Pause, take a breath, and acknowledge the situation is happening to you. You don’t need to act right away, and the moment of pause gives you time to gather your thoughts and feelings.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Thomas-Bland.
Karen Thomas-Bland is a Global Board Advisor, Management Consultant and Non-Executive Director with over 24 years’ experience leading complex enterprize-wide business transformations and M&A integrations to over $105 billion turnover. Her clients include Accenture, EY, WPP, RELX Group and Private Equity Funds. With an excellent track record in creating sustainable long-term value, she is a trusted advisor to many boards, executive teams, and investors and has been a Non-Executive Director on several private equity boards. Before founding her business Seven, Karen was an executive in IBM, KPMG, and several boutique consultancies, based out of New York, Dubai, and Sao Paulo. Karen is a Chartered Organizational Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and is an INSEAD accredited Board Director.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Yes so, I started my career as an Organizational Psychologist because I was interested in how individuals and organizations go from one state to another and if is there a way to codify the process. My second pivot was into corporate strategy and business transformation in management consultancies. The third pivot was then growing and running large service and software businesses organically and through acquisition. Then I set up my own business focusing on business transformation and M&A integration alongside taking board roles in Private Equity backed businesses. My next chapter I am just starting to write but there are a couple more pivots I’d still love to make!
Personally, I grew up in a small mining village in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. Think low aspiration, unemployment being rife, and high levels of poverty. I quickly realized I wanted something more from life, needed something bigger and would eventually escape — hence If I could transform my own life then I could transform the lives of others and ultimately organizations. So, my journey into transformation was very much a personal one and started with my own. The great news is I had a good brain, was hardworking and had a game plan very early on!
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
So, I have been fortunate to work in many countries throughout my career from a stint in the Middle East to three stints in the United States, a time in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific, and a time in Brazil. All were amazing and uniquely challenging. The lessons I learned from working in different markets is the power of cultural immersion so you can learn new patterns to be successful, understanding, and really valuing diverse perspectives and the benefit of putting yourself in an unknown situation, taking a risk and finding a way to be successful in a different context. I would recommend it to anyone.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My business is small, but we make a big impact and work with big name clients on their toughest challenges — typically when they want to transform their business be that through a merger or acquisition, a new strategy or new operating model or they need to turnaround performance fast. We helped a FTSE business restructure to take out cost and position for growth, merged a PE backed and listed business in different geographic regions and supported a professional services firm on a new operating model for their advisory business. All uniquely challenging, good fun and made special by collaborating with great people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, my Mum is a huge contributor to where I have got too. She is someone who had huge bouts of depression, experienced panic attacks, and suffered a serious brain injury where she struggled to speak and had to relearn how to do it again. Because I saw her not just survive but thrive after each episode it gave me confidence to believe that nothing’s impossible. Despite the setbacks she had she was determined to have a successful daughter and instilled in me early the importance of education, hard work and focusing on what you are good at and ignoring the rest.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is our ability to bounce back from tough events and situations. It could be a performance review where you are told you need to improve, a project that didn’t go quite as well as you hoped, a relationship with your manager that’s deteriorated or that promotion you felt sure to get but narrowly missed out on. It could also be realizing the career ladder you are desperately climbing is not even against the right wall! Our ability to dust ourselves down, present a brave face to the world and crack on is often judged as our resilience, our ‘bounce back’ ability. The good news about resilience is it’s a learned response and we get infinitely better with practice. Traits that lead to resilience are self-awareness, an ability to regulate your emotional state and an ability to see a path forward and not allow an incident to derail you. Highly resilient people tend to be optimists they believe it can get better eventually even if it’s not yet clear how. Perhaps the hardest trait is in relation to failure, you must be open to risks where the outcome might not be favorable. Resilient people take risks, some pay off and some don’t and for the ones that don’t it’s about finding out why, learning lessons and moving on.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage and resilience are both about being brave. Courage is putting yourself in tough and challenging situations and resilience is bouncing back when things don’t quite go to plan. Comfort and growth don’t often exist so important to do things that scare you as that’s when you grow.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Although there are so many examples of resilient people all around, the first famous person who comes to mind is Nelson Mandela. To be jailed for 27 years would likely make most people give up completely, to hold onto your beliefs and become more determined is for me the ultimate example of resilience.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Yes, in fact being told I can‘t do something is a big driver for me. I was first told you can’t get to college, but I did, then you won’t stick it out and I did, then I wouldn’t climb the ranks — I made partner aged 29, you won’t get a board role and I did at age 34 and then I wouldn’t transition well from a big corporate to working for myself which I did. Now there is absolutely nothing unique or special about me at all just applying learning, working hard, and focusing on 1–2 things that helps create a bit of luck that eventually pays off.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Yes, I worked with an organization which was not inclusive at all to women and didn’t have any appetite to change. It was a boy’s club with an all-male executive team. I went in with the aspiration that things could change but it was not the case and so I excited very rapidly. Could I have stuck it out longer? — for sure and society after all says persevere no matter what. No one after all likes a quitter. But ultimately it would have been wrong to stay. I like the quote from The New York Times columnist Lindsay Crouse “We are not quitting because we’re weak. We’re quitting because we’re smart”. Great advice indeed. From this experience I leant three things; don’t be a martyr to grit, do your due dilliance on companies and leaders more thoroughly than ever before and if your instinct is to leave then follow it. This was a big setback for me personally and professionally, but I am stronger because of walking away, reclaiming back my power and establishing clear boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour and what I am not prepared to tolerate.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Yes, so when I was 12 my father got a terminal cancer diagnosis and passed away 2 years later. Death of a parent early on means you grow up fast and get used to taking on extra responsibilities. I learnt from this that whilst incredibly painful, there is a grieving process, and you can move forward step by step. Some days may be one step forward and two or indeed ten steps back but ultimately, I become stronger because of it. I also learnt good mental health routines early on by talking to others, having a support network, and spending time in nature. The benefit of having a tough start is I rarely get phased by big problems to solve and actively seek out and enjoy tough challenges.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are 5 steps I always take.
o Pause, take a breath, and acknowledge the situation is happening to you. You don’t need to act right away, and the moment of pause gives you time to gather your thoughts and feelings.
o Talk to trusted friends, mentors, colleagues, and family members. This can help you process your thoughts, manage the negative chatter in your head, and gives you a different perspective.
o Take the learnings from the situation — with the great benefit of hindsight, could you have done something different? This perspective will shift the further in time you move away from the situation.
o Take control — the situation has happened, but it doesn’t need to define you forever. Work out what 2–3 actions you can take right now that enable you to move forward. If 2–3 are too many what is just one thing you could do.
o Finally, and most importantly, be kind to yourself, whilst at the same time be pretty ruthless on what you need to leave behind. As the saying goes, get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Any personal set back really tests your emotions as personal growth and comfort rarely co-exist.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am a big advocate of social mobility — you get the same opportunities in life irrespective of where you were born. I realize this is a utopian vision but perhaps that’s where a movement starts! I am passionate about raising aspirations early on in life, so we don’t lose out on so much great potential.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Dorie Clark — I joined Dorie’s Recognized Expert community in 2020 which is a programme and network for people who want to be more eminent in the market by building your network, creating content and building social proof. Dorie has codified the journey to follow, and it works, and the community is pretty awesome too!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!