Lessons from a Big Fall

user Andrew Blum
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In business, as in life, there are big falls. And they change you. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

You need look no further than “The Great Recession” for an all-too-recent example of a big fall and its impact—the trauma is mostly behind us, while the reality is still firmly upon us. And the effects will likely be long-lasting.

On the personal side, I experienced my own big fall this year—literally: While helicopter skiing on a remote Alaskan mountain, I lost my footing and fell about 500 feet down a particularly steep slope. I suffered a severe tibia-fibia break, but consider myself fortunate to have escaped much more serious injury.

What does this have to do with leadership from the C-suite? Nothing. Except for the fact that there are significant parallels between leading a life and leading an organization. So with this introduction, here are five learnings from my big fall that could be relevant to you and your organization:

1. Settle in to the reality of the circumstance. After the multiple medevacs and surgeries, I found myself faced with at least six weeks of zero mobility and a long, painful period of recovery and physical therapy. For a classic “Type A,” this new reality was something I strongly resisted. Of course, the resistance was futile—my leg was broken, and the denial did me absolutely no good. Once I begrudgingly settled in and accepted the reality of the circumstance, the remarkable thing is that I began to see myriad new opportunities. Thinking about these opportunities helped put my mind at ease, in addition to providing new personal and professional inspirations.

How this relates to you as a senior executive: In the context of our consulting work, I often notice there is an extended period of resistance, denial, or upset when a client organization is affected by a major hit to its stock price, a downsizing, or the challenges of a restructuring. The natural, emotional reaction often triggers people, teams, even many CEOs, to pull in and focus on the trauma at the exclusion of everything else—often causing productivity to halt and the negative effects of the disruptive event to amplify and persist longer than necessary. The sooner you, as a leader, can empathetically and effectively move the organization from reaction to acceptance, the sooner some level of productivity will resume. And with that productivity and the results that inevitably follow, morale almost always improves.

2. Adopt a highly responsible mindset. It’s often easy to be a victim. The alternative—that you played a direct role in the fall and its resulting disruption—can be a bitter pill to swallow. In my case, I first questioned the judgment of my helicopter pilot guide in putting me on a tough mountain with particularly challenging conditions. I also wondered if the skis my guide had recommended were inappropriate for the day’s conditions. Yet with time and reflection, I came to appreciate that I was ultimately responsible: I enthusiastically climbed into and out of the helicopter on that fateful day, I listened to my guide’s gear recommendation even though years’ of research and experience told me to choose a different set of skis, and I was of course the one who lost my footing. Of note, this responsible mindset helped me feel much better, not worse, because it served to remind me of the broader influence I can have when I act with thought and intent.

How this relates to you as a senior executive: Accepting circumstance is crucial, but truly owning it with a mindset of responsibility is another important part of the recovery process. We find that this attitude enables organizations to learn more from their falls than if these falls are written off as being entirely the result of external happenings. What’s more, when people responsibly own what they’ve done including their accountability in falls, we observe that they are much more likely to responsibly own what they’ll do to address them moving forward… and this is fundamental in advancing your organization to a better plane. And since you as a leader role model mindset and behavior, the highly responsible organizational mindset starts with you.

3. Question your beliefs and assumptions. I had always believed that I could never be happy or realize my potential without the rhythm of day-to-day exercise and the strength and calm that it gave me. This even influenced my identity. Yet with ability to exercise entirely off the table for a long time, I had no choice but to revisit my belief. And after doing this, I found it easier to reinvent how I viewed myself and ultimately transition from being an especially determined triathlete to being an especially reflective leader. Now many months after my big fall, I think most people who know me well would say that my accident led to a reinvention through which I have become calmer, more centered, and consistently more compassionate.

How this relates to you as a senior executive: So much of what we do in business is based on our fixed beliefs and assumptions. Crisis or failure can often highlight the weakness in these underlying beliefs and assumptions, and in so doing, give us the space to question our other related foundational thoughts. The recent financial crisis essentially stemmed from a deep “consensus reality” that huge companies like Lehman Brothers couldn’t completely fail and disappear from the face of the earth—a reality we now know to be inaccurate. How many of your current beliefs—things that you know to be “true,” assertions and assumptions that guide your actions—simply aren’t accurate? If you can take the time to question your “essential truths,” many new possibilities may arise. What belief do you hold about your organization, your competition, or your bench strength that just simply aren’t true?

4. Set new & different priorities. Instead of dwelling on the fear and challenge of being away from day-to-day leadership of the firm I had run for 12 years, I learned to turn my focus and energy towards my children. It was quite special to be there in the morning when they left for school, and also there in the afternoon when they returned home. What’s more, my immobility gave us some opportunities for quiet connection that probably wouldn’t have arisen under other circumstances. This “down time” also became an opportunity to develop my firm’s leadership team—by giving people more space to step up and lead in my absence. In this regard, the purpose of my recovery evolved to become as much about the organization growing and advancing without me as it did about me taking the time to heal.

How this relates to you as a senior executive: Business falls and failures can be repurposed as opportunities to streamline and strengthen your operation, or as opportunities to refine your direction for longer term advantage or to make your own leadership development a priority. Learning to lead through crisis is essential for anyone with bold aspirations. So when one area of strategic focus closes, be open to growth opportunities in new and unexplored ground. Apple is a perfect case in point: we’re all familiar with how Apple’s declining strength in the personal computer market created an environment that gave rise to its dominance as a consumer electronics organization. Had the company not seen its core computer market shrink so significantly, it would likely never have explored the path that would later lead it to become the powerhouse it is today.

5. Don’t let the fall entirely change you. My accident changed my reality and the angle from which I view it, helped me challenge a few of my own “sacred cows,” and led me to develop several new priorities. But I am still me. Through all the difficulty, I didn’t walk away from my commitment to being authentic. Nor did I move away from personal relationships, even those rooted in the old me—for example, I found new common ground with people whom I had previously known only for our shared involvement in triathlons. And I certainly didn’t let my fall undermine my fundamental belief that one needs to look beyond what is to what could be; in fact, the whole experience only reaffirmed and strengthened this belief.

How this relates to you as a senior executive: Change is rarely easy to effectively implement. When a big fall leads you to develop and implement big change, keep in mind that most people and organizations find the ensuring change stressful, all the more so when significant trauma led to the change. Most organizations also overcorrect unintentionally—we’ve all seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to another. It will serve you well to be thoughtful and explicit in deciding what must change and what must not, and in doing so, be diligent to hold the lines and minimize overcorrection. It will also serve well to very clearly articulate what is changing and what is holding constant (and why, of course)—so everyone around you can have a shared sense of clarity, appreciation for what will remain, and far fewer stress-inducing questions and uncertainties.

So in business, as in life, the old sayings “Every cloud has a silver lining” and “In crisis lies opportunity” are clichés that resonate with truth. The keys are to open your eyes to the silver lining and embrace the opportunities that emerge.

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