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The Resilient Director

January 29, 2024

Posted in: WATSON Views

This is the third in our four-part Resilience Series, From Nice Word to Powerful Action: The Board’s Role in Creating a Resilient Organization. Read Part 1: Resilience is a Nice Word, here, and Part 2: The Resilient Board, here

In the first part of our series, we explored the shifting and increasing expectations of boards to position organizations not just to withstand external forces, but to find opportunity and advantage in a changing world. In Part 2, we explored what it takes for them to do so as a board. 

Of course, a resilient board requires resilient directors. In Part 3, we explore what makes for a resilient director and how they are developed.

The resilient director embodies important strengths while helping others build those strengths in themselves. Just as with organizations and boards, when we call a director resilient, we mean that they can reset quickly when things have not gone as planned and can find a positive path forward in the face of challenge. These directors also help others’ resilience by reframing conversations from problems to solutions, contributing to boardroom psychological safety, candour, and diverse thought, and by deepening collective knowledge and systems thinking around the organization and its ecosystem.

How to develop resilient directors, as individuals and as a collective.

Resilience is something we cultivate, not something we are born with, and it is one of the subtler contributions directors can bring to the boardroom. Sometimes what we call “gravitas” is really a calm resilience; a presence that gives others confidence that this is a person who will see them through difficult times with calm, measured, and focused energy. Often this quality is developed through experiencing many challenges and business cycles as a leader or director, but we equally see earlier-career directors whose broader experiences have helped them build the mindsets and habits of resilience.

4 Ways to Develop Your Resilience Muscle

If we know how our values are aligned with the organization’s impact, then we are better able to regroup, reframe, and chart a new course. We can let go of the past and present more easily and reset to shape a different future, and we can find new reserves of our own energy because the work has meaning to us. Values are at the core of resilience.
When faced with setbacks or challenges, we can pause to interrupt our instinctive reactions and work consciously to focus on what we can control. We can reframe challenges in an optimistic and pathfinding mindset rather than catastrophizing and apply the strategic part of our brains.
Our resilience muscle is most powerful if we use it where it can make a difference. This means we need to deeply understand the organization, its ecosystem, and the external and internal forces and risks at play. It should be embedded in our thinking so that we can react quickly and effectively when the moment demands.
Resilient directors do this even when they are not in formal board leadership positions. We need to have trust and connection with our fellow directors and key members of management so that when the conversation is difficult, we can help surface issues and views, foster candid and constructive dialogue, and spark different thinking.

Foster a culture of resilience.

Boards must create a culture of continuous learning, including lateral connections. The world moves quickly; set the expectation that, while past experience brings value, directors must be attuned and curious about the world around them.

For example, a former sector CEO will have a lot to contribute, but unless they are actively reading and learning, they might miss the risks and nuances of how to navigate hybrid workplaces in today’s context; or when and how to make a statement about a tragic global or local event; or how to advocate or influence without running afoul of current societal norms.

To contribute strongly to resilience, directors need to be highly aware of forces like digital transformation, cyber-risk, global supply chain risks, current macro-economic conditions, political and regulatory context, and ongoing societal shifts as they apply today and in future. Ideally, they also need to be plugged into the zeitgeist so that they have a solid instinct for where norms and values are evolving. Directors’ ongoing reading and learning needs to combine facts and ideas and come from a range of sources so that directors are not operating in one bubble of thought. They should share what they’re reading with other directors, encouraging a culture where continuous learning is the norm. Ongoing board education is an opportunity for directors to deepen their knowledge of the business and its ecosystem, and to develop and apply systems thinking. It can be built into meetings on a regular basis, in addition to special sessions.

Fostering continuous learning and a culture of resilience are both enabled by director recruitment and selection. Look for mindsets and habits of learning and resilience and round out board diversity to bring different experiences and lenses to the table.

We are asking more and more of directors, but what’s the alternative? In a complex and rapidly changing world, oversight will never be simple or straightforward. The conclusion here must be that directorship is not for everyone; only the curious and committed will meet the challenge. How do you know if you are resilient and ready? Read on for Part 4: Priorities for Resilience.

Reach out to explore how your board can advance resilience. We embed resilience factors in board evaluations and governance reviews, director feedback processes, board education, and advisory projects. We find and place resilience-ready directors and executives. Let’s talk.

Download and share the PDF of the full series:
From Nice Word to Powerful Action: The Board’s Role in Creating a Resilient Organization