed by the public and further down the line permanent plaques were displayed. Even in this virtual world, we still sometimes need something tangible.

The fireman’s funeral was a massive event, again a form of organisational resilience. But on a personal note for Steve it was also a very tough day. He had to deliver the eulogy of a well-respected fireman who he had never met. Sometimes, he says, the right kind of humour can help you through a moment like this. In the eulogy he recounted how the fireman had been so fastidious he even ironed a crease down his boxers. This showed that he had made the effort to find out about him but also brought a lighter moment to an otherwise grave occasion.

As if having to deal with all this wasn’t bad enough, Steve was also having to deal with strikes within the Fire Service. At the time of this death he should have been recruiting and training new staff – operational resilience to deal with the strikes. Of course this was the worst timing possible.

Steve finished his talk with a few final thoughts on resilience:

  • Managing a crisis is messy so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel organised

  • Sometimes you need to take a risk; just don’t be dumb

  • Know what inspires you

  • We set our own boundaries but step up to the plate in extraordinary circumstances; we need this every day

  • Focus on what is important; sometimes there are so many others things going on we just need to let them be

  • Sometimes you just need to cling on however hard it may feel but if you are constantly doing this one day you will let go

  • “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing” Theodore Roosevelt

Our second speaker was John Steele, CEO, Youth Sport Trust, who shared four episodes in his life that had required resilience. The first one was, as an officer in the army, having to tell a mother that her son had been killed in action. This did not go at all to plan. A 6 year old girl answered the door – this was not what he was expecting. In the end he went in with her as the mother would not come to the door. He found the mother in a less than fortunate alcohol-induced state on the sofa. The mother would not let the daughter leave so John had to tell them both. The mother was hysterical whilst the daughter calmly showed John out.

He left the house full of doubts. Had he dealt with the situation in the right way? In his doubt he spoke to people within his regiment. The structure of the army provides a network for organisational and personal resilience. John had been trained for many things but this hit him from left field. He stressed the importance of us all having our own support networks in place just in case they are needed rather than allowing something to happen then wondering who to turn to.

John also talked about his time at the RFU and how he tried to drive through change. He was faced with many challenges throughout this journey including leaks to the media and whistleblowers. Significant issues which he needed to address and stay true to his morals and values.

We will all face our own personal storms but John, in a similar way to Steve saying we must know what inspires us, says the key is to be guided by our values. By this he does not mean the corporate values written on the wall, he means the things that drive our emotions. We cannot choose them but we must understand them.

Thirdly, John briefly told us about his time on the Olympic Bid Committee. There was euphoria when we won the bid followed immediately by the tragedy and chaos of the London bombings. Their offices were within the roped-off crime scene so all operations were run from the basement of the Holiday Inn in Kings Cross. This was a real test of both team and processes resilience.

Finally he talked about how he and his family coped with him being diagnosed with throat cancer. They talked about and planned the different support he, his wife and daughters would all need throughout the treatment. In the same way the Fire Service were helped by making plaques for their dead colleague, John and his family made an actual physical wire caterpillar to hang in their house which grew with the progress of his treatment and brought the family together. John says to have a resilient team we must understand the personal resilience within it. People are affected by different things so we must understand who we can lean on when and when to offer support to others.

Our third speaker of the day was Geoff McDonald. All the Connect Members had met him once already this year so he very briefly gave an overview of what had changed in his life since he last saw them.

Six years ago Geoff had become very ill with anxiety and depression. Fortunately for him he had the courage to search for help and is still here today. Two years ago a great friend of his committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and three children. The only difference between the two of them was that his friend, Nico, had been too ashamed of his illness to talk about how he was feeling. These two life events prompted Geoff to leave his job at Unilever, where he had been for 25 years, with the ambition of eradicating the stigma of anxiety and depression within the corporate world. These two illnesses have become a massive problem in the UK, particularly for men. It has become more acceptable for celebrities, politicians and sportspeople to talk about them but still not in the corporate world. Mental illness is now the highest cause of absence from the workplace. This is what Geoff is now campaigning to change.

In a day themed round resilience Geoff spoke strongly of how much he is against that word. Resilience implies toughness. Geoff prefers resourcefulness. It has many more positive connotations of pulling on things to allow you to flourish.

After lunch we split up into three smaller groups, each led by one of the speakers so far. In Geoff’s group we heard more about Geoff’s own illness. Why didn’t he or anyone else recognise it sooner? Once Geoff finally went to a doctor, having suffered a panic attack, and was told he was ill, he made the decision to talk about it. He spent about 3-4 months recovering, the biggest help for him being a friend, Martin, who had been so ill he had been hospitalised the year before. He would meet up with Martin, who was now better, which would remind him what he was going through could pass. Geoff said how fortunate he was to be working for an understanding company. He gradually integrated back into work then after eight months was promoted. Unilever did not hold his illness against him.

