When Claudia van den Heuvel was 13, the Jeep she was travelling in was carjacked by two armed men. Living in Caracas at the time, she was returning from a sleepover when the incident happened.
After a terrifying ride around the Venezuelan capital, the carjackers deposited van den Heuvel and her chaperone at a country club. But the experience remained with her for years.
There was a positive outcome of this terrifying episode – it shaped her career. Van den Heuvel, a director in the crisis and resilience practice at the professional services firm PwC, says: “I think I became a psychologist and a risk professional because the event triggered a fascination with others’ behaviour. I used the crisis as a catalyst for growth; a chance to learn something about myself and how it can benefit others.”
The ability to learn from – and ultimately reframe – adversity is something van den Heuvel instils in her clients at PwC’s global Crisis Leadership Centre, which supports organisations, and equips their future leaders in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from crises. During the pandemic, business leaders had their resilience tested like never before. Indeed, 70% of those responding to PwC’s 2021 Global Crisis Survey said their business was negatively impacted.
A litany of unpredictable global events have followed, including the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and soaring energy prices – putting further and sustained strain on businesses and their leaders. While there’s a temptation to wait for a crisis to pass before setting long-term strategic goals, businesses should do the opposite, says van den Heuvel. “It’s setting goals amid mess and uncertainty [that breeds resilience]. Being creative and agile helps you think of different solutions to the problems.”
On a personal level, stress is a normal response to a crisis, says van den Heuvel. “You are hard-wired to have a fight or flight reaction. Even high-performing experts and leaders in a field are not immune to the physiological impacts created by stress and uncertainty. I train executive teams in the basics: psychological tricks you can employ to destress.”
She adds: “We need to develop the mindset and soft skills that create resilience.”
But how do you develop such traits? The first place to look is close to home. Our personal and professional lives are inextricably intertwined when it comes to resilience. For leaders, prioritising their own health and wellbeing so they’re physically and mentally fit to lead is equally as important as safeguarding employees’ wellbeing. “Yes, compassion and empathy for others are important traits in a crisis for a leader, but you have to start with yourself,” says van den Heuvel.
In 2019 van den Heuvel found herself having to focus on her own personal resilience, after going through some traumatic experiences: her partner left shortly after she gave birth, she and her child contracted a nasty virus, and then there was the loneliness of being a single mum during the Covid pandemic. Yoga helped, she says, as did writing an ingratitude journal – what you are not grateful for. “This moves you out of a state of inaction, and leads you to implement changes in your life that align with what you value most.”
When faced with a crisis, our initial instinct might be to react, but it’s important to take a step back and reflect before responding, she says. “Especially with a long-term crisis like Covid, it’s knowing at the beginning of a crisis to set an A team and a B team and send the B-team home, and say: ‘We know you want to be here, we know that everyone is really motivated to help the organisation through this, but in 12 hours’ time, these people are going to be tired and stressed and I’m going to need you to come in as a fresh pair of hands.’”
Moments of pause are crucial, and can prevent burnout: “You don’t really learn from a crisis unless you take the time to reflect on what you’ve actually done, because otherwise you’ll keep going and run out [of steam]. We have a warped understanding of resilience: we think we’re like Navy Seals and can keep going forever. We can’t. Resilience is founded in recharge and moments of pause.”
When disaster strikes, harness the intel at your disposal, whether customer data or ideas from your wider network, to foster decision making. “Resilient leaders flatten hierarchies and extend information sources widely,” says van den Heuvel.
Reflecting on previous hardships can also help develop a “muscle memory” for resilience. There’s a reason “fail fast, fail often” is a Silicon Valley mantra: learning from tough times identifies blind spots to prevent the disaster happening again.
Van den Heuvel’s experiences are testament to the notion that crisis can fuel transformation. She says: “Don’t view a crisis as something you need to hide from. Reframing it as an opportunity is the best way to deal with it.”
Find out how PwC helps clients build resilience and navigate risk – and the career opportunities available in this area of the business