Resilience: the new super-differentiator for financial services careers

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Difficult times call for a different set of skills. With very good and even exceptional people finding it difficult to find new jobs or get back into the market, it’s no longer simply about being exemplary at what you do (although this is also important): it’s about having the will to keep on doing it in the face of setbacks, knowing when to change strategy, and being flexible enough to make do.

It’s about resilience.

We know resilience is becoming a bigger thing in financial services because Goldman Sachs has begun holding ‘Resilience Weeks’. It had one last year. And it had one this year.  It’s clearly a trend. Notably, Lex Van Dam cited resilience as one of the differentiators of a good trader when we interviewed him last month.

Without attending Goldman’s resilience week, how can you make yourself more cockroach-like and ensure you endure in the long term?

The seminal expert on resilience is Diane L. Coutu, a senior Editor at the Harvard Business Review, who wrote a now-famous paper on the topic in 2002. 

Coutu said there three characteristics of resilient people:

1. A staunch acceptance of reality – resilience isn’t about being optimistic. Coutu says optimism can distort your sense of reality. She cites a writer who spoke to a man who was held prisoner by the Viet Cong for 8 years.  He said the optimists didn’t survive:  “They were the ones who said we’d be out by Christmas – and then they said we’d be out by Easter…You know, I think they all died of broke hearts.”

Coutu adds: “Resilient people have very sober and down to earth views of those parts of reality that matter for survival.” She says they also train themselves to survive difficult situations before those situations occur.

In career terms, this means being realistic about the possibility of losing your job, about receiving lower compensation, about having to work harder than before for similar or lower pay. It means mentally role-playing these situations before they happen and preparing ways of dealing with them.

As an example of resilience, Coutu points to Morgan Stanley’s preparedness for evacuating the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. After the 1993 bombing, the bank prepared three back-up sites and regularly practiced an evacuation procedure.  Again, in career terms resilience may involve preparing a back-up career whilst continuing in your current one – for example, setting up a web-based business over weekends.

2.  A deep belief that life is meaningful

Resilient people don’t throw up their hands and say, ‘How can this be happening to me?’ says Coutu. Instead, they devise constructs about their suffering to create meaning for themselves and others.  At an individual level these meanings need not necessarily be ethical.

In career terms this means: Looking for meaning in a situation, focusing on the positives where appropriate. “My hypothesis is that when things are bad we become emotional and when we become emotional we catastrophize,” says Graham Ward, adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD Business School, co-founder of the Kets de Vries Institute and a former co-head of European equities at Goldman Sachs. “You need to stand back and look at the positives, For example, consider how being made redundant may provide you with the breathing space to move on to the next phase of your life.”

Francine Hibb, a resilience coach works with bankers, says it also helps to use the techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy to achieve resilience.  A lot of our thinking is habitual,” says Hibb. “Achieving resilience is about changing those habits. If you want to continue in what you’re doing, you need to find a way of reducing your negative thoughts about it.”

Hence, if you’re working persistently late nights without the promise of high compensation, don’t allow yourself to repeat negative thoughts  about the unfairness of it all. Instead, focus on the meaning you’re deriving from the situation. “You need to find a way of building your objectives into your thoughts,” says Hibb. “Think how what you’re doing is building your career, enabling you to keep your job and will leave you better placed in future.”

3. An uncanny ability to improvise

Coutu says psychologists called this “bricolage”, or an ability to muddle through, to improvise a solution even when the ideal tools or materials seem absent.

In career terms, the meaning is obvious: Don’t just keep looking for the same old jobs if they’re not there. Be prepared to adapt your job search, the kinds of jobs you’re looking for, and your lifestyle.  None may be easy, but resilience isn’t an attribute for easy times.