Resilience for Exhausted Organizations

by Phil Kalin

Now that COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, approved and made (in a limited fashion) available at breathtaking speed, there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But it’s still a long way off. Virtually all of our companies will continue operating differently for months, maybe years, to come. Yet the exhaustion created by new work-life arrangements, social upheaval, economic uncertainty and uneven recovery isn’t dissipating. Indeed, it seems even more pernicious. I’m watching people at all levels of my company, even those who were previously valiant in the face of these circumstances, begin to sag under the weight. And, truth be told, my own reserves are also taxed. These are the times when looking to other leaders for lessons about how to replenish those reserves both freshens my outlook and helps me do the same for my people.

A recent article from McKinsey offers lessons learned by retired four-star admiral and former Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson from long-term naval deployments about leading through uncertainty.

One is “Stoic acceptance of the situation is critical.” (Navy men seem to embrace the Stoic philosophers: the late Admiral James Stockdale got through his years as a POW in Vietnam by remembering Epictetus’ admonition to focus on what you can affect, and not waste energy on the conditions you can’t.) To Admiral Richardson, that means recognizing that we’re in a long-term situation with an uncertain end. So don’t fret about that. Instead, set personal and team goals, because “the routine and discipline necessary to achieve them builds resilience…(and) a sense of control.” Isn’t control what we all long for right now? “Setting and achieving team goals under stress…can unite and strengthen us.”

Admiral Richardson also notes how essential it is to be attuned to your team – getting away from the desk, talking and listening. Of course, that’s not possible in a remote environment. But sitting in on team meetings and engaging in our company Chat channels are proxies I use. Yet it goes beyond my own engagement. On a submarine, the admiral had a “chief of the boat” who spoke directly for the crew. We all need the leaders around us to speak for their teams and share what they’re hearing and seeing from their people. At Pinnacol, our quarterly Pulse Polls give me a window. But we can’t rely solely on anonymous polls; there’s no substitute for face-to-face (even by Zoom) personal exchanges.

Finally, a fundamental lesson is: if this is where we are going to be for the foreseeable future, it is essential to manage and conserve your energy as a leader. Take breaks. As chief of naval operations, Admiral Richardson set a policy that every senior leader would take 10-14 continuous days of vacation each year, and unplug completely when doing so. At a time of stress such as this, it’s even more important. (My colleague who edits these columns is silently pointing a finger at me as I write this.) And delegate to your crew. “You’re valuable as a leader, but you’re also vulnerable as a leader, and your team will suffer if you’re truly the only person who can make all the decisions.” Just as in insurance we spread risk, so we as leaders must spread the risk by sharing the load with our trusted lieutenants.

Phil Kalin

Phil Kalin joined Pinnacol Assurance as CEO in 2013. He has served as the chief executive of both public and privately-backed companies, including large hospital systems, as well as organizations focused on health care data, technology and education.

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