Erica Hullinger of William Blair and Harvard University professor Francesco Gino
Erica Hullinger (left), a member of William Blair’s Alliance Board, moderated the Courageous Conversation with Harvard University Professor Francesca Gino.

Creating a resilient work culture means embracing curiosity, having a broad perspective, and valuing authenticity—initiatives often led by those who defy the status quo, a Harvard University professor and award-winning researcher told colleagues at William Blair’s Courageous Conversations event on September 14.

“People who are resilient, I call them rebels,” said Professor Francesca Gino, who teaches business administration. “They have this natural ability to adapt quickly to changing situations—to think more broadly about the mission.”

Gino recognizes that rebels are often thought of as troublemakers, contrarians; many times they are colleagues, friends, and family members who complicate seemingly straightforward decisions. But in reality, rebels are those who have unconventional outlooks, wanting to change the world for the better rather than falling back on what is safe and familiar.

But much can be learned from the resiliency rebels exhibit, Gino says, particularly in today’s vastly different world, as society adjusts to a new work environment and family life resulting from COVID-19. With resiliency, people become more engaged and feel less stressed about their work and life. 

Hosted by William Blair Alliance Board

Courageous Conversations, sponsored by the William Blair Alliance Board, is a series of inspirational talks to nurture an inclusive and diverse workplace.

Gino focuses her research on why people make the decisions they do at work, and how leaders and employees have more productive, creative, and fulfilling lives. Gino, honored as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants, is the author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life.

She has spent 15 years studying rebels to understand what is it that makes them creative even in situations where many would fall under the pressure of stress.

Rebels’ Talent

Among those was Capt. Sully Sullenberger. An expert pilot with years of private and military experience flying jets, Sullenberger became famous in 2009 after making an unconventional emergency landing in the Hudson River in NYC. Gino said she was fascinated by his ingenious solution to land the plane in the river, rather than making the obvious decision of landing at the nearest airport. That decision ultimately saved the lives of all 155 passengers.

In discussions with Capt. Sullenberger, Gino learned that even though he was an experienced  pilot, he continued to broaden his perspective every day. “He created a habit of mind for himself that every time he walked into the cockpit, he would ask a simple question: ‘What do I stand to learn today?’”

Another attribute of these rebels is their authenticity, Gino says.

She cited basketball coach Maurice Cheeks as one example. He revealed his true self at the start of an NBA championship game in 2003 by coming to the aid of a 13-year-old girl, tapped to sing the national anthem. Under the pressure, she forgot the words but within seconds Coach Cheeks came to her side and began singing with her.

Cheeks, whose strength was coaching not singing, exposed his vulnerability. But it wasn’t about him. She recovered and Cheeks stepped away when the stadium erupted with applause, giving the teenager the spotlight.

“We gain respect and influence from others when we put ourselves in a situation of vulnerability, similarly to what he did,” Gino says.

Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart

She told another story of a chef from an Italian 3-Michelin star restaurant, a rebel who reinvented traditional Italian dishes. Initially, tradition-bound Italians were not too happy but he persisted as a way to express his own authenticity. He also encouraged his staff to do the same, she says, sharing a story of an accident that occurred one busy evening when a sous chef dropped a lemon tart that he had meticulously crafted. Rather than yelling, the head chef saw something different: a new desert now on the menu—Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart.

Gino says what she loves about these stories is the characteristics of these rebels, their vulnerability, allowing us to experience authenticity in a different way. They illustrate a broader perspective, a deep curiosity—key ingredients that are helpful for resilience, adaptability, and our ability to engage with work in a more meaningful way.

“When I think about these stories, I think about the role that we all play not only for ourselves to bring them out more often, but also to help others do the same,” she adds.