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Imagine trying to bounce back after losing your marriage and potentially the highly successful business you built from scratch, overnight. 

That’s exactly what happened to lingerie impresario, Michelle Mone, when her husband, co-owner of £50m ($78m) multinational company, Ultimo, walked out and left her fighting for the business she’d started after he tried to wrest away control following his affair with the company’s chief designer.

But, after a very public divorce and court battle, after which Mone had to find new backers to buy out her husband, Mone lived to fight another day.

Appointed by the British government in August to carry out a wide-ranging review into how best to encourage start-ups in areas of high unemployment, she’s faced her own set of struggles to get to the top.

“I’ve faced some big dramas in my life where I really could have lost everything,” she said, calling her experience the epitome of resilience in business. “I just had to work harder and find a way through. If you never give up you’ll find a way — it’s a feeling I’ve had my whole career.”

Mone’s resilience was built the hard way — through turmoil she likely wouldn’t wish on anyone. But how can the rest of us learn this vital trait, without the tremendous struggle? Is it even possible?

Michelle Mone has bounced back stronger. (Credit: Dan Kennedy)

Building from the ground up

Learning from experience builds resilience, but it’s possible to develop the characteristic without, say, facing bankruptcy or failure, according to Derek Mowbray, chairman of leadership consultancy the WellBeing and Performance Group.  Merely developing the right attitude is a big part of becoming resilient, he said.

“Resilience is an attitude towards challenging events — it’s basically a choice you make,” Mowbray said.

For instance, you probably already have the presence of mind needed to run a client presentation without crumbling if your favourite meeting room isn’t available, or the skills to wing it if you’ve left some notes at home.

The true test of resilience comes when something outside of the norm happens: the meeting room is invaded by angry placard-waving shareholders or the vice president of the firm falls seriously ill during the presentation. 

 “When something serious crops up, we have to learn to form a robust attitude to deal with the problem at hand using our skills,” Mowbray said. While strong interpersonal skills could help you sweet-talk aggressive protestors, so will the belief that you’re not going to fail.

That self-belief is at the core of a resilient approach, Mowbray said.

Look forward, not back

Much of the time, there are some subtle, but crucial, differences in self-reflection that separate resilient people from others.

“[Non-resilient] people see the story of their life stopping when they reach a certain point; maybe their business failed or they became ill,” said Belgium-based executive coach Olivier Schobbens. Such people might spend a lot of time thinking about or discussing that setback.  “Resilient people tend to think ‘OK — that’s a hiccup, but now the story continues’.”

The founder of Serra Trading, Andrea Johson, said becoming an expert in her field helped her be more resilient. (Credit: Serra Trading)

The ability to stay positive and in control under periods of high stress are the hallmarks of resilience. They are also the mark of some of the most successful entrepreneurs. Take dual Jamaican-American citizen Andrea Johnson, founder of Serra Trading Company — a family-run business that sells single estate Jamaican coffee turning over around $300,000 of coffee a year.

Johnson took the plunge into entrepreneurship when her high-profile, New York-based job at fashion house Giorgio Armani disappeared during the 2008 recession.

“In retrospect it was the kick in the pants I needed,” Johnson said.

Changing industries was a challenge, and Johnson had to become an expert in the global coffee industry quite rapidly. But now sales are steady and the company is set to expand into the Asian market with partners in Hong Kong and Japan. Johnson believes she has a resilient nature overall and attributes that partly to the way she approaches obstacles.

“I’ve got a very logical mind and break down any problems, like having to learn about the coffee industry from scratch, into smaller parts,” she said.

Set clear goals

Resilient people also tend to have a strong sense of purpose.

“People find it easier to rebound from challenges when they have a clear idea of what difference they want to make in their professional life,” Schobbens said.

That passion both builds resistance and can carry you through a variety of obstacles.

Australia-based entrepreneur Stephan Ibos knew he had a great business idea, but he ran into numerous roadblocks when he looked for investors for his cloud computing start-up.

"Every day is about facing a new challenge," said Stephan Ibos of entreprenuerial resilience. (Credit: Sebastien Serville)

“We spent a year approaching people who told us ‘what you want to do is technically impossible, you’ll never succeed — and what on earth are you doing a start-up in Australia for?’,” Ibos said.

It took eight months of pitching meetings before Ibos found someone who believed in the idea and helped secure the funding that allowed him to create Maestrano, which provides cloud computing services to small- and medium-sized businesses. The company, which is almost two years old, now has two offices in the US and one planned for London.  

“Our team all went from big corporate jobs making big bucks to do this,” Ibos said. “It was a risk. Let's be honest: every day is about facing a new challenge that you didn't even imagine you would have the day before.”

Resilience is — above all — about accepting and embracing risk, rather than trying to avoid it, according to Mowbray. Exposing yourself to new challenges and unfamiliar experience helps build the resilience muscle.

“That way you’re extending the portfolio of experiences that you know you can deal with,” Mowbray said.

What’s more, finding the bright side of failure is at the heart of developing resilience in business.  

“If people see a failure as a success waiting to happen that’s generally what happens,” said Mowbray.

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