On Sept. 7, 2008, arguably the best football player in the world crumpled onto the field just over one minute into the NFL season opener. Team doctors delivered the bad news: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had suffered two torn ligaments in his left knee that would take him out for the season.
The next day, the shock wave reverberated in sports pages across the country: "Injury to Tom Brady deals Super Quest a fatal blow," "Tom Brady's loss dampens Patriot's future," "Tom Brady out for season, Patriot's nightmare."
The Patriots didn't win that game or make it to the Super Bowl. But the team did post a 2008 season that was the envy of most of the rest of the NFL: 11 wins and only five losses—the ninth-best record in the league—an amazing accomplishment without the services of its star quarterback and supposed most powerful weapon in the league. In 2008, the Patriots proved itself not only a talented team, but a resilient one.
I've just spent the past several years studying the dynamics of resilience as it relates to business: Why some people and organizations emerge from adversity even stronger—while others simply crumble under the pressure. It's the subject of my second book, Bounce: The Art of Turning Tough Times into Triumph. My search for answers took me from university brain research labs to immigrant communities to the battlefields of Iraq.
In my work studying growth companies, I noticed that the top performers all went through a period of adversity that nearly cost the firm its life. Furthermore, when I interviewed employees on what had made each of these companies so great—the answer I most often got was that those times of adversity were most important.
One of the things I discovered early on in my study is that leaders of resilient companies tend to approach the subject of adversity a little bit differently than their weaker counterparts. Rather than going into survival mode, they "embrace the bounce." They look beyond the challenges of the moment, they guide their organizations to face facts that might have gone overlooked in more prosperous times, and they identify and integrate new insights and convictions that adversity so often presents.
How Polaris Embraced the Bounce: During his first week as a new executive at Polaris (PII), former CEO Tom Tiller went out to the plant to see the first units of Polaris' new Victory motorcycles coming off the line. When he asked an employee how much Polaris earned on each unit—the employee blushed and said, "Right now, we lose about $3,000 per motorcycle." "Well, I hope they are good motorcycles," Tiller responded. They weren't! When J.D. Power later did a quality study of motorcycles, Polaris Victory bikes ranked dead last. And yet just a few years later, Polaris was rated the highest quality motorcycle in its class for four years in a row.
How had Polaris been so resilient—going from dead last to first in just a few short years? "It's in our DNA," was Tiller's response. He went on to tell me about a tough period at the time when Polaris was producing only snowmobiles. Because of a severe drought that cut demand, the company went from dozens of employees to just 16. Polaris subsequently entered the ATV market, where it became No. 1, besting several Japanese companies over 50 times Polaris's size.
The more people I interviewed at Polaris, the more I heard the same story: The early challenges the company faced taught employees an important lesson: When times get tough, you have to embrace the bounce and ask yourself, "What is it we are supposed to learn in this crisis that is going to make us stronger in the future?"
In any crisis, you'd be well served to ask yourself and your staff questions like these. That's embracing the bounce. In my upcoming columns, I'll share more findings from my research on company resilience, and offer my advice on how a leader can foster resilience in good times and bad.
Building a resilient company doesn't guarantee that you'll go to the Super Bowl every year, but it just might make you the kind of team that can produce a 11-5 season, even in a year like 2009. As my friend and football great Roger Staubach said to me on the phone last week: "Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it."