By contrast Nico was one of four high profile suicides in London two years ago. As Geoff lay awake the night of his friend’s death he wondered why he had had the strength to face up to his illness but Nico had not. He wanted things to change. Geoff had read about Alistair Campbell’s struggle with mental illness so contacted him to ask for his help. Unilever says its purpose is to improve the health and wellbeing of a billion people but how can this be true if they are not looking after their own staff? No-one was brave enough to talk to the CEO about the awful stats regarding mental health within the office. Alistair Campbell went to speak at the Unilever Head Office. Due to the power of twitter the CEO has been on board ever since and Geoff began to lead Breaking the Stigma at Unilever. Being a big company everything was already set up on site to help with employees’ mental wellbeing. The problem was that no-one used it. Due to Geoff’s resourcefulness, in the first year of him taking the lead, uptake increased from just 5 to 85.

When Geoff was diagnosed he was worried people would think he was weak but he spoke out anyway and the only comments he has had have been to say how courageous people think he is. He now wants to inspire others to talk more openly about mental health. People have told him his story has saved their life. If all of those people talk about their experiences they too can save lives.

Geoff’s message is that a healthy mind is just as important as physical health. There are four categories that constitute wellbeing:

  • Physical –sleep, nutrition, exercise, recovery

  • Mental – the ability to focus

  • Emotional

  • Spiritual and Purposeful – being driven by purpose not money

They are all important. Geoff now makes sure he gets an extra 30 minute sleep and schedules in recovery time every day. He used to only recover on holiday twice a year. He accepts that, like an alcoholic, he is susceptible to anxiety and depression and no longer tries to fight it.

Geoff left Unilever to follow this new purpose in his life. However good Unilever gets at looking after its staff, it cannot change the world on its own. Geoff is determined to get rid of the stigma of anxiety and depression not just through mindfulness training but by actually addressing corporate culture. He feels now is the right time for him to make a difference.

In Steve’s break out group he talked about the importance of being ready for a crisis. You must have diversity within your team so people will bring different solutions to the table. You must understand each person’s roles and boundaries as well as their strengths and weaknesses. When a crisis hits everyone will then immediately fall into their role and all areas will be covered.

Confidence and trust within a team is vital. This can be done by helping people realise that everyone is ordinary and the same, they just appear different as they have different roles in life. The Fire Service does lots of personal development and team building.

Steve says resilience is allowing yourself to make mistakes and then picking yourself back up when you do. He says if you do your job well you will deal with disaster well. People become resourceful in a disaster. However it’s important to check how everyone is doing. As Geoff said, mental wellbeing is just as important as physical wellbeing. In the Fire Service all firefighters are now given media training. There is a media vehicle which attends all incidents to help pass accurate and appropriate information between the firefighting team and the media. There is also a designated chaplain who helps firefighters deal with what they see and have to do. Even for the non-religious he is great at supporting and enabling people to talk. He has created a culture where it is ok to say you are not coping.

John’s break out session took more of an informal questions and answers format.

  • How can you be resilient if you’re not a ‘glass half full’ sort of person?

  • You need to learn how to get yourself into a positive place. Unlike managing, leadership is an emotional activity. To be a good leader, and therefore a resilient one, you need to really understand yourself and your own emotions. You can’t just emulate other leaders or pretend to be positive. It’s got to be authentic.

  • Is being open good or bad?

  • There are times when it’s appropriate as a leader to be open and times when it’s not. You need to be able to make these judgements. If someone you lead comes to you and you just throw all your problems at them then that’s not going to help them!

  • How do you let go of stuff?

  • Resilience is about being able to recover, to regain your shape, quickly. Unlike Geoff, John does feel it’s a relevant word. He was taught a technique where he sits opposite an empty chair and imagines anyone he feels any negative emotions towards is sitting in that chair. Then he tells them everything he thinks. Even though he is actually only talking to an empty chair it does work! He says he has also worked on redefining his purpose so he is now always moving forward not looking back.

  • How does he cope when a crisis is over?

  • It’s important to get feedback and become more self-aware. To improve yourself you must know your own fallibilities, be more critical and engage in structured development.

  • Can you practise resilience before you need it?

  • Just like Geoff said, make sure you put recovery time in your diary

  • Look at the balance between work, family, self and ensure you have enough of each

  • Train your mind to stop whirring – there are plenty of very effective Mindfulness Apps

After these break-out sessions, all the Members reconvened upstairs for a Think Bigger session – how can they go on to use everything they have learned this year. This was split into three areas:

  • Changes in their personal leadership

  • Changes in their organisation

  • How to do good through business

Many ideas and examples were discussed in all three areas, all of which involve resilience of various forms to implement. However, for me, the most interesting discussion was about whether someone as an individual, a team or an organisation as a whole, might have the courage to totally abandon what had made them successful in the first place in order to continue to be successful. That would certainly need resilience.

After a fun quiz looking back over the year, the formal part of the day ended with my talk. This was a personal resilience story of my recovery from meningitis seven years ago then my decision to become an international para dressage rider. So much of what I found myself wanting to say was an echo of many of the lessons the speakers earlier in the day had talked about. This just goes to show that, despite all our differences, there really are things we can all do to help foster our own resilience, that of our teams and organisations. And as Geoff illustrated all too well, if we do not take the time to do them, things can go horribly wrong.

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