​Regrouping After Crisis

by HCA06 Feb 2014
We’ve heard all about corporate scandals, poor decisions and lack of vision – but what can be done about it?

Sam Cawthorn knows a thing or two about bouncing back from a crisis. At just 26, Sam’s life changed forever when he was involved in a car accident and pronounced dead on the scene for over three minutes by paramedics.

Following his resuscitation, Sam was faced with the amputation of his right arm and severe damage to his right leg, and the prospect of never being able to walk again. Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Sam realised he had the unique opportunity to embrace this crisis and use it to transform his life. 

Today, Sam is a thought leader and expert in resilience and corporate turnarounds, working with big brands such as Google, Exxon Mobil and Toyota to transform impossibilities into possible realities. He talks to HR Director about moving beyond a crisis or setback.

HRD: What’s a better way to position things that don’t work out as planned?

Sam Cawthorn: A lot of the time we shy away from vulnerability and I think that’s a negative approach. Often it’s easier to not only play the blame game but also to not admit our faults or admit to the things we’ve done wrong. That’s the starting point to a turnaround. The only way we can turn things around is by fronting up, admitting it, and showing some vulnerability. Vulnerability does lead to growth.

HRD: But it’s possibly something many executives struggle to show, especially when they are positioned almost like rock stars or superheroes in some companies...

SC: In a way it’s the people – the staff at every level, the board, even stakeholders – who look at them as superheroes. They all think their leaders are rock stars who have it together. Often that’s not the case. Yet there’s a power in vulnerability – that’s how people can find you more relatable, more approachable, easier to communicate with and connect to. In today’s world we’re not looking for the hero boss.

HRD: What’s perhaps the most pivotal thing you’ve learnt since your accident?

SC: I have something called phantom pains. After my accident I lost my right arm. I get this phantom pain and sometimes it will wake me up in the middle of the night because it’s so painful. It’s like the worst pins and needles you’ve ever had. There’s something called cognitive dissociation, which means that what we focus on is what we get. So if we focus on everything that’s going wrong, whether that be a downsize crisis, a natural disaster, a downturn in sales or budgets, problems in the office, staff engagement, whatever it might be – if that’s all we focus on, that’s how we’ll not only feel but that’s how everyone else will feel. 

HRD: Can you outline cognitive dissociation?

SC: Cognitive dissociation is like neurological conditioning – I’ve conditioned myself to no longer focus on that pain. Instead I focus on the good things in life: a wife who supports me, kids who love me, this amazing job where I fly all over the world. So I’ve now focused on the things I can do, not the things I can’t do.

Crisis creates opportunity, which means some of the toughest times in our lives can ignite some of the greatest growth periods in our lives. But we have to choose to direct our focus in the right areas. Admit you’re wrong, show some vulnerability, and then focus on what is working well, on strengths, not weaknesses, on where you can move and not where you can’t move. Focus on opportunities, not the crisis.

HRD: How else can we reposition our thinking when times are tough?

SC: Everyone goes through crises – whether they are financial, plummeting staff engagement, loss of a deal, a downturn. It could be personal as well. A lot of the tools we use in our personal resilience can be transferable in business and vice versa. In saying that, it’s our decision, not our condition, that determines who we are. Everyone has conditions in their lives, and some of those conditions can be tough: layoffs, relationship problems, conflict. But no matter what that condition is, it’s all about our mental attributes and being proactive about our own decisions instead of being reactive to our own conditions.

HRD: How does this tie in with the theme of your book: bouncing forward?

SC: I talk about reactive innovation and proactive innovation. Too often we look at the good old days, at bouncing back to where we were before the crisis hit. But all the latest research shows that through a crisis we can ignite the greatest growth periods in our life. Adversarial growth is not about bouncing back, going back to where we were, but bouncing forward to what we can become. It implies we are bouncing forward so we must start thinking creatively because we’ve never been there before.

HRD: It could be a good opportunity to rethink how things are done?

SC: When people have a frustration, a problem, I tell them to turn it into a crisis. It sounds counterintuitive, but when we’re in a crisis there is something in our biology that says we must get ourselves out of it. So we think differently; we think more creatively. When it’s a frustration or problem we tend to procrastinate dealing with it: I know it’s a frustration, I know it’s annoying, but I can’t focus on it right now because I’ve got all this other stuff to do. That’s the key difference in bouncing back versus bouncing forward. When we’re bouncing back it’s all about going back to how we used to be.

HRD: Can challenges and setbacks actually build resilience?

SC: There is something called adversarial growth. Hypothetically, as an organisation, you may have had a really tough time financially, scraping the bottom of the barrel, looking at layoffs. But then we have this turnaround because we think differently and we get through it.

When something like that happens again, we know how to handle it. We’ve been there, we’ve done it, we’ve come out wiser. That is how adversity and crises are good: they teach us the core fundamentals and strategies we need in order to move through that – and the key word is ‘through’ – so we can then help people and other teams to navigate through their crisis. 

Sam Cawthorn Bounce ForwardBounce Forward is published by Wiley and available in bookstores nationwide or from samcawthorn.com/bounceforwardbook.