Rising Through Resilience: Winnifred S da Silva On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Know Yourself — Starting with self-awareness is a must; ask yourself these questions: What causes me to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or challenged? What do I notice about myself emotionally, mentally, and physically? Where in my life would I like to be more resilient? What difference could it make?
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Winnifred S. da Silva.
For more than 25 years, Winnie da Silva has worked in the people, learning, coaching, teaming and change management fields. After a career in social work, business consulting and then as a leadership development executive; Winnie started her own business. For the last 17 years, Winnie has developed her portfolio of clients as an Executive Coach, Leadership Strategist, and Team Developer. Winnie also hosts a podcast called “Transformative Leadership Conversations” where leaders share their stories of overcoming leadership challenges.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Yes, I’d love to. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. After college I went straight to graduate school at Columbia University to study social work. Afterwards I lived in India for about six months working at a boarding school and then spent a few weeks in Japan before heading home. In New York City I tried my hand at social work. After some time, I figured out I needed a career change. I moved back home for a bit to think about my next move. I found myself at a global consulting firm; Arthur Andersen Business Consulting. When they collapsed from the Enron scandal, I went to work for one of my clients. I eventually made my way back to New York City and I’ve been here for the last 21 years living in Harlem with my husband along with our three daughters.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’ve had an amazing career that I love. But it’s a bit unconventional. I’ve reinvented myself and my career a few times. As I mentioned earlier, I started out as a social worker and then pivoted to business consulting. Which is not a natural career transition! I started out as a Training Coordinator. After six months or so in that role, I said to my boss that I wanted to be a consultant in the change management practice. She said I needed a master’s degree in change management.
That didn’t deter me. I started to get to know people in the change practice. I volunteered to work with a few teams on their client projects — while still doing my other job. (By then I had been promoted to Training Director.) It was the perfect way to gain credibility.
After some time, they agreed to treat me as a potential candidate and interview me for an entry level consultant position. But the recruiting manager recommended not to hire me. However, because I already knew and worked with people in the practice and showed them what I was capable of — they advocated for me and I was asked me to join the change practice. After one year, the partner of that practice came to me and said — I’m sorry we only hired you as an entry level consultant; I didn’t know how good you would be. That blew me out way. I was so thankful for the chance to prove myself.
But the story didn’t end there. I wanted to be promoted to manager. Even though I wasn’t with the practice very long, I knew I could be an effective manager. While I didn’t have many years of experience in helping companies manage change, I had a lot of experience helping people manage change when I was a social worker. So, Teri Hill — my mentor and manager at the time — told me to put together a spreadsheet highlighting all of my social work experience and how those skills aligned to competencies required as a manager. She was able to convince them that I was manager material — I got promoted!
This foundational experience was so critical for me in my career. Some essential takeaways that have guided me and I’ve used to help others include…
- Just because people (including the “experts”) don’t think you can do it; it doesn’t make it true.
- Be confident in your own abilities but be ready to prove yourself; do it in unexpected ways.
- You have to advocate for yourself. Find people who will support you, but it has to start with you.
- Visualize what you can be, not just what you are. Your potential is bigger than your experience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company is me so when you hire my company you get to work with the person you’re talking to right now! A client recently told me this was one of the reasons he hired me. What I do every day is help people learn and grow and become the next best versions of themselves. And I want that for myself too! My favorite clients are hungry to learn, willing to take a close look at their blind spots and are ready to do the hard work — even when it’s difficult. I love working with clients where there is deep trust and an ability to speak into someone’s professional life. To grow with them and meet them where they are on their leadership journey.
I’ll give you an example. I have a client I’ve been working with for about ten years. He recently sold his company but when we started working together, it was just him and one other employee. As he sharpened his leadership chops and his company matured, we partnered together in so many areas. Early on we worked on several HR projects to get his company started. But most of our work focused on coaching and training for him and his team. For all these years we have been partners.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are a lot of people over the years that immediately come to mind who have changed and influenced the trajectory of my career. Teri Hill who I already mentioned. Peter Axelson is another colleague, mentor, and friend who has made a tremendous impact on my career in multiple ways. But no one stands out more than my husband, Sushil. He has always seen my potential much more clearly than I could. He saw beyond what I was doing; he saw what I was capable of doing. He instilled in me a confidence and vision for my life and career that I wouldn’t have been able to generate myself.
