Everyone Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth – How CEOs Are Developing Resilience

By Tim Clouting

The CEO’s role has never been easy, and it doesn’t look like it will be getting easier any time soon. New entrants, digitisation, changing consumer buying patterns, new shareholders and profit warnings, being a CEO in today’s business environment requires high levels of resilience on both a personal level and within the organisation itself.

As Mike Tyson famously once said “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth”, and it was this quote that kicked-off the debate at Savannah’s recent Boardroom Lunch for Chairs, NEDs, CEOs and investors across Leisure, Hospitality and Travel sectors.

Our discussion centred on the subjects of disruption and resilience; how to strike the balance between protecting your historic business models while transitioning to new ones, and amidst all this disruption, what coping mechanisms both personally and within their teams are CEOs weaving into the DNA of their organisation?

What follows are lessons and insights picked up from some of the most successful players within the leisure and hospitality sectors, explaining how they’re reacting to a fast-changing world, and what their advice would be to other CEOs in a similar position.

Build company resilience

Resilience isn’t a trait we may think about on a regular basis, but by having an engaged workforce, you are more likely to have a resilient one. Engaged employees are more likely to be able to bounce back from setbacks because they care more about your company. They’re more eager to tackle difficult tasks because they truly want to see your business succeed. You can have the smartest, most dedicated team, but if they can’t overcome challenges, their skills won’t always make up for it. In companies, resilience is often linked to engagement. If they believe and feel valued, they’re naturally more resilient.

New product/service development – keep evolving

A serial NED and Chair observed that in a disrupted and challenging market, the natural inclination can be to hunker down and cut costs, yet it is critical to continually focus on new product and service development. Especially in a sector like the hospitality sector where the focus should be on delivering an enjoyable experience for consumers, investment should be prioritised for developing better customer experiences as if you aren’t doing it, a competitor will be. Continually investing in your people and the product avoids the prospect of falling in to a vicious circle of falling morale and poor service.

Accept that change and disruption are the ‘new normal’

The first step in building resilience is to recognise and accept that things are unpredictable, and that the rate of change we face is only going to increase. Rather than wishing things would ‘settle down’ or be less chaotic, effective leaders embrace uncertainty and focus on becoming experts at navigating shifting terrain. By accepting we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world and that some things will be outside our control, leaders are able to then refocus on what they can control: how they react to challenges as they arise.

Leaders who consciously place themselves in challenging, yet “safe-to-fail” situations, start to become increasingly comfortable with being uncomfortable, and so are able to make better decisions under stress and rebound faster from setbacks. On the other hand, leaders who constantly seek to play it safe and avoid challenging situations, do not develop their natural level of resilience, and will tend to be less able to respond effectively when things don’t go to plan.

Proactively manage risk

The Partner of a well known private equity firm talked about how a new Chairman had instigated a risk committee forum every four months to shift the focus from internal issues to external ones. In this respect, it stopped them navel gazing and allowed the leadership team to proactively recognise and discuss potential risk they needed to be aware of. This changed the dialogue and focus of the leadership team and allowed them to get on the front-foot with a more proactive stance, as opposed to reacting to events as they happened.

The CEO of a FTSE 250 talked about the importance of focusing only on the “controllables”. For external events like Brexit or forex movements, you have to recognise that you cannot control them, so while they require planning, they shouldn’t be fixated on as it wastes energy. Focus on the things that are truly within your grasp.

Positivity is a plus

A CEO’s ability to shake off a misstep and not dwell in negativity is a major step forward. Overly pessimistic business leaders may have a harder time getting past those emotions, limiting their ability to take the lead when it comes to business conflict.

If you remind yourself, your teams and your organisation that much of what they’re facing is temporary, and that they’ve overcome setbacks before, it will help them to do it again. Resilient people focus on what they can gain from the experience and spot learnings from even the most challenging of situations.

Have a support system

This is true for professionals at any level. One CEO talked about the importance of protecting the wider team and allowing them to focus on their day-job. When probed on who stops the CEO worrying, he talked about the importance of a supportive chairman, or failing that, outside mentors or advisors. Having mentors and peers to turn to can be a major part of overcoming obstacles. Interpersonal support is believed to be one of the single best drivers of human resilience and therefore in business, it is crucial who you surrounded yourself with, whether that is team members, advisors or investors.

Mindfulness and resilience

Although not frequently discussed round the board table, the theme of mindfulness was mentioned as an effective way to build resilience, becoming more common as part of the daily routines of leaders seeking a performance edge, ranging from corporate CEOs to elite athletes. Mindfulness is about improving your capacity to notice your thoughts, feelings and physical state, in the moment and without judgement, and then being able to consciously redirect your attention back to where you want it. In the context of resilience, it is the ability to consciously direct your attention to the task at hand in the face of challenges and setbacks

Keep moving forward

Resilience is not about bouncing back, it’s about moving forward. Learn from your mistakes but don’t relive them. Your experience is better applied to finding solutions rather than troubleshooting problems. Building on what goes right accelerates your improvement and gives you confidence.

Not all failure is negative

People acknowledge that what they once believed was terrible luck often becomes a crucial turning point. Having lived through failure, you learn that it is not fatal, and if we all accept that significant failures will happen in our career, you realise you can recover.

All leaders face setbacks and challenges, and the capacity to bounce back from these is a developable skill. There are many different ways to do this, including consciously pushing yourself to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

In a Harvard Business Review article, one CEO commented, “more than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics and it’s true in the boardroom”. The value of building resilience cannot be overstated. It is arguably, the most important characteristic to develop for any leader.

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” In different words, be resilient!

About The Author

Partner, Leisure, Hospitality and Travel Sector
Tim Clouting focuses on executive and board appointments across a variety of functions within Travel, Leisure and Hospitality. He has an outstanding track record developed over nearly 20 years. His dedication and deep expertise has earned him an exceptional reputation with both clients and candidates alike.
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