Bad Times a Chance to Bounce Forward

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 10:15

Sam Cawthorn, who lost his right arm after a near-fatal car crash, says struggling businesses have plenty to learn from his experiences. Amy Birchall reports

In business, a crisis might involve losing a major client or key staff member, or receiving negative press coverage that impacts on sales.

For businessperson, keynote speaker and philanthropist Sam Cawthorn, crisis involved falling asleep at the wheel and colliding with a truck with such force the right side of his car was shorn off and paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.

Though the then 26-year-old Launceston father of two was eventually resuscitated, his right arm was amputated and his right leg was severely damaged. Cawthorn suffered six broken ribs, a lacerated liver, a punctured kidney and collapsing lungs.

Cawthorn was told he may never walk again.

Rather than dwell on living with a permanent disability, Cawthorn saw an opportunity to create a better life than the one he had before the accident. Seven years later and fitted with a bionic arm controlled by a smartphone app, he's using those experiences to show businesses how to use crises as opportunities for growth.

As an expert in resilience and corporate turnarounds, Cawthorn has worked with brands such as Google, Exxon Mobil and Toyota. He says transforming a corporate or personal crisis into success isn't as difficult as it might seem.

"We all need to realise that everyone goes through tough times, whether that's a financial crisis, a natural disaster or a conflict at work. Everyone goes though crises," Cawthorn says. "The toughest of adversities can ignite growth, turn crisis into opportunity."

He says some of history's greatest companies started in financial recessions, and points to well-known brands such as Procter & Gamble, CNN, Hyatt Hotels and IBM as examples of businesses that were started during economic downturns.

"More recently, the company that was on target to make $1 billion in sales faster than any other business in history, Groupon, was started in 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis," he says.

Cawthorn is also the author of Bounce Forward (Wiley, 2013), in which he shows managers and individuals how to use crisis to their advantage.

"The core message of the book is that overcoming crisis isn't about bouncing back. I have a problem with that term, because it implies that we're moving backwards rather than towards a better outcome," he explains. "In my own life, my rehab team focused on getting me back to my previous job, and the same environment. But something had changed in me, not only physically but emotionally too. I wanted to focus on going forward."

He says many businesspeople struggle to adopt a similar attitude.

"I once heard Gerry Harvey, CEO of furniture retailer Harvey Norman, speak about waiting for the good old days to return. He suggested that all businesses run in cycles; business people just need to hang on and the good times will return and they can bounce back.

"But too often we look at the good old days. Businesses want to return to pre-global financial crisis days. That's not going to happen. Stop looking at bouncing back and start bouncing forward."

He says there are four steps to bounce forward from failure or crisis:

1. Crisis creates opportunity

Cawthorn says all crises create opportunity, but taking advantage of this requires redirecting focus on to what's important. He uses his own experiences dealing with phantom limb pain as an example:

"If I close my eyes I can feel every single one of my fingers on both arms. I can feel my wrists and my elbows as though it's all still there, but of course it isn't. My right arm was amputated after the accident," he says. "Sometimes it feels like the worst pins and needles and gets very painful. To deal with that, I had to redirect my focus. What we focus on is what we get, so if you focus on the pain – and everyone experiences pain in some way – of course it's going to hurt.

"I purposefully look for ways that I can be stimulated and motivated in other areas so that I no longer have to feel or experience that level of pain."

2. Proximity is power

Choose your employees and advisers wisely. Cawthorn says you are the average of your five closest friends, and that this applies to just about everything in life, including energy, productivity, bank balance and even weight.

"In business your success will reflect that of the average of the five closest business colleagues you spend the most time with," he says.

3. Leverage happiness that builds success

Cawthorn says that positivity is the catalyst for success. "When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient and productive," he says.

"It's no surprise then that happy managers are the most productive and successful."

Building on this claim, Cawthorn explains that optimists see events and situations as temporary.

"Even in the midst of crisis these people believe all things will pass and tomorrow will be a brighter day. Just because something unpleasant is happening now does not resign that person to a life of distress."

4. Bounce forward, not backwards

Cawthorn uses office photocopier supply companies, such as Xerox, as examples of businesses that have successfully bounced forward.

"We're seeing big changes in office environments as many organisations choose to go paperless. Printer companies had to reinvent themselves, and now they're looking at multipurpose solution-based services," he says. "They've reinvented themselves to comply with changing times, and that's absolutely crucial."