Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

How to build business resilience

Overcoming misfortune or disaster is about focusing on a brighter future, says Sam Cawthorn

In brief

  • Bouncing forward is growing from adversity – that’s where innovation and thought leadership reside
  • Research shows that the most productive and successful teams and individuals are purposefully happy
  • Managers need to invest in staff development and drive negativity out of the workplace

By Leon Gettler
Photography by Mark Tantrum

Sam Cawthorn is a resilience specialist, sharing his expertise with some of the world’s biggest companies including Apple, Google, Exxon Mobil and Citibank.

He is an expert in resilience from close personal experience. In 2006, his life changed forever when he had a head on collision with a semi-trailer.

“I fell asleep at the wheel and I veered over to the other side of the road,” Cawthorn says.

He was declared clinically dead by paramedics for three minutes. The 26 year old was then revived and rushed off to intensive care.

“I was on life support for an entire week. They told my wife I was not going to wake up and to make funeral preparations.”

Cawthorn lost his right arm above the elbow. He could no longer bend his left leg and still can’t. But he was alive. And determined to succeed.

He went on to win the Young Australian of the Year award and wrote a book, Bounce Forward, telling leaders and business people how to turn adversity into innovation and productivity. He now tours the world talking to companies, running workshops and programs to help build their resilience. In his spare time, he plays guitar (despite the above-elbow amputation) and swims.

Cawthorn says “bouncing back” is not the right way to describe recovery from adversity.

“We have heard this terminology of bouncing back from the global financial crisis, or terrorism or even in our own personal lives how we’re bouncing back in relationships or problems,” Cawthorn says.

“I have an issue with that term because what it implies is that, after a crisis or an adversity hit, we are going back to the place that got us to the problem in the first place. It’s about learning from the crisis, it’s about growing from that adversity and then bouncing forward into what we can become. That’s where innovation, creativity and thought leadership reside. So now I teach organisations and people to bounce forward.”

Focus and energy

Cawthorn says there are three strategies to resilience.

“The number one is where focus goes, energy flows. What we focus on is what we get. If I focused on my adversity, or my problem, or my disability or my issues or my crisis, that’s how I am going to feel. It would get into my psychology, it would also stop me from moving forward because I am just focusing on everything that’s going wrong.

“After my accident, I shifted my focus not to my disability but to my ability. What can I do, what can I focus on? I have kids out there that love me unconditionally, a wife who supports me so I shifted my focus.

“Even if I live with phantom pain, I don’t focus on it. It’s like a distraction process that I take my mind through.

“The second thing is that proximity is power which means this: the company that we keep determines who we are. One of the main contributors to my rehabilitation was the company I keep — my wife, my family, my kids, including also my friends, my colleagues. They were there by my side, encouraging me all along the way. When it comes to resilience and being proactive with resilience, surround yourself with positive people that will help you get through that tough time.

“The third area is an area I like to call leveraging happiness. With growing rates of depression around the world right now, here are the latest stats: depression rates today are ten times greater than what they were in the 1930s Great Depression. The mean onset of depression 35 years ago was 29 years old, today it is 14 years old. There is a recent study showing that the World Health Organisation now predicts that by the year 2015, depression will be the number one cause of illness, it will even overtake cancer.

“There must be a way we can counteract this and bring happiness and positivity back into our proximity purposefully.

“Some of the latest research that’s coming out on happiness shows that the most productive, the most successful teams and individuals are purposefully happy. It means that even though I live with a disability and I am constantly in pain, I choose to focus on how I can be happier and positive in my life. I choose to focus on the good things in life, not the negative things. “There is so much research out there showing that the happiest people are the most successful. Most people think that when we find success, only then are we happy but I believe it’s completely the other way around. Happier people become more successful so it’s just simply a matter of choosing to be happier. We do a lot of exercises to teach people how they can snap themselves out of a negative mindset.”

What we focus on is what we get. If I focused on my adversity, or my problem, or my disability or my issues or my crisis, that’s how I am going to feel.
Sam Cawthorn Resilience specialist

Organisation boost

Cawthorn says managers need to invest in staff development and ensure that negativity is driven out of the workplace. “I have worked with organisations where I have developed a number of programs and initiatives that have boosted the productivity of organisations up to 35 per cent, and we have proof of that as well,” he says.

“It could be anything from a six-month program, it could be mixture of videos and face to face or workshops, it could be coaching or mentoring but we provide holistic solutions but it depends what kind of environment they’re working in. It has to be tailored.”

Cawthorn says this has now become very much his life mission but he acknowledges it could have been very different if he had stayed awake at the wheel that day. He puts it down to a “kairos” moment, a moment in time laden with meaning and choice, a time of crisis and new possibilities.

“I think having a death experience gives you a kairos moment in your life, a moment within a moment of drastic change. I think going through a death experience I had this kairos moment where I realised I went through this for a purpose, where I believe I should help other people going through crisis transition, to help them where they are today to where they want to be tomorrow.”

Emergency plan

Benny Prince CA, Head of Risk & Assurance, Finance & Risk Group at Contact Energy in Wellington, New Zealand, says resilience is about companies being prepared to cope with the consequences of risks they are either unable to completely control, or have no real ability to anticipate.

“At a practical level, this involves committed and ongoing risk management, particularly in the area of emerging risk — scanning, analysing, anticipating,” he says.

Prince says it means companies have to build business continuity management. This involves developing crisis management plans, site emergency response plans, business continuity plans and disaster recovery plans.

Leon Gettler is an independent journalist and presenter.

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Acuity magazine.

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