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Resilience is the most important leadership skill – Kelvin Balogun

In this interview, Kelvin Balogun, Senior Partner, Ventures, at Verraki, and a former President of Coca-Cola in South and East Africa, speaks to BusinessDay’s Frank Eleanya on resilient leadership, how people can build resilience for themselves and what employers need to do to improve resilience in their people.

What does it mean to be a resilient leader?

According to the dictionary, resilience is the ability to return something to its original form after being stretched or compressed. In the context of a person, it is the capacity to recover quickly from adversity, difficulties, or depression. In the context of businesses, it is the capability to deal with business cycles, the upside-down dynamism of operating in a VUCA world: an operating environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And these words, acting in concert, describe the global environment and of the country in the last few months. When we started this year, no one, without being clairvoyant, could have predicted that the world that we welcomed a few months ago would shut down businesses, forcing many organizations globally to rethink the foundation of their business models.

Resilience is a quality of high-performing leaders because it describes how leaders deal with the curveballs that inevitably come towards organizations as they are being led strategically from where they are to a defined destination. Leaders must cultivate in themselves and others, what it takes to advance, adjust, and thrive, even within the operating context changing.

Why is this important? Because as a leader, you are the primary driver of the emotional balance of the organization. You are the custodian of the tonality and energy level of the organization. You carry the responsibility of helping to protect the energy of the people in terms of how they show up at work, or how motivated they are in doing whatever they need to do to move the organization forward. Whenever curveballs come, the energy level is disrupted. For instance, news about a competitor’s success are external to the business but fundamentally can alter the confidence of the organization, its energy, and the context within which people operate. It is your job to energize people in a way that enables the organization to continue to perform and excel. That is why your emotional leadership or your resilience as a leader is extremely important. Resilience is a back-of-the-house type way of defining leadership, embodying all it takes to galvanize an organization from where it is to a defined goal or vision.

How can people build resilience and why is it important today?

For many years, I led fairly significant operations and one of the things I learned as I moved up the organization, in positions of increasing responsibility, is what organizations look for when they want to put people in roles of increased importance. When I was much younger, I used to think it was your academic depth, or how much knowledge you have or the finesse with which you use to do your work and all that.

But what I later learned, when I now occupied a leadership position and needed to promote people into very critical roles was that the most important leadership skill is resilience. Yes, you want people who are competent and can get the job done; yes, you want people that can work well with others, who are compassionate and can lead teams, while engaging and inspiring people as well as themselves. Yes, you want people who can develop destinations that are logical and challenging and can navigate people there.
But when it comes to determining who to give a chunk of your, for instance, three billion dollar target, that you have to deliver in a year, you realize it is based on how they stand up in the crossfire of dealing with the day-to-day business. You know that the operating context is going to throw different curveballs into the business. You know there will be bad days and bad news. You know when you introduce a business plan and you say you’re going to do this in the next year; something that you rarely say is that this is conditioned on a set of assumptions and that this will be achieved only if all things work as planned. Nothing works as planned, so the task of managing the organization is how well you deal with those inevitable challenges and surprises that come your way.

So you give the job to a soldier that you know will fight the battle, will not disappoint in the face of fire, understands what responsibility is, can motivate his troops, and can face the challenge of being the face of success or failure.

That is why resilient leadership is extremely important.

Read also: Experts canvass for female-centric marketing approach at WIMCA 2020

How can people build this?

Experience is a part of that. I found out that we are all works in progress. I have found people who speak the role, look the part but at the first battle, they collapse. They grow defensive, they lose their composure, start fighting their people, and deflecting responsibility. The key is going through the crucible of challenges. This is why when people are growing in the operating line, they are said to be given roles of increasing importance. So obviously you have to start relatively small and then as you show yourself and build the capabilities to operate at that level, you are taken to higher levels.

Now, what changes in the person as he/she moves from level to level? The first thing that changes is self-awareness. When we start, we have a notion of ourselves that usually is divorced from the reality of who we are and how we impact others. As you go through the crucible of challenges, you learn a lot about yourself from self-reflection and feedback from others. You can almost draw a straight line connecting the increase in your executive self-awareness, to your ability to operate at a much higher level, and your ability to impact the business in a positive sense.

The other thing is attention, having flexibility and stability of focus through different situations. What challenging situations always tend to cause is to draw us into those situations, making you lose perspective of everything else. It is important to deal with the situation at hand but still keep the focus of where you are in the context of everything else. Because unless you retain that focus, you can’t effectively steer the business. While everybody is focused on the issue that is demanding attention at hand, you need to lift your head and guide your people, to the promised land. So building that stability of focus is a critical part of building resilience.

What can leaders do to build resilience in their employees?

Communicate, communicate, and communicate.

There are three sides to this; what you say, what your body language projects, and the actions that you galvanize. What you say is extremely important. When something happens, people want to understand how you feel and what your take on it is as they can only get a glimpse of that from what you say.

You have the opportunity to tell them what you see and what it means to you and what you believe about this issue. If you are the head of the team, you are communicating with the team. Communication is a critical way that leaders build resilience in employees.

