Monday 18 March 2019
The Managing Partners’ Forum’s third Strategy Summit, hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, introduced two speakers whose personal and professional lives have been shaped by their strategies for adaptability and resilience for an era of change.
Caspar Craven, a businessman and adventurer shared his four steps for building resilient teams. This was developed from lessons learned from building businesses and planning life-changing, high-risk adventures. In 2011, when his data analytics consultancy, Trovus, was struggling, Craven decided to go back to basics and re-learn what it takes to be a leader. This produced a set of shared authentic values that would transform the business, which was sold for a seven-figure sum in 2015.
In the same year, Craven sailed around the world with his wife and three children, aged nine, seven and two. Although Craven himself was a veteran of round-the-world yacht racing, none of his family had any sailing experience, so he needed to plan carefully for every eventuality. He applies the same combination of detailed preparation and strong personal commitment to his business and personal challenges. The following is a summary of his four-step strategy for resilience:
Craven’s practical optimism, which can be applied to any challenge, was followed by a very different talk from Ronan Harrington, the founder of Alter Ego, whose underlying premise was to have the courage to let change be transformational. He started with a quote from Carl Rogers, ‘What is most personal is most universal’ and told us that his most formative memory was the death of his brother, in an accident, when he was a child. Consequently, he was driven to become an early achiever.
Harrington was the youngest futurist at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and subsequently director of a law firm (RPC LLP) at the age of 27. Harrington believes that resilience is the capacity to be shaped by your experiences. “We don’t so much solve our problems as we outgrow them. We add capacities and experiences that eventually make us bigger than our problems,” he says.
Harrington’s talk covered four main points:
Like Craven, Harrington focuses on mindfulness and adaptive behaviour change, with the goal of not defaulting into perpetual reaction mode, which creates stress and burnout. This Mindfulness builds personal resilience, breaking our addition to overthinking and being distracted, including by constant digital notifications.
Harrington’s ‘Mixed Mental Arts’ strategy incorporates six skills to manage thoughts and emotions and build resilience:
But personal resilience is not enough. Organisations need structural resilience too, which means embracing flexibility and effective communication and feedback. For professional services in particular, this can require a major culture change. Harrington worked for RPC as what he describes as an ‘animateur’, or someone who would bring the firm’s vision to life. Some of his unconventional approaches worked. He introduced the board to mindfulness, and all 80 partners to visualisation – where they brainstormed a shared vision of the law firm of the future. Ultimately, Harrington’s brutal honesty, which he described as being vulnerable enough to communicate his true feelings – which the managing partner appreciated and bought into – created problems, when he advised trainees that if they were not happy at the firm, they should feel free to leave! His final act of vulnerability/courageous communication was to record his exit interview as a podcast!
Harrington’s strategy seems extreme, but it was instantly effective. The Q&A session that followed included Sara Maccallum, senior partner at Boodle Hatfield, who shared some of her personal and professional challenges on the way to her senior leadership position, which she described as her ‘stewardship’ of the 300-year-old firm which regularly has to adapt to major changes in the business environment.
The key message from this thought-provoking event was about developing a strategy for resilience so that change is embraced as an opportunity to bring out the best in people and organisations, rather than a threat: we were advised to be prepared for the unexpected and be courageous in adversity.
Ultimately, resilience means bringing the best of humanity into the equation by planning carefully and inclusively, adapting to the unexpected with good humour and optimism and learning from experiences, including mistakes, and enabling your leadership and your people to navigate that journey. It is also about learning from each other and being inspired by change trailblazers like Craven and Harrington.