leadership

What cancer taught Springfox founder Stuart Taylor about resilience

Stuart Taylor /

Stuart Taylor Springfox

Springfox founder Stuart Taylor. Source: Supplied

For most of my adult life, I sought the approvals of others. Some might even have called me a perfectionist.

Joining a large accounting firm as a young consultant, I recall striding up the Paris end of Melbourne’s Collins Street, with a new mobile phone, suit and thinking: “I’ve made it”. It was my job to rip organisations apart and tell them their biggest problems. I’d never felt so important.

I pulled all-nighters to meet deadlines. I stopped exercising to get ‘more done’ at work. And on some level, I felt a sense of entitlement. I felt as though I should have to suffer to prove I was doing ‘good work’.

I worked my way up the corporate ladder and became one of the elite, working among the elite.

It didn’t matter that I was working 14- hour days because I was operating at the sharp end. I was on a constant high, adrenaline hit after adrenaline hit. Life was like riding a bike downhill at full speed.

Late nights and time away from home was just a part of the job. I knew I didn’t see my family enough, but I’d convinced myself that money compensated for this – they’re well looked after I’d think. Nice home, private schooling, great holidays. In any case I’ll retire early — that’s what I told myself.

I lived this dream for a decade. Then in 2001 I was diagnosed with a Grade 3 brain tumour. I was given two to three years to live.

I had three kids. My eldest was five.

A month later I was lying in hospital, about to undergo surgery. I was told that even if I survived the surgery and my brain tumour was successfully removed, my life expectancy was still likely three years, tops.

I woke, the surgery had worked. I had a few more years up my sleeve and I was back at my desk within five months.

But cancer had changed me. I thought too much, and my thinking caused me to hesitate. The problem is if you hesitate traveling at high speeds your instinct is to pull the brakes and you stop. It quickly became clear that I was not going to be able to get back in the saddle.

I decided to take a year off work and figure myself out. I had to seriously rewire my own resilience, for my sanity, for my health, for my family and importantly, for greater purpose.

I underwent a transformation, a lifestyle overhaul. I changed my exercise regime, nutrition, and mindset. I realised that I had spent the last decade of my life in a state of stress and induced adrenaline. It wasn’t healthy, productive, or sustainable at all.

I realised that in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, resilience is a major strategic asset.

It was after this realisation that I decided to pivot my career.

I took my learnings from having cancer, my new lifestyle, and my experience in IT, finance and psychology, and founded my own business — The Resilience Institute Australia, now called Springfox.

The aim of my venture: to help people and organisations sustain and accelerate human performance by improving resilience. To thrive at a sustainable level through emotional agility, compassion, and mastery of stress — all while living a more fulfilling life.

Stress: a recipe for disaster

After 14 years’ of speaking to over 20,000 people and organisations on the impact of emotional intelligence and resilient workforces, there hasn’t been one business leader who hasn’t said that what separates their top performers from the pack is their ability to manage stress.

However, there really aren’t a great deal of us out there who know how to master stress.

By way of example, our recent Global Resilience Report of 26,099 professionals found that 55% of us worry excessively, 50% are hyper vigilant, 45% experience distress symptoms, and 35% are unable to relax.

Nearly a third of us experience excessive work intensity and have difficulty controlling our emotions. And it’s not only the nature stress of work that’s changed significantly — it’s our ability to respond well under stress, with 30% of us struggling to effectively respond to critical issues.

People are also not relaxing and recovering as well as they once were. Our findings discovered a 30% reduction in our daily practice of relaxation, which is the foundation for physical, emotional and cognitive resilience.

This is a recipe for disaster for our people, leading to chronic health issues and burnout.

For organisations, it can really affect the bottom line, with presenteeism and absenteeism each costing businesses upwards of $17 billion per year. It is now possible to conclude that a broad set of skills and behaviours that enable resilience in the workplace are a good return on investment. In a study published by PwC in 2014, initiatives and programs that fostered a resilient and mentally healthy workplace returned $2.30 for every dollar spent — with the return coming in the form of lower health care costs, higher productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased turnover.

And it really isn’t a surprise that people feel this way. Today’s modern workforce is expected to do more, but with less time and fewer resources. We are inundated with expectations — be innovative, adaptive, cost effective, impactful and productive, too.

While you can’t necessarily change the way a business operates, you can learn to be resilient. And by building resilience, you can master stress and sustain productivity. In our Global Resilience Report, we found that all 60 components of resilience improve following training. In particular, significant improvements were seen for sleep quality, relaxation, purpose, emotional insight and optimism.

Those of you, like me, who are old enough to remember major experiences that have shaped us, know that no matter of academic reading alone can teach resilience. It takes practice and a systematic approach.

So what does resilience look like?

Resilient people are fulfilled at work, sleep well and take care of nutrition. They have the ability to bounce back, demonstrate courage, and are connected to the world around them. Fuelled by their wellbeing, they are focused, decisive, purposeful and productive. Ultimately, resilience is the absence of fear and worry where people can achieve equanimity and calm.

While achieving this state of being may sound like a pipe dream, getting yourself on track to being more resilient is not as difficult as you may think.

First and foremost, the most resilient people rest and eat well, and put aside time each day for physical exercise.

Although this can seem daunting at first, it’s about approaching a better lifestyle in small, achievable steps. For example, it can be as simple as not using your digital devices before bed to help you to wind down and feel the natural rhythm of your body clock telling you to call it a day.

Maintaining healthy and emotionally stimulating relationships with people benefits your health, happiness and productivity. However, staying connected means a lot more than checking your Instagram feed intermittently. Explore ways to connect with your friends and family in meaningful ways. For example, try to eat your meals with them as often as possible — consider this time as time well spent.

Five minutes of stretching every day drastically improves your physical and mental wellbeing. It increases alertness, relaxation, and helps reduce physical and emotional tension.

While these approaches may seem obvious, very few professionals we work with practise basic steps to resilience. Just like exercising a muscle, it becomes easier the more you do it, and eventually the outcomes outweigh the investment in every sense.

For organisations, our findings show that a stress based culture in a workplace typically stems from the top at the C-Suite level. So, as leaders, how can we pave the way for giving our people the tools to grow their own resilience levels to succeed?

Leaders need to lead by example and commit themselves to modelling resilience. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. Leaders drive culture, and culture drives performance. The most resilient organisations are those that have a leadership team that takes a systematic approach to modelling physical and mental resilience.

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Stuart Taylor

Stuart Taylor is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach and the founder of Springfox.

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