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John Milsom

John Milsom



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Thought Leadership


Do Your Leaders Have the X Factor?

The live shows are upon us once again. We are left debating who will make it all the way to the finish line, proving that they have what it takes to win over the public. Unbeknown to the current cohort, they will need to show some similar qualities to those seen in top leaders, if they are to make it all the way to the Christmas final. What qualities are these? Some cite charisma as key, or maybe an ability to persuade? I would argue that one of the most important factors predicting sticking power in our leaders of today – and the X Factor cohort – is resilience: the ability to cope with the slings and arrows that are going to be hurled at them on a daily basis. We can already see that one of the final 16 (Kitty Brucknell) is going to find the journey particularly tough, given her nervous disposition, the public criticism she has received and the fact that the media are having a field day uncovering her colourful past.

The importance of resilience in leadership was highlighted back in February, when it was cited as one of four key leadership attributes needed to weather the storm of recession (see the full article HERE). Based on Mervyn King’s recent comments that the UK is facing the most serious financial crisis we’ve seen since the 1930’s, and potentially ever – it looks set that resilience will continue to be critical in our leaders.

So - what we know is that organisations require leaders who possess the personal attributes and tools to cope with, and steer employees through, a storm.  Contrary to widespread opinion, pressure in itself is no bad thing – in fact, quite the opposite. Research tells us that organisations under pressure can benefit from a sense of shared purpose and intent, unifying teams and galvanising organisational commitment. On an individual level, putting people under the right level of pressure is motivating, driving productivity and ensuring that you get the most out of your employees. The key, therefore, is to ensure that this level of pressure is appropriate for the individual, so that it does not become strain and ultimately, burnout.

How are we doing in the UK then? A recent survey found that 41% of employees are currently ‘stressed’ or ‘very stressed’, with one third feeling that this is due to greater focus on budget restrictions. Where does this stress come from? There are six main sources of pressure for employees:

Demand – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.

Control – how much control a person has in the way in which they carry out their work.

Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

Role – lack of understanding of own role, or conflicts within the role deliverables.

Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

An estimated 20% of employees have at some point called in sick due to feeling stressed. However, the stigma attached to the label of ’stress’ means that very few employees are likely to admit feeling this way. The same percentage feel that they may lose their jobs if they admit feeling the strain, meaning that employees are far more likely to blame a stomach upset or migraine.  The result is that the vast majority of employers may not have an accurate gauge on the mental state of employees and could erroneously conclude that there is no problem. The resulting cost to organisations is enormous – the Health and Safety Executive estimate that half of all working days are lost every year due to stress and mental illness, at a cost of approximately £26bn a year.

How then, can we build a resilient workplace? Firstly, a robust selection process can help us to ensure that we place individuals into roles and organisations that fit their skills, capabilities (including tolerance of stress) and values. We encourage organisations to create open dialogue with employees on issues affecting them, and employee surveys can be a useful way of gathering anonymous data on the ‘stress hotspots’ facing employees – so long as the information is then used to create tangible changes to the work environment.  Initiatives that provide individuals with personal tools and coping mechanisms can also be useful, and resilience training is becoming increasingly popular. This training can increase awareness of the causes and symptoms of stress, educate employees as to the individual differences that can put them at risk, and provide a toolkit for managing their symptoms. Managers need to be provided with the training, autonomy and support that they need in order to mitigate the effects of increasing pressure on employees and ensure that they are not inadvertently creating additional stressors for their team. Here – 360 degree tools can be a way of gathering data and gauging effectiveness. Finally, individual coaching sessions can provide longer term, tailored support to leaders through key periods.

It would be great to think that the producers of X Factor will be providing the contestants with some of the above, even though a few public meltdowns will probably do their viewing figures no end of good. Will Kitty make it? I’m not holding my breath.

We are currently working with senior leaders to develop their capacity to cope with the ever changing environment in which they find themselves. If you would like to understand more about this work, or have any questions, please call Melissa Davis on 01625 508100.

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