One simple story stands out. During the financial crisis of 2007 my business wasn’t doing great. In fact, I probably had one primary client at the time. I’d been on my own for about three years. My confidence was waning. I asked him — should I get a job? He said absolutely not. He encouraged me to keep going. He was confident my business would be successful. And he had some skin in the game — it was meaningful encouragement. My husband has never wavered in his support of me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is being able to bounce back from difficult situations. It’s as simple — and as hard — as that! Being resilient gives us the ability to see and act beyond what’s immediately in front of us. Resilience is also knowing we have a choice on how we react or respond. What I’ve noticed about people who are resilient is that they are…
- Emotionally Intelligent: aware of what’s happening with themselves and others.
- Multi-dimensional: open to different perspectives.
- Gracious: to themselves and others.
- Motivated: to learn and grow.
- Hopeful: optimistic about the future and about our ability to change.
- Willing to Ask for Help: never too proud to realize their limitations.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is when you do something brave. It’s not being scared. Courage to me is a short-term action that takes place in the moment. Resilience is having internal strength to move through or bounce back from difficulties. It’s not being weak when facing adversity. Resilience is a long-term state of mind supported by ways of thinking and actions we do over time.
However, courage and resilience can look similar. I’ll give you an example. Your boss has asked you to work all weekend. You promised your daughter to go apple picking with her and her friends on Saturday. You could cancel plans with your daughter, but you don’t want to. You decide to tell your boss no, you can’t work this weekend. It took courage in that moment to tell your boss no. But how you decided to say no was rooted in resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Stacey Abrams is someone who radiates resilience. Stacey Abrams is most famous for running on the Democratic ticket in Georgia governor’s race. And she was the first black woman in the U.S. to be a major party’s nominee for governor. In the end she lost to the Republican nominee.
But that wasn’t her only setback. She tells a story of going to the governor’s mansion when she was 17. As the valedictorian at her high school in Atlanta, Georgia, she was invited, along with other valedictorians in the state, to be honored for her achievements. When she got to the security gate, without even looking at the invite list she was told, “You don’t belong here.” After being told this multiple times the security officer finally checked the list and Stacey, and her parents were finally allowed to walk through the gates.
At 17, this could have had a devastating effect on her. While it did have a big impact on her, it did not set her back. Instead, it fueled her desire to become the governor of Georgia — even as a black woman. But her resilience wasn’t about selfish ambition. Then and now, her goal is to bring about change to help the under-represented, the outsider, the voiceless. Her mantra is “remember the WHY” in everything you do and let that be the touchstone that will get you through fear, fatigue, and failure.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
In 2004, my first daughter Kavita was born and like many new mothers I was struggling to balance my time with my daughter and my work. I tried to negotiate a flexible schedule, but they were not interested. Therefore, I started looking for a new job thinking maybe I could find a better match during this season in my life. I ended up receiving two job offers. One of which offered me $50K above my current salary at the time. But neither of these opportunities would be more flexible.
My husband’s startup was just winding down, we had a newborn, and we just bought a brownstone in Harlem. I quit my job and turned down the two job offers. I decided to jump off the cliff. People thought I was crazy. But my husband came with me — he was totally supportive of the idea. People — society — tell us it is irresponsible to take risks like this with your family, finances, and career. Seventeen years later I’m so glad I didn’t listen.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
It was during the Global Financial Crisis in 2007–2008. Client work dried up. My second daughter Aradhna was also born in 2007. It was not a good time for revenue to drop. It’s interesting because the employer I left in 2004 was at that time my primary client! In fact, I remember bringing my daughter who was three weeks old (with sister and daddy in tow) to a week-long leadership development program I was facilitating. I brought her to the bar that first night and the CFO was like — I can’t believe you’re here with a newborn!
