Founder Fuel: Resilience – the #1 requirement for entrepreneurship

When asked what the most important skill or characteristic as an entrepreneur is, the standout winner was Resilience – with 92% of founders selecting it over problem-solving, motivation and even communication. But if it’s so important on the rollercoaster of startup life, what exactly is it and how do we build more of it for the ride?

Resilience is widely recognised as a critical successful factor in mental health circles, but now researchers, managers and leaders have acknowledged its direct link to performance and success at work. People who are resilience to adversity and difficulty push ahead under pressure and perform where others might not.   

But what IS resilience?

Here’s a definition I relate to and we use in our resilience entrepreneur training:

The ability to succeed personally and professionally in the midst of a high-pressured, fast-moving and continuously changing environment.

Sounds a lot like an average entrepreneur’s day to me.

That kind of relentless pace we work with – where things change at the last minute, or obstacles suddenly appear and knock us off track – it’s overwhelming. And we see it in the Study, with 85% of founders feeling overwhelmed. Furthermore, when we asked ‘why entrepreneurship can be tough’ the #2 slot (just behind financial risk and instability) went to the sheer sense of responsibility and weight of decision-making, which really signals the psychological battle we play each day.

Resilience is about getting through pain and disruption without letting these things crush your spirit. Broadening this out to think about the role of a startup leader, it is someone who is able to bring themselves, their team and their organisation through difficult times and continue to thrive while doing so.

Resilient entrepreneurs:

Adaptable ~ Responsive ~ Bounce forward from set-backs

So, where do I buy it?

Well, that one is not so simple. It is not something you do. It is something that you are; but this does not mean you cannot build it.

At one point in time, it was considered more like a trait – you either are resilient or you’re not. But there is now evidence to demonstrate that resilience is a quality that is developed. As with all things around human performance and personal development, there isn’t a one-size fits all solution but there is increasing research into what resilient people do as they persist after challenges and trauma, giving us a range of tools.

Psychologists have identified optimism and a positive attitude, along with the ability to regulate emotions under pressure, as key factors demonstrated by a resilient person. Resilience is quite unique in one aspect though. Unlike practices of positive-thinking or  gratitude which can be developed at any time, you actually need challenges in order to build your resilience muscle.

For a demonstration, we can consider the way in which the body gains muscle through weight and strength training. Athletes need to make tiny tears in their muscles in order for the growth-hormone to rebuild those muscles fitter and stronger. Resilience is the same. We need to encounter challenges to stretch our mettle and come back more resilient. So as an entrepreneur, take comfort in that fact that during all these times when you feel you need to be resilient, you’re actually also making yourself more resilient too.

It all comes down to perspective.

There is a body of evidence that shows that it is how we engage with challenges that determine if we build this resilience and how quickly we bounce back. Sitting in a zen-like state and avoiding stress will not build your resilience from a neurobiological perspective. Researchers have identified that those exposed to adverse or stressful experiences have enhanced adrenal functioning – in essence, exposure improves the body’s ability to efficiently release adrenaline and quickly return to a healthy baseline after the event has passed – just like a fitter athlete would recover more quickly from a race than a less-fit one.

The key is that we have to engage with stressful situations productively and that’s all about perspective. When we experience stressful situations as threatening, our bodies produce the hormone cortisol – and anyone who has come along to our entrepreneur training knows that’s not a great thing.

Feeling threatened means we feel overwhelmed by the demands of the situation and that we don’t have the capacity to cope. This counts as bad exposure to a stressful event. In contrast, if we experience stressful events as challenging, but feel we can dig deep and have the resources to cope, then this is classed as good exposure. This Challenge Mindset also builds confidence that we can cope next time too, and as a result our resilience grows.

Practical tips in the moment

The breadth of tools and techniques for building optimism in the face of adversity, and particularly warding off those negative thoughts we often fall prey to when times get tough are extensive (we normally dive into this content across a whole day of training!) so to do it justice we’ll cover it over a range of articles. For today then, we’ll start with how to grab a tough situation by the proverbials and deal with it well.

1. Break the negative spiral

When bad things happen we tend to get stuck thinking about negative outcomes. We ruminate on what we should have done, and if you’re anything like me, get even more worked up. At this point the negative thought-cycles are in complete control and no amount of positive thinking is going to break through to a constructive solution. At this point the only answer is to STOP. Go for a walk/run, make a cup of tea (how very British), push some weights – anything to break the spiral. We all know we have great ideas in the shower – it’s the subconscious being hard at work in the background – and there is new research that shows we are much more creative when we take these behaviour breaks. So, stop the negative spiral in its tracks by moving and doing something totally different and you’ll be much better at analysing your options to tackle the issue on your return.

2. What can you influence?

Challenging situations are often caused by something that is outside of our control – investment failing through, servers breaking down, team-members resigning. This lack of control has a dangerous habit of making us feel helpless, and this feeling is not constructive for dealing with the situation well. Instead of honing in on the thing we cannot control, we should instead broaden our perspective and analyse what we can influence. This bigger picture can help us get a stronger more positive perspective more quickly, leading to a constructive action plan.

3. What have you gained?

When adversity strikes it’s human-nature to focus on all the negatives – what we’ve lost, what negative impact this will have, how we’ve failed etc. But negative exposure is not only about loss. We also gain a lot from these experiences. When the immediate panic of the situation has passed, spend a little time reflecting on what was gained from the experience, along with a sprinkle of gratitude for what could have been worse, and you can top up that fighting spirit with a healthy dose of survivors pride. 

This too shall pass

Nothing to do with building resilience is a quick fix. As humans we are programmed to focus on the negative so getting into the habit of the above ways of thinking takes practise and strength, but just doing it helps build this sought-after trait. The more you do it, the more confident you get that you can cope in the future.

If you need a little pep talk when things get tough, try this confidence building framework we use in our entrepreneur training from psychologist Edith Grotberg: When the going gets tough think along these
three lines:

  • I Have: e.g strong relationships, structure, role models – these are external supports that you have access to;
  • I Am: e.g a person who has and faith, has integrity, cares about others, is proud of myself – these are inner strengths that can be developed and called upon;
  • I Can: e.g communicate, solve problems, gauge the temperament of others, seek good relationships – these are all the interpersonal and problem-solving skills that are acquired.

Reference statistics from The Entrepreneur Pressure & Wellbeing Study 2019 (n=271)

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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