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 your 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.

Without attending Goldman’s resilience week, how can you make yourself more resilient and ensure your career works 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.

Coutu said there are 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 eight 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 broken 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 9/11. 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 while 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 and 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 laid off may provide you with the breathing space to move on to the next phase of your life.”

Francine Hibb, a resilience coach who works with bankers, says it also helps to use the techniques of cognitive behavioral 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 about how what you’re doing is building your career and enabling you to keep your job, and that 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.

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