This past winter, I didn't wear a coat. It’s not that the cold didn't bother me; the idea wasn't to ignore the temperature. Instead, the idea was to build resiliency.
The fighter Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” As an entrepreneur, you need to roll with the punches. Complacency is deadly in business. Kodak, Blackberry, even AOL (see below) are cautionary tales of what happens when business leaders fail to adapt during changing times.
My own coat challenge was just one way to keep myself sharp. I’ll drive new routes home so I don’t fall into patterns. I’ll show up in a new city with only $10 in my pocket -- and no credit cards -- to see if I can figure out how to get my destination. I’ve even tried eating healthy off a food stamp budget for two weeks, learning how to keep what’s crucial and eliminate what’s superfluous.
Some people, by virtue of their DNA, are just born more resilient. Research shows that those naturally selected have a higher proportion of neuropeptide, a transmitter in the brain, that makes them more psychologically hearty and resistant to high-pressure situations. Luckily, research shows that resiliency can be as much nurture as it is nature.
While some of my self-imposed challenges may seem bizarre, resiliency training helps me rise to the demands of operating a business. Rather than let obstacles get the better of me, I’ve practiced the fine art of calculation, regulating my emotions in order to stay focused and find the clear path forward.
In my view, there are four things resilient individuals -- and organizations -- must do in order to rise above adversity.
1. Remain realistic.
Optimism is great, but big challenges require a sober grasp of reality. It’s important for business leaders to ask, “Do I truly understand -- and accept -- the reality of the situation?”
People who are overly positive are less likely to foresee pitfalls. Worse, they’re prone to slip into denial, rather than tackle the hard issues in front of them. The truth is, facing reality is often uncomfortable and requires a certain gut-check. But business leaders need that kind of cool, unblinking courage to confront difficult situations and move forward toward success.
2. Reframe problems into lessons.
When the going gets tough, we all know people who start to lament, “Why me?” But playing the victim doesn’t solve problems. Tough times are going to happen. The resilient leader asks, “What have I learned from this experience?” Not, “What have I lost?”
The lessons of past experiences only help to inform future chances to do it better next time. That’s something all successful businesses and individuals understand.
A case study from my own experience: Our health search business had a vision of getting into the cost transparency-business. And our exuberant sales team sold it -- but it was slideware, not software. The product had to be built under a tight deadline. The client, thinking it was already done, asked for customized modifications, which we had to build into the core product against a deadline. In the end, we ended up with a piece of customized software but violated the basic business rule: Build it once, sell it a hundred times.
3. Be resourceful.
Making do with what’s at hand takes discipline and a keen eye. Often, creative individuals with a varied skill set are able to come up with the best solutions. When the going gets tough, these leaders imagine possibilities and improvise their way toward a solution, whereas others may stay idle and remain confounded.
Resourceful individuals are more resilient since they’re able to rise above stress and thrive with changing times.
Another case study: Soon after we launched our website, a formidable competitor burst onto the scene. Revolution Health, founded by Steve Case of AOL -- here's my AOL example -- was well-funded and taking aim at the space we were in. How could we possibly compete? Rather than panic or fold up our tent, we looked for places where Revolution Health wasn't building things we felt consumers needed. We focused all our energies on those narrow spaces. And we made a bet on building traffic through free SEO from Google -- while Revolution burned through millions building its brand. This competitor also had internal issues that ultimately caused its failure, leaving the field wide open, because it chased some of the other smaller, less resilient competitors out of the way.
4. Work for a higher purpose.
Leaders would be wise to practice what Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl termed “meaning therapy.” Simply put, it teaches people to look past their immediate hardships to think of the greater meaning of their lives.
In business, purpose and profits don’t have to be at odds. A company that cares deeply about a cause creates intrinsic value for both the workers and the customers. At Vitals, we’re committed to making the experience of choosing healthcare better. That mission drives and unifies the staff. It makes it likely that employees will stick together -- and not jump ship -- during difficult periods. And it’s something customers can easily grasp and get behind.
In the end, no one in business can expect to simply walk out among the raindrops. Resiliency is a reflex, a way of understanding the world when the odds are stacked against you. It requires facing down the competition, improvising solutions and creating something meaningful out of work. This is how Vitals has survived during setbacks -- and will continue to when the next challenge arrives.