IT leaders and their teams have exhibited incredible industriousness and perseverance over the past two years, not only overcoming the challenges thrown their way but often rising above them to deliver game-changing capabilities to their organizations.
There’s no rest for IT, though. The year ahead promises to put technology organizations to the test as they enable enterprises to meet rapidly changing customer demands, create better employee experiences, mitigate complex security challenges, effectively and ethically integrate emerging artificial intelligence (AI) tools, consider the impact of climate change, and ensure resilient business systems in an uncertain global environment.
The only way for CIOs to tackle these challenges – and avoid burnout – is to improve their own resilience as leaders and as individuals. “When we’re exhausted and we’re burned out, we cannot think big,” says Adam Markel, author of the forthcoming book, Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience. “And [IT leaders] have to constantly be bigger than the problems that are presented. They have to be able to think outside of the bounds of whatever challenge or problem is coming at them.”
To develop resilience, it’s important to understand what it is – and isn’t. “Resilience is actually about how we recharge, not about how we endure,” says Markel. “Resilience is not about the capacity to bounce back. Resilience is about this ability to instead bounce forward.”
[ Want more leadership advice for the challenges of the new year? Read IT leadership: 4 tips on achieving your goals in 2022. ]
Just as importantly, resilience is not some prize awarded for coming out the other side of a difficult situation. It’s something IT leaders can develop. “Resilience is a collection of skills and habits, and it is a practice,” says Anne Grady, speaker, consultant, and author of Mind Over Moment: Harness the Power of Resilience. “Resilience isn’t one of those things you either have or don’t. It’s a continued practice of cultivating habits that strengthen your resilience muscle.”
8 IT leadership tips for building resiliency
Here are eight things IT leaders can do now to improve their resilience in the year ahead.
1. Embrace discomfort
Set stretch goals. Take on a role or task that scares you. Say yes to opportunities outside of your comfort zone.
Practicing uncomfortable things – and getting through them or even excelling at them – boosts resilience. “Technologists should work to evolve professionally – just like the technology we all use changes on a regular basis,” says Gill Haus, CIO for consumer and community banking at JPMorgan Chase. “By being agile, you’ll be able to learn and grow professionally.”
2. Ask for help
This is something you can practice when trying new things that can have a compound effect. If you’re unsure of how to do something, ask for guidance – it’s a skill that’s foundational to rolling with change. Plus, “when you ask questions, you make it a safe place for others, across all levels of your organization, to ask questions,” Haus says. “Ultimately, this helps foster even more collaboration across your team.”
3. Create recovery rituals
Stressful situations can sap your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacity. IT leaders who want to increase their resilience can create rituals that enable them to recover that lost capacity.
“I like to use this analogy: They have to slow down in order to speed up,” says Markel, making the comparison of a pit stop in Formula One race. “Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually; it’s about choosing an area and then committing to a practice, a ritual to make time to recover.”
That might mean spending ten minutes in quiet stillness, taking a twenty-minute walk, making time for a healthy meal, breaking to exercise or practice yoga, or taking a nap. “Even a practice to take three slow, deep breaths that takes all of two minutes is a recovery ritual when it is scheduled every hour. You are recharging your brain,” says Markel. “We have to be routinely back and forth between our energy zones and our recovery zones in order to recharge and refuel and ultimately be able to go the distance.”
4. Conserve your energy
Just as important as making time for activities that replenish you is eliminating those that deplete you. “Identify activities that drain you, and make a plan each week to minimize those,” advises Grady. “Doing this allows you to maintain your physical and mental health regardless of what’s happening around you, making you more likely to cope with stress in a positive way.”
While you’re at it, work on acceptance, thus saving your energy for what matters most. “Don’t invest emotional energy in situations that cannot be changed,” says leadership and performance coach Ann E. Wagner. “Go with the flow.”
5. Practice mindfulness
Many leaders find mindfulness or meditation practices particularly effective in improving resilience. “Mindfulness simply means paying attention on purpose, learning to observe your thoughts and emotions without getting carried away by them, and taking time to be still,” explains Grady. “For example, meditating 12 minutes a day literally rewires your brain, improves physical and mental health, and leads to greater resilience.”
6. Trust your team
“As a tech leader, it’s important to encourage those around you and create opportunities for your team to grow their career within your organization,” Haus says. But you’ve got to let go of the reins.
“Trust them to try, fail and learn from these moments, so they can evolve professionally,” says Haus. “This type of hands-on experience empowers them, building stronger, more autonomous teams, which ultimately makes you a better leader.”
7. Set – and enforce – boundaries
“Don’t forget – balance is key to long-term resiliency,” Haus says. “As much as you can, try to separate your personal and professional life, but be sure to work hard at both.”
It’s critical to make time for what matters to you. “We have gotten really great at prioritizing our schedules, but we are awful at scheduling our priorities,” Grady says. “Schedule time on your calendar for things that are important to you throughout the week and protect that time.”
8. Practice gratitude
“Our brain begins to scan the environment for whatever is top of mind. If you’re looking for good stuff, you’re much more likely to find it,” says Grady.
Making a habit of noting what you are grateful for delivers real returns. “Doing this often will literally change the neural structure and function of your brain, offsetting your negativity bias,” Grady says. “It also produces dopamine and serotonin which will lift your mood and calm your nervous system. You’ll find yourself in a positive spiral, rather than a negative one.”
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation eBook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]