Projecting confidence is also important because it is a more holistic communication when you project confidence. That is where self-awareness of your body language is important. You have to project an air of comportment, of confidence, of humility. This must be done consciously; you cannot allow your body language to be whimsical or unintentional because everything that you do communicates. When the curveballs come, all the actions and inactions that you take to galvanize action gives your people confidence and a channel for their energy. When you do this, you kill negative energy and you galvanize the organization to a better place.

What are the essential skills for resilient leadership?

I think we have started talking about it. You need resilience ahead of crises, through crises and post-crisis. The calibration of what you do may differ but you find out that these three key points around communication, projection, and galvanizing the right action towards your vision are always going to be relevant. The way you calibrate before the event happens is very important, in terms of proactivity. The way you deal during the heart of the crisis is also extremely important.

Also, grit is necessary, as resilience is born out of grit, the inability to not give up. Grit is a critical factor for success and the higher the level of grit you have, the more resilient you are, and the greater your ability to face challenges; not just COVID-19 but also personal challenges or career curveballs. Grit is a very essential quality for anyone that follows them into leadership irrespective of what type of leadership we are talking about.

To add to that, resilience reflects a mindset of purpose, of seeing abundance rather than scarcity. When you have a positive mindset, that understands nothing lasts forever – not good or bad times – it doesn’t matter what you do, you know that in the morning, there will be sunshine. When you have that mindset, you are likely to have resilience. That mindset is important and its what keeps you grounded in some form.

What is the role of purpose in resilient leadership?

What keeps us going has to be the ultimate impact that we want to have and the significance of our destination to us, either as an individual or as a collective. Why, for instance, would you take an examination that you have failed again? It is because there’s a larger purpose; you have determined that this is the kind of person you want to become, this is a critical milestone in getting there, so yes, you may have tried and failed but will try again. The purpose is what drives us and you find it at the organization level. I remember early in my career when I was running Kenya as the Country Manager for Coca-Cola.

It was a very bad year and the numbers were poor. It didn’t help that I inherited it that way. During sessions, I would share my extremely negative numbers while some of my colleagues shared better numbers. Those who have held operations roles know how humbling this can be. But that was where I learned resilience. What motivated me was I could always see a light at the end of the tunnel. I realized that if all the things we were working on succeeded, it would create a significant impact and say something very meaningful about us as black leaders. At that time, all my predecessors had been white. I was one of the first wave of African leaders to take over from the white leaders in Africa. So I always said to myself ‘look: imagine when we get this right, what statement this would make’ and I would say that to my team as well. How this would allow us to say to the detractors that we have what it takes to address challenges like this, strategically and do it well, and that we have what it takes to build a world-class organization.

And that drive, that desire to create something of a larger impact drove us through those dark days even when the results were not coming, and this ultimately laid the foundation for what transformed not just Coca-Cola’s operations in Kenya but all of East Africa. So, yes, the purpose is at the center of it, a belief in something larger than the challenges that you’re dealing with. Someone asked me how come Nigerians have never collapsed over the challenges they have faced over the last 60 years? Well, there’s a Nigerian phrase ‘no condition is permanent’. People always feel that as crazy as this time, they are just precursors to a much better time and that gives us the energy to withstand the difficulties of the day.

How can leaders share a purpose with their teams?

There is something a leader-mentor of mine once told me; he said that you see the organization as an emotional collective, you recognize that as the leader, you are setting the tone for the collective emotion or energy level of the organization. Some people are very clinical and emotionless but sometimes when things are difficult, people simply want an emotional anchor, a kindred to lift their spirits, help them to move to a better day. In one of my last assignments at Coca-Cola, I was posted to run the Sub-Saharan business in South Africa. I was extremely tired and burnt out from the previous assignment but went to start. On the day I got there, while I was yet to unpack at the hotel and still mentally rehearsing the message to my new colleagues and organization, the South African government announced they would impose a Sugar Tax. This was a significant amount of financial impact, a huge sum gone from my profits even before I could start operations. Of course, it shook the organization to its core. The organization, including myself, was extremely confused.

My first task was to address a town hall. I initially had a script of inspiring things I was going to say. But when I got there and looked at the staff, I told them the truth about what I had hoped to say. I then shared what the news meant to me at the emotional level, how I moved from despair to pulling myself together, and the resolve that every problem has a solution. Then I asked that we all find the collective resolve to solve it and act in unity. Later on, I got to hear that what I said happened to be the message that was most relevant at that time. My new colleagues didn’t want to hear platitudes, inspiring messages about how this didn’t matter, examples of my strategies, or even what I had done before. They just wanted an emotional anchor, someone that was expressing what they felt yet gave them the confidence to move forward.

Authenticity in leadership is very important. People know that you are not perfect and that you don’t have all the answers. But they expect you to show up, they want to see you represent the finest qualities, and create clarity for the situation at hand as well as the intended destination. They want you to galvanize them around the right set of actions.

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