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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 84: Sandy Asch Explains Building Resilience and the Importance of This in the Midst of COVID-19

August 12, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Sandy Asch is a TEDx speaker, bestselling author, and resilience expert. Sandy Aschndy has helped many major organizations such as the famous Sandy Aschn Diego Zoo develop and build resilient leaders. Sandy Aschndy discusses the importance of staying true to yourself and making connections to “the why” of what you do to build a holistic perspective of resilience.

Download a free E-Book copy of, “Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous Sandy Aschn Diego Zoo Way,” today.

Download the resilience daily planner, now.

Episode Transcript


00:06 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.


00:25 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Sandy Asch, who is an expert on resilience. She's a keynote speaker, a consultant. She's a author and a tedx speaker, and many other things. And one of the reasons that I contacted her because I have read her book. It caught my eye, and the book is called "Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization." And it talks a lot about the San Diego Zoo, and she applied these concepts to the San Diego Zoo. And if any of you are like me and you enjoy going to zoos, you know that that's probably the best zoo in the world. I've been to zoos in many zoos in the United States and outside of the United States, even in China, and I can tell you, I think the San Diego Zoo is the best. So two things caught me at my eye about this. One, it was about the San Diego Zoo, and the other is, it's about resilience. And I thought resilience is such an important concept right now, especially because of COVID. And so I thought, "Well, i'll get the book." And I got it and I read it and I liked it. But first of all, Sandy, thank you for agreeing to do this podcast with me, I appreciate it.

01:45 Sandy Asch: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure to be here and share some of my stories. Thanks, Matt.

01:51 Matt Waller: So would you mind if we started by just you telling me what is resilience. So you've been studying resilience for many years. You've helped companies and zoos become resilient. What is resilience?

02:10 Sandy Asch: Resilience is quite misunderstood. There's a lot of mythology about it. And typically, when I ask people, what does resilience mean to you, the kinds of answers that I get are strength, determination, courage, tenacity, the ability to bounce back from setbacks, and all of those are true and important. But consider that the continual bouncing back and forth every time we face change, challenge, crisis, and now, intense chaos can become incredibly wearing and exhausting over time. So when I think about resilience, I think about a holistic perspective, a set of skills and tools that, frankly, anybody can master that gives you the ability to respond effectively to any circumstance and stay whole, W-H-O-L-E. So the question is, can you face the next storm, whatever that will be, and we're living in a world of radically unpredictable storms that are accelerating at lightning speed. Can you face whatever storm you're in and stay true to yourself?

03:31 Sandy Asch: Now that sounds sort of airy-fairy, but if you really think about it, yes, you're gonna bounce back after the setback and you may even emerge stronger and wiser, hopefully, as we all are in COVID. But the bigger question now, particularly is, can you navigate through this time or whatever change, challenge, or crisis you're in and stay true to your values, stay deeply rooted to your values, your principles, your sense of purpose? And like a tree in a storm, can you shake but not break? The conversation is about resilience is your ability to manage stress and to meditate. And yes, I absolutely believe in those, those are definitely a piece of the puzzle. But when I think about resilience, I think about a holistic perspective. So your ability to develop the emotional resilience you need to be able to stay calm and focused, to be able to respond and not react, that's a big one. To master physical resilience, that level of energy and vitality and stamina that you need to fulfill on all your goals and still have energy left over at the end of the day and also manage your time and energy wisely.

04:53 Sandy Asch: The next piece, it's a piece on relational resilience to be able to be bold and truthful and transparent and use every conversation to inspire action and move things forward so that your relationships are inspiring, they're strong, they can hold you. And then the big one, and I know we're gonna talk about this today as it relates to the zoo and this is a favorite, is value resilience. Your sense of connectedness to what's important to you and connectedness to what's important in your organization so that sense of purpose, of belonging, of real value. It's sort of like that lighthouse or that compass that keeps pulling you forward even when you don't have the energy or you're fragmented or distracted.

