3 Personality Traits Needed to Succeed in 'The New Normal'

MEM Director Mark Werwath talks about the three skills he thinks individuals and companies should embrace in order to succeed during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Mark Werwath

Mark WerwathThe full impact COVID-19 had on disrupting supply chains, production, and sales across a host of industries will not be fully understood for years to come, but the past 15 months have been unlike anything the world has ever seen. That being said, at least here in the US, there are bright spots when you look at current employment data. That is certainly true in Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program, where we are approaching the end of the school year and all of our full-time students already have post-graduation jobs lined up. Some of our students were faced with weighing multiple job offers, while others secured positions at world-class companies like Apple.

With graduation approaching while recognizing the global economy is still in recovery mode, I wanted to share three ideas that will help workers navigate the job search, either domestically or internationally. These concepts are applicable at all times, but seem particularly pertinent during a pandemic.


Resilience is typically viewed as the ability to rebound from a failure or negative event. Being resilient means looking at every failure not as a defeat, but as an opportunity to learn something and hopefully bring you one step closer to success.

Every failed product launch can be dismantled into smaller components, and each component can then be categorized as usable or not usable. Think back to your childhood. How many structures did you build with either Legos or Lincoln Logs, only to disassemble it and reassemble using only the best parts of your previous structure? That's being resilient. Being resilient means being able to take your work — or your life — and pivot when materials are limited or an obstacle is put before you. COVID-19 has been an obstacle unlike anything we've ever seen before, and it's forced a lot of people to pivot. Those who are willing to take a chance and make a change are the ones who will ultimately find the most success.


Resistance to change is a strange phenomenon. It’s only natural that we're all resistant to change to some extent. Have you ever gone to your favorite restaurant and thought about ordering something new off the menu, only to default to your go-to choice because you know it's delicious? That's being resistant to change. When we're presented with changing circumstances, our natural response is to think our way is the best option, but I have to tell you, nothing has ever been invented by going along with the status quo. The best entrepreneurs I've ever encountered not only are resilient, but they're OK with going against the grain. They're not resistant to change; they embrace it.

As Director of MEM, I may be biased, but I think making the choice to pursue a graduate degree, particularly during this time of seismic change in the world, shows a lack of resistance and a willingness to embrace change. Doing so creates opportunities that otherwise would not be available, and I've witnessed this time and again from our MEM students. They come to the program with a STEM background and leave with new skills and abilities to manage and lead. Not everyone can embrace this ambiguity and instead become resistant to change. That works for some people, and I'm not here to judge them. All I can say is what I see in our MEM students is an inspiring desire to bring about change in themselves and in their workspace.  


Improvisation is all about adapting to unscripted and architected situations. The essence of improv is to suspend judgment, build on each other's ideas, and leverage a "yes, and" mindset. Actors train in improvisation as a way to understand how to move on with a production, if, for example, a fellow actor forgets their lines or something unexpected happens. But improv is critical outside of the theatre world. In fact, all business leaders should be required to take courses in improvisation.  

Think about the past 15 months. How many companies were legitimately prepared for a pandemic that would force millions of customers and employees to be stuck at home for an extended period of time. Company leaders had to improvise, and the ones who did it best were the ones that found  — and continue to find — the most success. Remember how Fanatics shifted from producing baseball jerseys to instead produce personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses? 


Most of the scripted responses from the past inside our organizations were not designed to deal with the scenarios we are experiencing today. Scenarios such as rebuilding entire supply chains, bringing back workers who were out of the office for more than a year, trying to hire remote workers, trying to forecast prices of raw materials in a highly unstable demand scenario, and the list goes on. Improvisation requires a level of trust among team members, a suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to build on each other’s ideas.

I would never wish for a pandemic, but it has forced business leaders across the globe to make adjustments. In MEM, we've always valued students who are resilient, recognize when they are being resistant, and can improvise. This trifecta of traits prepares our students to not only innovate but bring about change to their companies and their industries. We've understood the importance of these skills for years. I'm thrilled businesses are now recognizing their importance as well.

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