There wasn’t one thing that helped me bounce back. Just working hard networking and talking to potential clients — and the support of my husband. These things and time. I kept my head down and kept going — hoping there would be a breakthrough. Slowly over time I build my business back up.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I’ve lived a mostly privileged life. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I had a really happy childhood. I felt loved and safe. I was a confident little girl. My parents did a good job of leaving me alone but also reining me in when needed. But what shook my whole foundation was when my parents’ marriage suddenly (in my mind) fell apart. I was devastated. I had no way of seeing that coming. We had a very family and church centered upbringing, so it rocked my world. Working through the divorce, hidden unhealthy behaviors in our family, lack of confidence in committed relationships, worrying about my much younger sister and brother, my mental health at the time, clinging to my faith — it was a lot. And it happened right after I left for college. All this went down during that formative time when you’re already trying to figure out who you are. I really felt like I was on my own.
While the word resiliency wasn’t in my vernacular at the time, what I did through the years was build those resiliency muscles — many of which I still use today. Which takes me to your first question — how I have cultivated resilience throughout my life. Some of the resiliency habits I developed back then I still embrace today. Journaling, praying, being vulnerable with people I trust, exercising, reading, forcing myself to rest and recover (still working on this one!) — and honestly helping other people. Helping people gets me out of my own head, generates empathy, and helps me to see my own situation with fresh eyes.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know Yourself — Starting with self-awareness is a must; ask yourself these questions: What causes me to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or challenged? What do I notice about myself emotionally, mentally, and physically? Where in my life would I like to be more resilient? What difference could it make? I teach a leadership workshop called Managing Stress & Building Resiliency. And I’ve taught this material for about six years. I discovered the old saying ‘the best way to learn is to teach’ is true. This workshop has taught me so much about resiliency. My biggest takeaway has been to pay careful attention to how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking and what my body is telling me. Giving myself more permission to pay attention to these things coupled with the journaling I was already doing increased my ability to identify where I needed to bring more resiliency into my life. Starting with knowing yourself enables us to embrace these next four steps.
- Open Your Mind — I was coaching an executive a few years back — I’ll call him Cameron — who was very smart, ambitious, and personable. An all-around great guy. But he had received some negative feedback from his direct reports. There was a backstory of course. This was the first time he was managing people. He didn’t have a hand in recruiting this team, instead he inherited them from another team. Some were not happy about the move; others were not a good fit for their new role. Not a great situation. But the story Cameron was telling himself was this: “I am not good at managing people.” This story was not only becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, but it also mentally caused him to hit a brick wall. If he just wasn’t good at managing people, it was somehow beyond his ability to change. After unpacking the situation, looking more closely at the facts, and stepping back to see what else could be happening; Cameron came to tell himself a new story: “I need to learn how to manage people.”
Then he was able to differentiate where he was responsible from other contributing factors that were clearly not his fault. This is the essence of resiliency; asking ourselves these questions: How can I look at this situation differently? How might I be able to change my mind about myself, other people or “the situation”? Opening up your mind to other possibilities will invite and enable resiliency.
- Honor Your Body — Our bodies are constantly “talking” to us. But mostly we aren’t listening. There are too many other voices vying for our attention. I also wonder if in our society we aren’t conditioned to in fact ignore our bodies. Capitalism is built on working long hard hours! But if we train ourselves to honor our bodies, we can “hear” the warning signs before we spiral out of control. I’ll give you another example from my own life. I slowly started noticing a pattern. When I’m feeling good, and I have a lot of energy I tend to completely wear myself into the ground. I love what I do, I have a full life with three kids, and I honestly have a lot of things I want to do! There are early warning signs I was doing too much (which I completely ignored): tense shoulders, not sleeping great, zero energy at the end of the day. But in the past, this wasn’t enough for me to slow down. I kept pushing. Until my body started screaming at me to stop — which looked like this: massive migraine, stomach problems, and energy completely depleted– all this for several days! My body just removed me from my life so I would be forced to rest. Resiliency is not letting your physical, mental, and emotional “bank” account run into a deficit. Listen to your body’s cues. Replenishing yourself early and often will fuel your ability to be resilient. This insight from Greg McKeown the author of Essentialism and Effortless provided a helpful metric: “Never do more than you can recover from in that day.”
