Building a culture of resilience

Purpose, people and process are key to weathering disruption and these three business pillars will support organisations through the coronavirus pandemic


In testing times, the British are fond of nothing more than a good homily. Whether it’s putting your best foot forward or keeping calm, there’s a distinct sense of carrying on regardless. However, when faced with a historic challenge, it takes more than a stiff upper lip to emerge not just safe, but stronger on the other side.

What defines a company’s culture as resilient? Such a company tends to have strong, transparent and visible leadership, engaged and empowered employees, and strong brand trust, both internally and externally. Resilient cultures have a powerful, ethical core so employees don’t have to second-guess the right thing to do.

Many also favour an agile working model, fostering a climate of collaboration that enables rapid communication and supportive, effective colleague networks.

If this sounds like something of a utopia, it is. Resilience culture is not built overnight. It depends on a long-term investment in purpose, people and process. And while most senior executives agree it is their goal in theory, in practice many are still far behind the curve.

A common purpose drives resilience culture

London’s Alexandra Palace is one of the UK’s busiest venues, hosting upwards of 400 events a year. It is also an historic destination and a charity. Creating a common purpose was about bringing the organisation together so it could maximise its potential as well as protect it from risk.

That risk isn’t just the chaos caused by COVID-19. The commercial arm operates in a highly competitive environment while, as a charity, Alexandra Palace is fighting for an ever-dwindling pot of private and public funds.

“It wasn’t about a consultant coming in to write a purpose for us,” insists Alexandra Palace’s chief executive Louise Stewart. “It was written by our team and captures what the organisation is about. It allows both the charity and commercial arms of the business to be passionate and have a sense of responsibility to the health of the whole organisation.”

Niki Lawson, director of human resources at global law firm Addleshaw Goddard, says: “People need to understand how they fit into the bigger scheme of things. One of the fundamental aspects of our brand is a culture of collaboration. People are rewarded for working together, which creates a network of support that has really been fundamental at the moment.”

However, Lisa Lyons, senior principal, leadership and workforce transformation practice lead at Mercer, says: “There’s a lot of talk of broader purpose, but much less action,” adding that Mercer’s Global Talent Trends research shows 85 per cent of business leaders agreed an organisation’s purpose should be about more than generating shareholder return, but only 35 per cent put it into practice.

People are the ultimate resilience resource

The idea of culture is so conceptual, it can be hard to know where to start. “Reskilling becomes a practical way to measure progress,” says Lyons. Companies with more resilience tend to include forward-looking metrics such as degree of workforce reskilling as well traditional, historical measurements like quarterly revenues or productivity, she adds.

TSB chief marketing officer Peter Markey discovered the value of broadening his own skills and those of his team when the bank encountered a significant IT outage in 2018.

“It became really important that we didn’t just hold on to jobs we did before and, instead, move quickly to a new way of operating with new types of roles and new types of work,” Markey explains. “My role became much more about front-facing communications rather than brand and advertising. Overall, it is about thinking differently and letting go of what you did before.”

For some, necessity has been the mother of invention. “COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to look at how we deliver what we do using a different model,” Stewart reveals. “We have staff who deliver in specific areas, but they have transferable skills, so we’re looking at developing a multi-skilled workforce that allows us to develop more quickly, even at a junior level.”

But again, leaders need to get rid of preconceptions. The Global Talent Trends research discovered that while 78 per cent of employees are ready to reskill, only 45 per cent of executives believe they are capable of doing so.

The process of communication

Staff flexibility is at the heart of building the agile processes that make up the third and final pillar of a resilient culture. Asking staff to pivot is no use unless a process is in place to support them.

Modern technology is undoubtedly a boon now and in a post-crisis world. At Alexandra Palace, Stewart notes the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need to invest in automated technologies to formerly sceptical holders of the charity’s purse strings. Addleshaw Goddard’s Lawson adds video conferencing has been revelatory in improving flexible working.

However, executives universally agree that it has been in transforming communication – frequency, transparency, hierarchy – that has delivered the biggest uptick in organisational resilience.

Lawson says straightforward communication, with no sugarcoating and direct from leadership, has been critical in weathering the pandemic. “We thought really carefully about it. Perhaps we’re even over-communicating, but the feedback is that it has been reassuring,” she says.

Stewart adds: “How we communicate has been very much experimental, but it’s about what style suits our organisation; checking in regularly, encouraging staff to share concerns, which is healthy, but also how to make sure we join those conversations to hear those concerns.”

Mercer’s Lyons concludes: “The changes we are witnessing, brought about by uncertain times, are setting a new precedent for how we live and work. This situation also shines a spotlight on the level of resilience of each company. We clearly see companies getting ahead in this period and others falling behind.”