05:43 Sandy Asch: And then the last element is the mental resilience. The tenacity, the strength, the determination, the perseverance to be able to face any storm that's coming your way and exercise mind over matter, not give in to excuses and rise above the storm, defy the odds. So that's my picture of resilience, it's a big picture of resilience. And it may sound daunting to people, but I know for sure that resilience is not reserved for the rich and famous or the few people who've had big experiences in life. Resilience is just a function of daily habits that we practice every day that pull the muscle. It's like going to the gym.

06:28 Matt Waller: Well, one of the chapters that really caught my attention in your book was Chapter 13, which is connecting people to the why. And a few pages into that, you have a section called "Connecting people to the purpose." And it says, "It's not enough to just have a clear purpose. People at every level of the organization must live and breathe its values, mission and vision." And so, one of the reasons that caught my attention, Sandy, is because, of course, when I was reading this book, part of what I was thinking was, How can I help the Sam M. Walton College of Business to become more resilient? So as I was looking for tactics as I read. And because we... In March, in the middle of March, we all of a sudden went remote. So professors, some of whom had never taught online were teaching remotely. So we had to take over 100 professors and move them to remote, we had to take over 6,000 students and move them to remote, and we had maybe 150 staff that had to work remote to support all of this. It was daunting. And I sent an email to the college right in the midst of this before we actually made the transition. Fortunately, this happened right before spring break. So we had spring break to kind of adjust. But our university was founded in 1871, but our college was founded in 1928. And I was just thinking about what the college had gone through since 1928, during World War II our enrollment went down by a two-thirds.

08:34 Matt Waller: So we've gone through terrible things and yet today we're a top 50 business school in the United States, and we're in Arkansas on top of that, which is a sparsely populated state. But I mentioned this in my email to the faculty and staff. I said, we are a resilient people, we can make it through this. And so when I read this in your book where you say, "People at every level of the organization must live and breathe it's values, mission and vision." It made me wonder as I was going through this and I thought, I don't think I'm doing enough to actually fulfill this, to make it a resilient organization. When you were working with the San Diego Zoo on resilience, what are some of the challenges they faced that made them really need to be resilient as an organization?

09:31 Sandy Asch: Yeah. Well I think the San Diego Zoo like any organization is challenged. Right? It's a great organization, it's an incredible Zoo, but it's not perfect. Let's just be clear. No organization is perfect. They had significant financial crises over the years, they faced Union challenges, very heavily unionized organization. They're very often under-resourced, and so there is jocking for budget and resources. And then they were really concerned about the level of employee engagement. Now you would think, "Oh, I work at the world famous zoo, I get to work with incredible animals in an unbelievable environment, I'm gonna show up at work every day tapped in, tuned in, turned on. But that's not always the case. It looks glamorous and it seems glamorous, but behind the scenes, a lot of what's going on is shoveling large mounds of things that don't smell very good. So the challenge was, how does a 100 year organization, and now are you speaking about the College of Business, which is also more than 100 years, how do you keep people deeply connected and Matt, not just from an intellectual point of view. It's one thing to say, "We have this grand purpose, and here's what it is, and by the way, it's on the wall in a lobby somewhere.

11:05 Sandy Asch: And the truth is, people just think that's BS. So the question is, how do you take that big purpose or that big vision and connect people to it not only head but also in their heart? And I think that's the one thing that most organizations grapple with. Is how do you create a sense of passion and energy and excitement, emotion around that purpose. And that's what the San Diego Zoo has done very well. So they created a purpose that was so big and so audacious, it kind of makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, they call it the call, C-A-L-L, is to end animal extinction. So when you have a massive purpose like ending animal extinction, which by the way, you can probably never really fulfill on, it's so big and it's so inspiring that it gets people out of bed in the morning with what I say a roar of purpose and passion. Because when you get up in the morning and you know your purpose is to help end animal extinction, you better get on with it. You're not gonna be lazy and sloppy and, "Oh, I don't feel like it." But the next step then, and I'm sure this is something that you're even having discussions with your faculty and your staff and your students and your donors, is how do you rally all of your stakeholders around your purpose.

