Level up capacity and performance

Of your executive team by deep diving into resilience

BY: Satu Ahlman | January 16, 2024

An executive team’s RESILIENCE is crucial but so often neglected or forgotten about.

How come?

People often discuss and reflect on so called high performance in misleading ways. It may well be that we just haven’t experienced that true high level performance or that the concept of endless, even mindless “grinding” has backfired on us (yet we think that is high performance). Equally, plenty of us do not have a clue of what resilience is and means for an individual nor a team.

Well, I’ll tell you one fact: it’s not just GRIT, meaning it’s not just about pushing through because we have the perseverance, drive, motivation, experience, position, and can cope under high pressure.

A resilient team is stronger together and will get through change, tough periods and crises healthier, whole and with a faster rebound time than those who aren’t. And they will come out of these periods most likely stronger, than burned out and broken (to take the other end of the spectrum). “I need a vacation, I can’t cope”.

When investing in people, leaders and executive teams are heard mentioning the work we invest in “the rest of the organization” – not the executive team themselves. “When we design wellness programs, it’s the staff who participates, not the C suite”. “Leadership programs are for mid management; they are the ones needing most support.“ Ok, one one hand… but on the other hand…? Should not the top be training as hard to secure their capacity and performance - not forgetting about their overall health and wellbeing?

Becoming resilient is business critical

And where does this “neglecting ourselves” type of behavior stem from? Is it because we (and/or the executives) don’t see these types of projects and investments as “business critical” after all? I want to challenge anyone thinking that way. Investing in the resilience and capacity (one could include the words health and wellbeing) of the executive team will most likely be more critical for our future businesses than we may realize. Not just as people age and the world is a busier place, and more demanding than ever perhaps.. but also from investors’ points of view. Stakeholders and shareholders will value a company whose executive team is truthfully as strong as they say they are. These individuals need to be as resilient as the company and its products are said to be on a volatile market. That’s where we can trust leaders making timely, right choices – because they simply are the best version of themselves.

The more resilient you are, the better equipped you are for the UNKNOWN. And let’s face it, the world is filled with the unknown.

How’s your brain working today? How would you like it to be working in 10 years time? Think of an executive leadership team with minds that are foggy, or breaths that are heavy. Risky. Especially when something unexpected happens.

How do you make sure the team in the ultimate leadership role and responsibility, has what it takes to succeed, survive, develop? The impact of a dysfunctional or unwell leadership  team carries a long way, within and worst case beyond, to customers and other stakeholders. Can we truly afford NOT to invest in the executive team? How do we know we are in “our top performing capacity” this year, or next year? Or.. is it in each individual’s responsibility to secure their capacity while others “hope for the best”.

“Of course they will perform and deliver. They have long careers behind them, hours and hours of work and demanding roles. I mean, of course they can cope with stress, pressure, and whatever comes with it. They are leaders, that’s what they get paid for!” Is this realistic?

We know it’s stressful, long hours, stretching the limits… The question is, how is an individual’s lifestyle and choices they make (everything from sleep, nutrition, recovery, vacations, movement, breathing.. etc.) truly supporting their high performance and delivery demands? Do YOU know what’s best for you or even – how to get the best performance out of yourself? And even more importantly, how to sustain it? How to navigate through rough seas and be confident you will bounce back, because of your resilient, healthy baseline.

To be honest, many don’t know. We see high performers in their 40’s and 50’s severely misusing their own capacity with a high risk of not being able to sustain the level for another 10-20 years. This should not be the case. We can protect and actually develop our cognitive and physical capacity for years to come. But in order to do that, we need to decide what matters. And for many executive teams it is about understanding how business crucial this actually is. “Long term wins over short term”. Well, we are here for the long run, aren’t we? If yes, then we must have the willingness to learn.

Stress creates an obstacle

As mentioned, there are many senior executives and leadership teams that are fragile, when they wouldn't need to be. More importantly and quite unfortunately, they are not getting the best out of themselves as individuals nor as groups. Why? Well, in many cases due to lack of understanding and know-how but also lack of prioritizing (most likely again due to lack of knowledge) in the field of performance, capacity and health. And… What kind of crucial roles these play in our decision making, strategic thinking, risk taking capacity, collaboration skills etc.

We need to address stress.

Stress can be experienced in many forms. Stress will always be there and has a role in our lives. Physiologically, our autonomic nervous system switches between the parasympathetic and sympathetic, commonly known as rest & digest and fight or flight (or freeze) states. When we experience “stress”, we are spending more time on the sympathetic side – preferably only shorter periods at a time.

Going out of the box, challenging yourself, showing yourself, you indeed can perform under tough conditions (short term), is all great! That’s something leaders and executive teams are familiar with. Perhaps part of that true desire some climb up the career ladder towards the top (if you are a fan of the traditional corporate hierarchy) actually is to get challenged (and be able to challenge ...?) and so on. This is how we grow! Part of this growth and development surely happens within that “fight or flight zone” however we do need to take time to digest everything that’s happening to us or around us so that we recover and build resilience. This is where we need self leadership to be able to switch to the parasympathetic side.

As a team of executives, you need to ensure stress isn’t becoming a hurdle or barrier, slowing you down or making it harder to see clearly, aka having poor decision-making power, cognitive capacity, increasing conflicts etc.

Stress can lead to sleepless nights, we all know that. Not to worry.

A resilient person will cope and know how to work with and around stress, how to lead stress instead of stress taking over.

From the individual perspective

After all it is about knowing when to push the pedal, when to pull the break. And in which areas (of life)! Stressful period at work? Don’t plan to run that marathon AND have a party to attend right after. Pull back on the training but don’t stop moving! Visit that party but go home early?

