How Top Workplaces build resilience

Kathy Lynn Gray
Maureen Metcalf, CEO, Innovative Leadership Institute

If there’s ever been a time when the resilience of each and every business is being tested, it is now.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, some are surviving. Some are teetering. And some are thriving. While the circumstances for each company vary, having a resilient staff from the top down is a common denominator.

That means, explains leadership expert Maureen Metcalf, having a staff that stays flexible and focused in times of uncertainty, doesn’t give in to panic, has a collaborative mindset and finds something positive in challenging situations. “It’s more important now because the rate of change is accelerating,” says Metcalf, founder and CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute in Columbus. “Our brains are wired to keep us safe and for many people, safety means following a routine that’s proven and trusted. But we’re in an environment where sticking to those routines creates a disadvantage for our companies.”

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That probably isn’t new information for leaders of Columbus CEO’s Top Workplaces for 2020. One is Bridgeway Academy, a private school for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. “The only constant at Bridgeway Academy is change,” says Erin Nealy, co-executive director of the Columbus school. “It’s part of our culture.” 

Nealy, a music therapist, and co-executive director Abigail David, a speech therapist, started the private school in 2005 after recognizing that services for children with developmental disabilities were scattered across the city. They decided to consolidate the services in one school. Since then, an initial enrollment of 12 has ballooned to 202 students, from preschoolers through 12th graders, housed in two buildings in the University District and northeast Columbus. 

Funding and best teaching practices are always subject to change, so the co-founders need to be nimble. 

“We need to be moving as quickly as the landscape around us, and we cannot become complacent,” Nealy says. With a challenging student body to teach, resilience is key for every employee, she says.

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To nourish that resilience, Nealy and David give their staff a voice and include them when developing new programs and making decisions about the long-term growth of the school. “We’ve given them the ability to become leaders themselves and have a sense of ownership of the programs they’re helping develop,” Nealy says. 

Nealy and David also stay mindful of what teachers are experiencing in the classroom and support their staff with needed resources as well as counseling for those with particularly demanding students and situations. That kind of support helps build employee resilience, says Greg Moran, a Columbus businessman who teaches leadership classes at Ohio University. 

“When people are operating from a place of fear, they have access to much less of their capacity as a person and worker,” Moran says. “If you as a leader operate from a context of optimism, hope and gratitude, employees have access to a much higher degree of their faculties.” Moran has put his advice into practice during a career that’s included time working on corporate innovation at Ford and Nationwide and more recently as chief operating officer of Aware. The Columbus startup helps companies securely deploy collaboration tools such as Slack and Facebook at Work. While many companies have shrunk during the COVID-19 crisis, Aware’s business has soared because it can be used when employees are working remotely.

“When we think about resilience, so much of it comes down to giving people the opportunity to tap into their own innate resilience, their own ability to weather a challenge with the highest amount of function possible,” Moran says. As the new coronavirus forced people to work from home, that resilience was tested—and hopefully strengthened, he says.

At Aware, employees who normally work in a large, open room and sit down at a community table for lunch each day had to figure out quickly how to transition. And as employees worked from home, company leaders had to adjust. “How could we adapt to a schedule where two adults were at home working and watching their kids? How could people continue to work creatively with each other?”

Plenty of technology has helped, Moran says, including a daily 4:30 p.m. “check-in” time over Zoom where employees can talk about any issues they’re having and what’s going on throughout the company.

Metcalf says the ability to adapt quickly to a business disruption—a disruption magnified beyond measure by the pandemic—has been a wakeup call to many businesses. “There’s got to be enough fluidity in the system to adapt to unexpected situations,” she says. “So many organizations are so lean that they’ve removed all the slack and because of that they lack resilience.” The change to a more resilient operation has to start with a company’s leaders, she says. Rather than focusing on the negatives of the situation, they need to see the positives. “That ability to reframe, to take something unfortunate and find something positive in it, is a huge skill, one of the biggest for sustaining resilience,” Metcalf says. “The more we can master the ability to put stuff into perspective and go forward in a constructive light and support one another, the better off we will all be. That positivity is as contagious as the negativity. From a business perspective, it impacts absenteeism and engagement, so it impacts the bottom line.”

Jessica Behrendsen, director of content and marketing for another of this year’s Top Workplaces winners, ScriptDrop, says a resilient workforce enabled her company to quickly reframe its business model in light of the coronavirus in March. ScriptDrop connects pharmacies and pharmacy systems nationwide with courier companies to streamline workflow of prescription deliveries to individuals. In mid-March, ScriptDrop expanded its services so individuals can initiate their own prescription deliveries through a text. “We realized that, with everything going on, this is something people needed more than ever,” Behrendsen says. “We condensed one to two years of work into five days and everyone rose to the challenge, which speaks highly of our executive team. They make us want to work hard for them.”

ScriptDrop CEO Nick Potts exudes positivity and resilience, Behrendsen says. “He has an excitement about what we’re doing as a company and for how much he wants us to succeed, individually and as a company. We’ve had to move some people to different teams through our changes, but not one single person complained. Our staff understands there will be times of chaos and times when things are orderly and they’re OK with both.”

Behrendsen says Potts is empathetic, open and transparent about what’s going on within the company—qualities that help employees rally behind him when change is needed. “It’s really important that your leadership team is setting an example of what you want your culture to look like, to be able to withstand when things get tough,” she says.

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Setting an example is vital for leaders, Moran says.

“Volunteer to help with things you don’t get credit for,” he says. “There’s a tendency in the corporate world for people to focus on the things they get credit for. That’s not a resilient behavior. In times of plenty that can work, but not when the going gets tough. That’s when you want people focused on the team, on the team being successful.”

Leaders also need to focus on building and maintaining resilience when they’re not facing a crisis, Moran adds. One way is to put employees in jobs “they’re not 100 percent sure they can do” and making sure they have enough mentoring and support to be successful. 

As employees work from home because of the coronavirus crisis, he’s asked them to “look down the road and think about what would make them more resilient,” such as having a higher internet speed or different equipment, Moran says. “You’re more resilient when you feel enabled,” he says. “I want someone who stays calm, is interested in as much data as possible, is willing to act with incomplete information, has empathy and courage and has positivity. You have to start from a place of optimism.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.