Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.
When I was growing up in Kansas, going camping was a big deal. So, of course, I couldn’t wait to recreate this experience with my own family.
I spent months planning the trip: renting an RV and plotting out our adventure of touring the western United States. After a practice run over a weekend, we packed up the pots and pans and a truckload of groceries. Then we hit the road—all seven of us, including our youngest daughter, Olivia, who at the time had not even started to walk.
Ten minutes out of the driveway, the kids started asking, “Are we there yet?”
That excitement lasted about as far as the breathtaking Lake Powell, on the border of Utah and Arizona. Then disaster struck: an infestation of bugs in our RV—followed by a “bug” of another variety that swept through the family. There wasn’t enough Imodium and Pepto-Bismol to keep two parents and five children afloat. To make matters worse, the septic tank filled, and it was about 112 degrees.
The journey, clearly, was not as romantic as the dream.
We had enough and headed back home via Las Vegas. We gracefully rumbled that RV, with its gigantic “Your Dream Vacation” logos on the sides, to the front door of the MGM Grand. As we slithered out of the “rig” for a septic-free night’s rest, you can imagine the parking attendants’ faces: “Like, seriously, you want to valet this beast?”
The next morning, as we were ready to depart, we discovered the RV had two flat tires. It took all day to fix them. Then finally, feeling as if we had stumbled into a remake of National Lampoon’s Vacation, we headed home.
The question that had been asked with such excitement at the start of the trip was repeated over and over with desperation (and not just by the kids): “Are we there yet?” We couldn’t wait to get back home.
That’s how we’re all feeling now, isn’t it? We want to put this crisis behind us—and soon.
But as much as we might want life to be different, we need to be prepared for the long haul. And truthfully, none of us knows how long that will be. Ambiguity abounds.
Based on assessments of millions of executives, we’ve found that 90% of the problems they face are ambiguous. With greater responsibility comes more ambiguity. The problems we face today are not only ambiguous, but the stakes have never been higher. With so much pressure on them, leaders need the fortitude to pause and reflect within the ambiguity.
No one can see the road ahead, but we’ll find our way through this, just as others have before us. Here’s how:
- Stop looking at the clock: It’s like being buckled in for those impossibly long flights (back when we all used to travel). The worst thing you can do is look at the time or that map tracking the progress of the flight, which never seems to change. It’s like that weird timelessness we’re all feeling these days—is it Tuesday? Thursday? Does it matter? Forget about how long this crisis is going to last—it’s time to set small, incremental goals—weekly, even daily—and celebrate each along the way. That’s “The Progress Principle” and the importance of acknowledging small wins: the project that gets completed, the call that goes well, or even the tough week that’s finally over. Celebrating doesn’t have to be big, but it must be intentional—the congratulatory email, recognition on the next Zoom conference, or even a simple “thank you.” I’m always reminded of the late John McKissick, America’s winningest football coach, and the story he told us about the ring he wore with the number 500 set in diamonds given in honor of his 500th victory. At the time, when he had 576 wins, McKissick was asked if he’d like a second ring that said 600 on it. He laughed and said, “All I want is one that says 577—just one more game.” That’s how he got to 621 victories over six decades: one win at a time.
- You’re not the only one on the plank: Most of us probably had this experience when we were kids at the local swimming pool. From the ground, the high dive didn’t look that tall—until you started climbing the ladder for the first time. As beads of sweat rolled down your face, you stood on that “plank” and told yourself that you just can’t do this. Then you noticed that the person who dove off ahead of you was in the water already. Others were in the pool, too, and they were cheering you on. It wasn’t a plank; it was a springboard—so off you went. The same shift in thinking is needed today in order for leaders to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In coaching senior executives, our advice in handling ambiguity is always to contextualize—like hitting “Google Earth” to zoom as far back as possible. Take yourself out of the frame and focus on the broadest view. That’s when you see that you’re not the only one on the plank. If others can do this, so can you.
- Perfection is the enemy of progress: It’s tempting to pursue perfection as if it were a virtue. After all, who doesn’t want things to be 100%? But perfection and ambiguity don’t go together like peanut butter and jelly. There’s no time to wait for all the information, or even most of it, to make a decision or take an action. As an executive for a large retail company with hundreds of thousands of employees confided in me, “I feel like I am making major decisions that impact so many [people] by the hour.” The best any of us can hope for is a decision that’s a good decision until it isn’t anymore. It’s far better to have a strategy that is 75% perfect but 100% executable, than a strategy that is 100% perfect but only 75% executable. Practice being imperfect.
- A life lesson on ambiguity: A dear friend and colleague shared with me this week his amazing life lesson on dealing with the ultimate uncertainty from the young age of 20, when he was diagnosed with a life-altering disease. He told me, “I felt like someone had handed me a death sentence just as I was starting my life. When the doctor told me that if I took good care of myself I could very likely live to be 45 or 50, I made a determination that I was not going to let this disease defeat me and that I was going to do whatever it took to beat the odds.” Just this week, my friend celebrated his 56th year of living with this disease, with no major complications to date. He did everything he ever wanted to do (including racing formula cars professionally) and “married a wonderful wife and have 5 terrific children and 10 grandchildren.” I was choked up when he ended our conversation with an offer unlike any other: “If it comes to the point where you need me to step down in order to preserve a place for someone who has a long career in front of them, but is at risk in the short term, you should not hesitate to ask me. I want to do anything I can to help. We're all going to get through this in time…”
At some point, we will all get “there.” Whatever, wherever, and whenever that is remains ambiguous.
We know it will be different—we will make it different. In truth, ambiguity is simply reality revealed. Indeed, we are always almost there!