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Interim executives have learned tough lessons about resilience

28th June 2022

Resilience means dealing with challenging experiences well: flexing and reacting temporarily as the situation demands.  And interims excel in resilience.

At Rouen Business School, Marc Lambron taught resilience to aspiring French business executives. He would send us to the front of the lecture theatre to present on any subject he chose. He was deliberately taking us out of our comfort zones in front of our peers. Marc wanted us to lose our fear of showing others our vulnerability. He was teaching us how to stand on our feet and deal with stress – and react to it positively.

“People warm to you as a leader,” he would tell us, “If they know you are human too.” Seeing your peers do the same, you learn that everyone has their vulnerable side. Opening ourselves to others teaches us the power of empathy and even develops courage. This stressful experience builds the personal tensile strength to bounce back each time we face challenges. This is the resilience essential to today’s executives when managing business change.

The work of Dominique Steiler of Grenoble Ecole de Management underlines the growing importance of resilience amongst today’s leaders (Financial Times, May 2022). Steiler, a former fighter pilot, likes to catch executives off-guard in front of large groups of their peers. Both Lambron and Steiler understand that people can learn positive lessons from a crucible of fear. There was no personal danger involved in their classes, but enough stress -caused by having to get up and speak confidently about almost anything in front of large numbers of your peers – was enough to build resilience.

Experiences like this cause anxiety because people are afraid of showing weakness and vulnerability. However, once released from this worry, personal strength builds, and competencies such as resilience, courage and emotion intelligence develop. These are the leadership qualities needed to manage an economic storm, business change and even rapid growth.

Interim executives, hired on a temporary basis to lead and accelerate change, are highly effective because of their resilience to stressful and ambiguous situations. Their ability to react quickly and make the right decisions when a business needs to deal with change is why they are hired. This resilience is the result of interims managing a new assignment with a different business every year.

“It’s stressful each time I join a new business,” an experienced interim programme director told me last week, “But you learn to deal with it, act on your feet and make the right decisions, fast.”

The incumbent CFO of a defence services business left with faltering contracts, negative cashflow, lack of leadership and regulatory issues. The business had no resilience – it couldn’t bounce back. An interim CFO made the right calls quickly and turned the business around, bringing in new contracts and even business awards. In the words of the CEO,

“The interim shared our pain but showed us how to rebound. She was like a steel bridge taking the strain and carrying us safely to the other side.”

Walking into a boardroom or onto a shopfloor when everyone is looking to you for reassurance and the lead is daunting for anyone. Interims offer a powerful combination of competencies – including resilience. Vast business experience built on a lifetime of managing change allows them to empathise, communicate and then lead.

(Financial Times, May 17, 2022:  ‘Leaders learn tough lessons about resilience’, Seb Murray)

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