May 25, 2023

Leadership’s Role in Organizational Resiliency

With Jeannie Diefenderfer, Irth Solutions independent Board of Director and former CEO, Higher Ambition Leadership

Jeannie headshot

For most of my career, I focused on ensuring my customers — consumers and enterprise — didn’t have to worry about their backbone infrastructure going down. As an executive at Verizon, I was responsible for network operations and guaranteed the reliability of its global network encompassing 150 countries. Central to this was making sure things didn’t break. But since things inevitably always fail, I made certain customers had minimum impact when they did. 

As the CEO of Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance, I helped CEOs and leadership teams develop the actions and practices of leading with purpose – the higher ambition way. 

Leaders are crucial to building resilient organizations. When they practice deep listening, show vulnerability, and treat each stakeholder as an equal partner, they build a muscle of employee engagement and trust, translating into individual, team, and enterprise resilience when the organization needs it the most. 

Deep listening

Leaders who practice deep listening build organizational resiliency. Rather than deliver a quarterly monologue to report on the company’s progress, they meet with employees at the ground level. They are genuinely interested in listening to what employees say – even if they don’t agree with or understand the company’s strategy or actions. 

The CEO of one of the largest retailers in the world told me the person he’s most interested in talking to is the one who doesn’t join the others fawning over the CEO visiting but the one who turns around and walks away. He focuses his energy on that associate to engage in a conversation to learn. Because of the CEO’s style and deep listening practice, the associate will eventually share their thoughts and concerns. With this insight from the associate’s perspective, this CEO learns a lot about what changes — small and large — may be needed. 

This human-centered leadership practice of deep listening is much more effective in developing trust with everyone in the organization than what some of us may recall in our own experiences – when we get the high-ranking leader to visit the local job site, only to give us corporate presentations before running out the door. 

Representing and showing vulnerability

There’s a mistaken perception that CEOs and senior leaders don’t experience any problems; if they do, they shouldn’t talk about them. Showing vulnerability is often perceived as a sign of weakness. 

CEOs build team and organizational resiliency when they show vulnerability. For human-centric, values-driven leaders, showing vulnerability isn’t an act. They don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to be vulnerable with my team today.” It’s how they show up each and every day; it’s just who they are. And because they show up as humans first, they allow everyone in their organization to connect with top leadership on a personal level. 

This authentic behavior creates the flywheel effect, the concept introduced by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. It enables a habitual mechanism by which the organizational culture adopts and operates. 

During the early days of COVID, a healthcare industry CEO told me she held a company-wide call every day. The call’s purpose was for her to share critical information with her entire team and not delegate that responsibility. She also shared her personal struggles with the pandemic, including working from home and trying to manage her kids’ school schedules simultaneously. Simply by sharing her own story, this CEO made it acceptable for all members of her team to be more open about their struggles. 

Stakeholder management

Stakeholder management is a popular phrase, and for a good reason. Leaders who know treating each stakeholder as an important partner through their actions ensure the resilience of the enterprise. This includes recognizing everyone as a critical cog in the wheel of infrastructure. The enterprise doesn’t stand alone, but it stands because of investors, suppliers, shareholders, employees, advocacy groups, communities, and employees’ families. 

If there was a silver lining to COVID, it was an equal opportunity virus for most of us. COVID didn’t monopolize a particular set (with the big exception of immuno-compromised and the elderly) and gave people an opportunity to bring out these empathetic human behaviors. 

Leaders who treat their stakeholders as essential partners during COVID did so by walking the talk. They called their suppliers and said, “Even though you’re not going to be able to provide the level of service and the quantity we’re used to, we’re still going to pay you. We understand you also need to survive and sustain your business. We are in it with you for the long haul.” They also told customers they didn’t need to pay their usual 30-day invoice cycle because everyone was struggling to meet payroll. 

This shared ownership and responsibility during the most difficult time – on the receiving and giving end – made the entire stakeholder ecosystem more resilient. 

Human-centered leadership is crucial to building resiliency in an organization. When leaders practice deep listening, exhibit vulnerability, and treat all stakeholders as essential to their long-term success, they will achieve a resilient culture that feeds sustainable bottom-line results. 

About Jeannie Diefenderfer

Over 28 years of technical and operations experience with more than 10 years in executive leadership positions in Verizon Communications, including a 10,000-person global customer care organization for the largest enterprise customers. As the Senior Vice President of Global Engineering & Planning, Jeannie led the implementation of over $10 billion in capital to expand Verizon’s global backbone network across six continents, including its nationally renowned Fios network. Jeannie also served as the firm’s network leader to translate for Verizon’s business customers, its technology benefits from the end-user point of view. In addition, as the head of Strategic Sourcing, Jeannie managed a $10 Billion-plus purchasing program for the company. 

Irth's market-leading SaaS platform improves resilience and reduces risk in the sustainable delivery of essential services that millions of people and businesses rely on every day. Energy, utility, and telecom companies across the U.S. and Canada trust Irth for damage prevention, training, asset inspections, and land management solutions. Powered by business intelligence, analytics, and geospatial data, our platform helps deliver the 360-degree situational awareness needed to proactively mitigate and manage risk of critical network infrastructure in a changing environment. Irth has been the top provider for 811 (one call) ticket management and utility locating software since 1995.

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