Don’t think your brain needs 3 glasses of wine to rewind and recover. Find strategies that truly assist your “system recovery”.

Think about the “hormetic effect” concept where a small amount of something is good but going overboard will have a negative effect on your system. For instance, intermittent fasting (trending) vs starvation mode. A good amount of stress on your system will make you stronger. Too much or uncontrollable stress will make you weaker.

Hear and listen to signals at an early stage, before they are too loud! Having sudden back problems? Pull back on intensity in some areas of life. It’s your body signaling stress. Having stomach issues? Make sure your eating is on point when you are under a hectic period.

Different forms of stress may lead to inflammation. Inflammation has an effect on brain cells, which should be helping us make good decisions and control our emotions (put things in perspective, see beyond problems for instance.)

Aim to understand what brings you energy, what fuels you, what drains your energy, empties the tank so to speak. These analyses need to be both subjective and objective, wherever possible, using data to support your individual decision making and self-leadership. This is where wearable technology, data driven assessments with a professional can be of great help!

Routines are a great support for resilience. Routines are the key to coping with an intense period. Routines free time for what is important. Healthy routines (think sleep, evening, morning routines) support building that healthy, resilient baseline we all need. Routines enable creativity, ever thought of that?

So what about periods when it’s not intense or hectic then? Enjoy them! Use the time to build resilience, educate, learn, test, push your limits.

Think like an athlete, act like a strategic corporate professional.

Working on your resilience and performance is not about talking. It’s about learning and practicing. We recommend a data driven approach to resilience also for the corporate leadership rooms.

A resilient team has a plan and looks under the hood, on regular basis

A well-functioning leadership team is resilient, objective, diverse. A team that is able to look and see beyond, think strategically, act fast when needed, lead and be an example to everyone in the organization. A team in sync. A team that communicates and collaborates. We need individuals who know themselves, their strengths, capacity and are able to lead, own and optimize their own performance. By taking a step back and looking at ourselves not just as members of the executive team – but truly looking under the hood, how are we doing, how are we feeling - with the help of data and objective measurements. This way we build self-awareness but even more importantly, understanding how we may react a certain way, communicate a certain way – especially when under pressure, stress or dealing with multiple obstacles. This is crucial, if we want to have a functional team where the team is stronger together than as individuals.

An individual with a resilient baseline will have a healthier relation with themselves, peers, family, friends – and can not only get the best out of themselves but also support others. They are usually more prone towards collaboration than securing their own race.

For anyone to perform on the top, and lead by example, “walk the talk” - they need to be resilient. They need to be able to manage stress, know how to recover. Improved focus, enhancing cognitive performance and productivity are key areas for us to focus on. In order to adjust and modify behavior, you need the right attitude, the necessary knowledge, data sources, and the skills.

Where to start? Start by creating a plan. Put resilience on the executive team meeting agenda. Discuss, reflect and start acting upon. And on an individual level, here’s a thought: start consciously focusing on day time recovery, even during those working hours. Create your own recovery strategy for the days to come. And no, sleep alone cannot tick all boxes.

How to assess individual and organizational resilience?

In order to future proof your organization, making sure you are fit for change, whether self initiated or turbulence due to market or economical twists, building resilience is important. Obviously this means, both the individuals and the organization need to be prepared. Well, actually "prepared" is not enough.

We want to secure a steady, strong, resilient baseline that will carry us through these times, bounce back from “stress” - and if possible come out even stronger! Some might call it becoming “antifragile” (inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile) by doing so.

It’s crucial to understand "the keys" within corporate structure, processes, tools available - for making your business and organization more resilient, and see how these can be linked or turned into “walk the talk” leadership practices.

From an individual’s perspective self leadership is one of the keys when it comes to developing and maintaining resilience. Starting from: the better you know yourself, the better you may lead yourself. The better you are at listening to your “internal system” including understanding your emotional states, the better you will be able to steer yourself. And the same way of thinking actually applies to organizations.

I recommend looking into the following areas on an individual and team level, to gain a thorough understanding of the current level of resilience of your leadership team.

  • Capacity & Productivity
  • Wellbeing & Stress
  • Leadership & Walking the Talk
  • Network & Support
  • Culture & Motivation
  • Vision & Purpose
  • Structure & Roadmap

Assessing the current state from individual and group perspectives and drawing up a development plan as it suits the organization and its members. An external advisor can help you with this work. I would not recommend solely to rely on subjective self-assessments or peer feedback, but to gain objectivity by utilizing psychometric assessments such as the PRI, stress and recovery testing and other data whenever possible - and obviously then compare and match these with subjective feedback.

In a nutshell this systems approach tells us all the following areas and topics are not “either or” nor should they be treated as separate but rather to analyze how they impact and connect with one another. Both from risk and benefit perspectives.

To further simplify, we need to look into individuals’ relation to these three: “meaning and purpose - willingness - ability” when under stress, how an individual physically and mentally copes and leads themselves and do the same with the team / organization, translated into “strategy and vision - culture - structure” and every day leadership when going through turbulent times.

The stronger the current corporate culture and “walk the talk leadership” the bigger likelihood we have a resilient organization with resilient individuals.

Author Profile

As CEO & advisor within leadership, resilience and corporate cultures at Saga Performance, Satu Ahlman is a specialist in helping craft sustainable and healthy high-performance cultures for businesses. Working mainly as an advisor for leaders and executive teams of growth companies within tech/IT and professional services, she also helps private clients including a handful of elite athletes optimize their performance with the help of data and behavior modifications

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