New research shows resilience is a ‘top’ factor in career success

New research shows resilience is a ‘top’ factor in career success article

As a Diversity and Inclusion consultant I am frequently inspired by the incredible resilience of women at the top of many of the organisations I work with. With this in mind, my colleague Gilly Shapiro and I recently set out to understand more about the links between resilience and career success for women. Our hope was – is – that the research we conducted would be of value to women in the pipeline to the top, to the organisations that employ them and – not least – to other HR professionals, managers and leaders keen to support a greater gender balance at senior levels.

The three questions we set out to answer were:

  • How much difference does resilience really make to career success?
  • How does the resilience of women at the top differ from that of men?
  • How in practical terms can employers help build career resilience for women in the pipeline to the top?

So what did we find?

  1. First, that for most people, resilience means two different things. Four out of five respondents in our survey defined resilience as we had expected – as the ability to ‘bounce back’, to deal successfully with crises as they arrive, ‘coping with life’s ups and downs, twists and turns’. But three out of five respondents also defined it as something more long-term, not just about reacting to crisis, but about tenacity and the ability to adapt well to constant change. This combination of meanings said something profound to us about the resilience required of people at work, not just every now and then, but every day.
  2. Second, we found that resilience is absolutely vital to career success. We knew it was important, but we were surprised by just how important people believe it to be. 99.9% of people we surveyed said it was important to their career success, and 56% said it was essential (rising to 76% at Board level). Most of the people we interviewed were on the Boards of UK organisations, and most put resilience in the top three factors that led to their career success.
  3. Third, we found that the resilience of women differs from that of men less than we thought it might, and in rather more subtle ways. For instance women and men define resilience in similar ways, and 53% of both women and men see themselves as resilient all or almost all of the time at work. Both women and men want to be more resilient than they are. The subtle difference is that 71% of women in our survey want to be more resilient, compared to 62% of men. We didn’t ask why, but our hunch is that women understand the challenges they’re likely to face and think – I’m going to need to be resilient to make it. Another important tonal difference between women and men is how they talk about resilience. We heard both men and women talk about resilience in heroic terms, understandably proud of their ability to navigate their way towards the top. But many more women than men were likely to also talk about the tension they experienced between having to appear resilient, and the emotional turmoil underneath. We were saddened by the number of women who felt being resilient means not showing – or even not feeling – vulnerability: ‘I would like to be someone who does not feel as acutely as I do’.
  4. Finally, our research is clear – that resilience is learnable – and the way most people learn about their own resilience is through successfully navigating the tough times. In fact learning from experience is one of a number of resilience ‘habits’ of the senior people we interviewed. Another was the habit of building relationships with people that matter, personally, professionally and politically. With three out of every four women and men telling us that difficult relationships and workplace politics are what drain resilience most, the relationship habit is vital. Alongside habits, other learnable behaviours of resilient people at the top of organisations are attitudes like optimism, and crisis responses that include asking for help from others.

Words of advice from our research

  • Anything really worth doing takes persistence, perseverance, and stubborn determination – resilience is part of this determination to be successful.
  • Trust yourself. Set your own standards and principles (by all means calibrate them against others) and measure yourself against those. Find a core group of people who understand what you struggle with and what you do well and create a mentoring community.
  • When you are in a crowd and things are going wrong and you are scared, look around, everyone else is scared as well; it is normal. Take strength from that and take the lead because at that time everyone is looking for leadership and will welcome you.
  • Have a Plan B, play to your strengths, and try not to worry about things that are ultimately out of your control. Value sponsors and mentors, and develop your network to help you ensure that Plan B is just as good as Plan A!
  • Take time to have a real life outside work and develop your full potential across a range of attributes, this adds strength and is worth the time.

What’s also clear is that coaching can really help women in the pipeline build their resilience, by supporting them in developing empowering habits, attitudes and crisis responses – and by encouraging those people who have made it to the top to be more open about their own stories of vulnerability, resilience and career success. There is a huge demand for such openness from women, who want to learn directly from others about the challenges they’ve faced – and how they’ve succeeded.

‘Tough at the Top? New rules of resilience for women’s leadership success’ was sponsored by Nationwide Building Society and Vodafone, and conducted by Sarah Bond, Director, for business sake consulting ltd (, in partnership with Dr Gillian Shapiro, Director, Shapiro Consulting Ltd ( Sarah and Gilly are both consultants on diversity, inclusion and organisational change, and collaborate frequently on research and consulting projects. The research findings, which include a new model of resilience based on the habits, attitudes and crisis responses of resilient people, are freely downloadable from both their websites.


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