- Build a Community. We’re not alone in our struggles and we need other people to help us. Intellectually we know this to be true, but we often hold back from reaching out to others. Perhaps this happens even more at work. While I provide one-on-one executive coaching, I also work with groups in a coaching context. I was working with a dynamic, high growth, start-up company and the founder decided that the entire company would benefit from coaching. To maximize time and impact while minimizing cost, we decided to offer group coaching according to role. We structured the group sessions to take place once a month or so for two hours over the course of six months. Challenges people in the company were facing included stress, ambiguous role expectations, struggling to work effectively with others, and defining a rapidly changing culture. They needed to become more resilient to keep up with the growth and pressure of a company that was scaling. What happened in those group coaching sessions was energizing. When I coached one person, everyone benefitted. But not only that, people built on that coaching; a resilient community was emerging. Then they decided to continue these sessions without me! They started meeting once a week to coach, encourage and help each other. A resilient community at work was born!
- Make a Decision — “Everything you want starts with a decision” said Amir, my Apple Plus Fitness trainer. This quote is on my computer screen. It’s my reminder that resiliency is a choice. Sometimes the very act of deciding releases our ability to be resilient. I worked with an executive — I’ll call her Rachel — and she was burned out at work. She had been working 80-hour weeks non-stop for something like nine months straight. She barely stopped working for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Her physical, mental, and emotional “bank account” was at a large negative number. She didn’t feel like she had a choice to take a break and replenish herself. She relinquished her power to choose and handed it to her boss and the company. Even when she wasn’t working and tried to take a break, she felt guilty and constantly checked her phone. It wasn’t until we unpacked the assumption that she didn’t have a choice that she could activate her resiliency. After some time, she was able to set firm boundaries. And when she was had time to herself, she could actually enjoy it. Where are you not making a decision that is impacting your ability to be resilient? What decision could you make today that will build your resiliency?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I don’t know if I would say I’m a person of great influence. But the movement I would bring about is simply this — LOVE. I know it’s cliché. But what else could bring about the most amount of good to the most amount of people? We can all do it — every one of us. No matter how old we are, where we live, how much money we have, what gender, color, orientation, religion we are — every single one of us can demonstrate love within our sphere of influence.
But what is love? If I could humbly provide a few ideas, I would offer something like this:
- Instead of treating others like I want to be treated, treat others as THEY want to be treated. This might require paying attention to others, a conversation or perhaps developing a relationship.
- Love beyond the obvious. Our sphere of influence includes our neighbors, co-workers, the people we ride with on the subway or bus, people in line at the grocery store. The list is pretty long.
- Love is being kind and patient. Love assumes the best in people. Love is realizing we don’t know everything that’s going on in people’s lives and the difficulties they’re facing. Love is not lashing out at people because we’re having a bad day. The list goes on!
- And lastly, demonstrating love is hard to do without forgiveness. When we start to identify all the reasons why this or that person isn’t worthy of our love or they’re too difficult or they did something we didn’t like — that will end up excluding mostly everyone!
Can you imagine if every day, everyone in the world woke up and asked ourselves: Who can I love today and how will I show love to them?
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Malala Yousafzai is who I’d love to share a meal with — in fact I’ll cook! That way she can meet my three daughters.
As a child she was an activist in Pakistan. She was even nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by activist Desmond Tutu. This educated, activist little girl at just 15 years old was seen as such a threat that grown men boarded a bus and shot Malala in the head. She was viewed as dangerous simply because she was a girl who wanted to go to school, and she advocated for other girls to go to school. That’s it! After recovering, she has become a renowned activist for the right to education.
I told my three daughters (who are half Indian) about Malala. They have the privilege of education being an assumption and the act of going to school will not cause someone to kill them. Securing education for girls all over the world will bring incredible leaders to the global stage. As the world becomes smaller, more complex, and the dangers we face become more severe we need to cultivate leadership everywhere. The forgotten girls of the world, if given the chance could change the world — just like Malala is doing today.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about me and on my website at www.winniedasilva.com or on my LinkedIn Page. Also check out my podcast: Transformative Leadership Conversations with Winnie da Silva on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!