12:42 Sandy Asch: And that's another thing the San Diego zoo has done brilliantly, so it's not just, Let's get employees excited about ending animal extinction, but let's get our volunteers and our donors and our vendors. So I share a story, this is a classic example. If you remember, there was a time when, and it still is, there is concern about rhinos becoming extinct. And some of the ranches at the San Diego Zoo were taking a group of high school students around the zoo and they wanted to get them united and inspired around the call to end animal extinction so they asked the kids to write on their hands in big bold marker pen, "Stop Killing the Rhinos." And then they had all the kids hold their hands up with that message and they took photos and posted the photos on social media with the hashtag, "Rally for Rhinos." So now you have conservationists and people who love animals and zoos from all around the world rallying together to end the threat against rhinos and I think anything you can do to bring your purpose alive, take it off the wall and sort of embed it in the DNA of people so that every person, no matter what their role is in your organization can clearly articulate how what they do every day is impacting and fulfilling on that purpose.

14:25 Sandy Asch: Every single employee at the San Diego Zoo whether they're selling hot dogs and Cokes or they're working in the Conservation Institute to come up with strategies to save bald-headed eagles. Every single employee can tell you the story about how what they do every day is helping to end animal extinction so the high school kid who's selling Coca-Cola at the concession stand can tell you, "Hey, if I up sell one out of every five guests at the zoo from a medium size Coke to an extra large size Coke, it's gonna generate this amount of revenue over the month of the year and this is gonna help save the white Rhino, so every employee has that heartfelt story about how they're connected to the purpose and that's when purpose becomes powerful and that's when it becomes alive.

15:26 Matt Waller: So Sandy, you have, through all of your experience in studying resilience and helping companies become resilient, you've developed some tools, one of which is the resilience at work assessment. Would you mind telling us a little bit about that?

15:43 Sandy Asch: Sure, so the assessment just gives you the opportunity to go online, there is no cost and to rate yourself on each of the five resilience competencies and find out how emotionally, physically, mentally, relationally and value would help. What is your level of resilience in each of those competencies and they get your overall resilience score. And if you're candid when you respond to the survey, you get a real clear picture of where your areas of strength are and where your areas and opportunities for growth and then when you get your scores, I also include in there an audio, a video and to explain what each of those resilience competencies mean as well as an action plan for you to determine what your next steps are in building your resilience.

16:37 Sandy Asch: When I have this resilience daily planner, so when COVID swept into our lives, I had to develop a mechanism to stay sane. And here I was, the person who'd been traveling all around the world and written a book about resilience, and I thought, "I should really know this by now." But what I noticed is, having an intellectual understanding of resilience and reading about it is great, it's one thing, but actually putting it into practice is quite another thing. So I created this daily planner with... It's a couple of simple habits to do first thing in the morning, at lunch time, in the afternoon, dinner time and bed time that helped keep me any way focused and resilient. And so I'm sharing it with people, it is customizable and fillable, you can add your own ideas in there and that you can get at And it's just a real, simple way of creating certainty, of creating routine and of staying focused particularly at a time when it's so easy for us to get fragmented and distracted and be pulled off course, to be blown over by the fear, the uncertainty, the negativity, the rumors that are swirling around us. So if ever there were a time for us to be building our resilience muscles, it would have to be now.

18:14 Matt Waller: Early on in your career, you published a book, your first book was called "Excellence at Work" is that correct?

18:23 Sandy Asch: Yes.

18:24 Matt Waller: And that year, maybe 20 years ago your house had just burned down.

18:30 Sandy Asch: Yes.

