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Fred Hassan on Learning from Adversity

by Marshall Goldsmith

Fred Hassan, the chief executive officer and chairman of Schering-Plough (SGP), has a reputation for taking on tough assignments and succeeding against long odds. Born in Pakistan, he has a degree in chemical engineering from University College London and an MBA from Harvard Business School. This is the third assignment for Fred as a Big Pharma CEO.

In his current job, he and his leadership team have helped rescue Schering-Plough from near collapse and have transformed the company in just five years. Now he is deep into his latest challenge: managing unexpected issues around his company's cholesterol-treatment franchise that have slammed revenues and sent the company's stock plunging.

Before I met Fred I had an image of the "turnaround guy" as being very direct and pounding his fists on the table. In this case, my stereotype was completely off the mark. He is very soft-spoken, extremely dedicated to people, and focuses on the soft skills of leadership.

Here are comments from a recent conversation I had with Fred in which he talked about what dealing with adversity has taught him over a long career.

How can individuals and organizations grow through dealing with adversity?

Adversity is part of life and part of business. By dealing with adversity effectively, both people and organizations become stronger and better. It makes them more resilient. It makes them more confident - because they know they can prevail even in tough times.

The key is confronting the reality you face and dealing with it with courage and tenacity. Organizations and people have a hard time doing this: They tend to ignore the problem or to fall into a downward spiral of complaining and commiserating.

I've learned from my career that you really do make your own luck. It starts with a winning attitude, and it requires listening and learning so you can keep changing and adapting to prevail in a new situation. With those qualities you can emerge stronger.

What are the leadership qualities that enable teams to overcome adversity?

The most important quality is emotional intelligence. This means knowing yourself deeply and having the ability to empathize with others so you can earn their trust. As a leader, you put yourself in your people's shoes, understand what causes them anxiety or fear in a situation of adversity, and then help them find the inner strength and courage to master the situation.

Another very important quality is the ability to inspire faith and a sense of purpose. It is remarkable how teams can overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges when their leader inspires them to see a worthy cause in their fight and to see an exciting future that will be achieved.

Aside from professional adversity, are there any instances of personal adversity that you have confronted? How did you overcome them?

Adversity would be too strong a word for any personal experiences - I have been very fortunate.

One big challenge has certainly been to adapt to and succeed in cultures that are new. I think I mastered those challenges especially because of an attitude of listening and learning. This mindset helped me to adapt to new environments and not to jump to judgment. I also benefited a lot from seeking out mentors who would help me navigate the new cultures.

Another big challenge was to overcome a very serious stutter during my childhood. I got help in overcoming that impediment, but mainly it was tenacity. I remember as a student I would practice and practice every day to build up my confidence so I could overcome the syllables that caused me to stutter. And then I would practice and practice at speaking with larger groups of people. All this taught me a lot about the power of tenacity.

Any advice for those of us who may feel discouraged or defeated by adversity?

First of all, put it in perspective. There are usually much worse situations than the one you are in. And even if it is a very severe situation, there is a way of addressing it if you don't get panicked and you think about other tough situations you have faced that can teach you about managing the new one. Keeping a cool head is very important.

Second, seek out collaboration and teammates in overcoming the situation. The worst feeling is feeling alone in adversity. When you can share your feelings with others, work together on a solution, and have a shared vision of success, mastering adversity is much easier. Good fellowship can even make the effort fun. Third, break up the challenge into bite-sized pieces and deal with each piece one by one. In this way you cut what may seem like an impossible situation down to size, win many small victories, and step-by-step, win your war.

Fourth and most important, have a winning attitude even as you play defense. Don't become a victim. By learning to play defense with a winning attitude in these situations, you will become even better at offense. You will come out stronger.

Thank you. Reader, can you think of any experiences or ideas that can help people deal with tough situations in a positive and constructive way? E-mail me and let me know?

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

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