Grit At A Grand Scale: Cultivating Resilience At The Organizational Level

Posted July 8th, 2020 by Ankit Mahadevia, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Leadership

By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

“Hey, you know, breakdowns come. And breakdowns go. So what are you going to do about it? That’s what I’d like to know – Gumboots

In an era of COVID, political uncertainty, and market volatility, exhibiting resilience and staying true to our values and mission is a tall order. That notwithstanding, the Paul Simon song that our CSO has quoted since we founded Spero had it right.  As leaders, we must supersede these challenges to instill resilience on an organizational level to navigate the twists and turns of getting medicines to patients.  The value creation of biotech is in part what we’ve planned for, but also (and often more importantly) how we react when the unexpected happens.

At Spero, we have had the opportunity to exercise resilience, driven by opportunities and challenges presented by our medicines, but also by our therapeutic area, COVID-19, and our need to take a stand in a time of social injustice.  We are especially proud to have been honored as one of Boston’s Best Places to Work during the time of COVID-19, supporting our focus on core values while we advanced our mission during a turbulent time. In fact, the process itself required resilience, as we used learnings from last year when we did not win the honor to improve our approach.  On reflection through this journey, we have done some things right, and some things to learn from as we enter our next phase of growth.  We share some thoughts on how to create resilient organizations we’ve learned along the way.

What is resilience and how does one know it exists?  

Webster defines resilience as “the ability to recover or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”   We believe it exists within an organization if this adaptability 1) exists across multiple functions/subteams 2) exists across multiple levels of the company (e.g. the c-suite isn’t enforcing or “pushing” said resilience) and 3) can manifest without requiring the organization to compromise its core values.

Growing grit: How does resilience multiply in an organization?

Starts with you:  As our company scales, it always amazes me the impact senior leaders have on the overall tenor of an interaction or organization.  If one cannot manage one’s own reaction to adversity, the organization will be challenged as well. Along with keeping cool under pressure, one’s cognitive approach to adversity matters. Having the humility to create alternative narratives that make sense out of a complex situation, and consider multiple solutions from the group are critical to model for a team (we are big fans of Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps that outline some of the key mental mistakes that are easy to make in the middle of complexity).  The hardest part of this is holding on to one’s expectations tightly enough to drive great results, but loosely enough to roll with the punches and find alternative ways to fulfill the mission when that’s needed.

Flows to who’s on your team: Hiring resilient people, of course, is a core part of building a resilient organization. Spotting it within the constraints of the (especially post COVID) interview process is another thing.  Experience matters: at Spero we value colleagues that have had unorthodox paths; such paths (brassiere salesman, server, roofer, knife salesman, migrating from a foreign country, etc.) demand resilience and put adversity into context.  Further, we value colleagues that have experienced some of the inevitable ups and downs of biotech in past roles; working for a winner helps us understand how to build for success, but thriving in adversity also brings something important to the table.  The interview process matters as well: planning ahead and coordinating among the interviewers to specifically assay for examples of resilience makes a difference.

Enhanced by organizational values: A resilient whole must be much greater than the sum of its people. A few thoughts on how teams, functions, and a company can become more resilient:

  • Building by letting go: We have written in prior posts (here and here) about the value of delegating complex tasks within the organization. Practice makes perfect, and ensuring we are developing our teammates with hard won experience means that when adversity comes, they are better prepared to thrive.  This extends to functional and program teams as well – as senior leaders if we can resist the urge to do it “right” by getting into the weeds, we can build more capability to troubleshoot in the face of complexity.
  • Amplify credit and focus on solutions: Much scholarship (here as an example) speaks to how fear of failure or recrimination can curtail creativity and transparency, which are two important inputs to group resilience.  Our job as senior leaders is to encourage focus on solutions rather than blame, and when required, shoulder the responsibility for a negative outcome ourselves.  Ultimately, while our teammates sort out challenges, this is one thing we can do to help, as well as ensuring the problem solvers on the team get the credit.  Sharing the credit also has the added benefit of emphasizing that all of us own the trajectory of our enterprise.

Resiliency is the lifeblood of our business, as we deal with variability of our science, the markets designed to capitalize our efforts, people we seek to collaborate with, and the world around us.   A systematic approach to hiring, and how teams are structured prepares an organization to  thrive even in the face of complexity.

Ankit Mahadevia

Serial biotech entrepreneur and executive
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