18:31 Matt Waller: And looking through your timeline, you've faced a number of challenges. How have some of those challenges you've faced like your house burning down, how has that shaped some of your perspectives?

18:46 Sandy Asch: Yeah, absolutely, thanks for asking that. I think for all of us, as you say we face different challenges and adversity in different times in our life, sometimes predictable and unpredictable and what it does is it gives us the opportunity to see where we need to strengthen ourselves and grow and for sure when my house burned down, that was... That sort of juncture where we say, "Okay, I can be the victim." And say, "Oh, woe is me." And just let things fall apart, or I can really look at this event or this experience as an opportunity to rise above my circumstances and to be at cause, C-A-U-S-E, rather than be at effect. And we're living in a time now where we're faced with that same choice, I think we're faced with that choice probably many times a day, sometimes every hour, every minute. Do I be a cause or do I be... Or am I at effect? And am I willing to engage in the habits and the practices, the rituals in my day-to-day life that will proactively help me build those muscles and the strength, so the next time, God forbid, our house burns down or something, we're facing a challenge, we have the ability to face it head on and stay deeply rooted or grounded to who we are and what's important, and to navigate and respond effectively in that situation. I've lived in countries at war, I grew up in South Africa as you know.

20:29 Sandy Asch: There was a lot of political unrest, so wherever we are in life, the more that we pushed and pulled and pressed and bent, the greater our motivation and our desire to strengthen ourselves. And that's why this time that we're in, in this COVID world, is so rich an opportunity for all of us to grow at the next level, because certainly in the darkest and most challenging of times, we have the greatest opportunity for growth. And earlier you were talking about the growth and the strengthening, the developing of resilience, that your staff, your faculty, your students, you all had to go through. And look, if we just got to coast and everything was certain and easy and the puzzle was already done for us, then we don't get to fulfill on our purpose, we don't get to utilize our unique talents, gifts and strengths. One of my most formative experiences about resilience, was when I was growing up in South Africa, every summer, my parents would take me and my two brothers on Safari, and we would wind our way through the wilderness in the hot car, those are the days that cars didn't have air conditioning, on these dusty bumpy roads for hours and hours, our little noses pressed to the windows trying to spot animals, and the highlight was always the lion and the lion kill. And for me, the lion is really such an incredible model and teacher of what it means to be resilient. The lion's hunting success rate, what do you think its hunting success rate is?

22:17 Matt Waller: Oh gosh, I don't know, I'm gonna say one in five.

22:21 Sandy Asch: Yeah, pretty much, well, less than 30%.

22:23 Matt Waller: Wow.

22:24 Sandy Asch: Yeah, but the lion never gives up, it doesn't make excuses, it doesn't blame the herd of stampeding buffalo across its path or the windstorm, it just gets up because it has such a compelling purpose, and the purpose is, "Make the kill so I can feed my pride." And so I think when you're thinking about resilience, and when we're thinking about how we can be most effective in our world, whatever our world is, for me, the image and the behavior of the lion is such a beautiful example of that.

23:00 Matt Waller: Sandy, thank you so much for being on this podcast, and thank you for writing this book, as I said, I enjoyed it, and I think it's timely given what we're experiencing, but to your point, I think resilience is important at any point in time, and in some ways, it's a good way to be prepared for the future because nobody can predict these black swans, so the more resilient you are, the better prepared you are.

23:28 Sandy Asch: Absolutely. Well, thank you, it's been such a pleasure. I love to share my stories, and so thank you so much for inviting me to do so. And we will set up an opportunity for anybody who's interested in reading the book to download a free copy of the e-book, and the URL for that is So I hope all your listeners really enjoy the stories. And one of my favorite parts of the book is, and I'm sure you saw this, Matt, at the end of every chapter, there's some really deep soul-searching questions that are a fantastic platform for a book club discussion, and also personal introspection about how you can become a more resilient and effective leader, so thanks again, I wish you enormous success. And it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much.


24:30 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, soundcloud, itunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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