Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.
Our worlds are getting smaller as the lines between work and home blur. What’s normal is anything but these days. The walls of our daily existence are caving in on us.
Scary and disruptive, yes, but also transformative. As we turn inward, we have an opportunity to examine who we are, who we will become, and how we want to be known in this crisis and beyond.
A new normal for my family is taking a break every day at around one o’clock. We step away from whatever we’re doing—from remote work and conference calls to online high school and college classes—to have lunch together. Over the past three weeks, our conversations have evolved. First, it was all about the moment (who needed what and the next grocery store expedition). Now, it’s about the moment we are trying to reach.
A couple of days ago, our teenage daughter observed: “People are always asking, ‘What do you want to be?’ Why aren’t they asking, ‘Who do you want to be?’”
Her comment, I realized, is the essential question for all of us in this crisis and beyond, as we’re each confronted with what we’re all about and what we do in this moment.
Here are some thoughts:
- The moment of self-truth. All of us are born with certain traits—natural tendencies and abilities. Optimistic or pessimistic. Curious or cautious. Outgoing or shy. With time and experience, we can adjust and compensate (for example, an introvert becoming more outgoing and comfortable speaking with others). When the going gets tough, do we revert to our weakness or capitalize on our strengths? The answer is self-awareness, the one trait that rises above the rest. Here’s an example: This week, a colleague of mine sent me an email in which she admitted she had written and then scrapped several versions. Just as she was about to send the final draft, outlining her current predicament, she found that she couldn’t do it. “The current global state is certainly not in need of more problems. So going forward, I am putting my energy into solutions…” She told me how her perspective shifted from negative to positive and said how appreciative she was of “my Korn Ferry brothers and sisters.” It’s only natural when emotions are running high to feel stressed and fearful. But as she demonstrated, we have a choice in how we interact with others. When this crisis is over, people will remember who we were in the tough times. Even the smallest acts of kindness will be treasured.
- From me to we. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the chronic shortage of toilet paper, it’s that self-preservation is the strongest of human instincts, anchored right at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. With greater self-awareness, though, we can move from pure self-interest to shared interest. Among the most powerful examples are the healthcare workers—those selfless heroes who are putting their own health and well-being on the line. As one healthcare executive with 31,000 caregivers in the field, including at COVID-19 command centers, told me, “…To do their jobs they need to know that [everyone] is behind them. That gives our first responders, our caregivers, the energy, passion, hope, and faith to be at their very best as we weather this storm as a community.”
- When priorities shift. Earlier in my career, I kept a strict boundary between personal and professional. When I became the CEO more than a dozen years ago, I tried never to bring my job home. Now, like everyone else, I’m experiencing blurred lines and boundaries. That sets the stage for personal and professional worlds to collide. Just the other day, as we finished up our family lunch, one of my daughters asked if we could take a walk. I really needed to get back to work and the numerous calls that awaited me. But when I saw the disappointment on her face, I realized my daughter really needed this time with me. Of course, I took that walk—and it was the best thing I could have done, for her and for myself. And when I went back to work 30 minutes later, I was more grounded and better able to listen to and respond to others.
- There is always a way. Growing up, I heard stories from my parents and my aunts and uncles about what it was like to be children during the Great Depression and then young adults during World War II, which meant everything from military service to rationing at home. These stories of sacrifice had a profound influence on my life and work ethic. But the impact didn’t stop there. I learned that no matter how bad things get, there is always a way. We can’t lose sight of this right now, no matter how dire our circumstances in the moment. Just as the previous generation inspired us, now it is our turn to demonstrate resilience for our children and others. As a recently unemployed parent shared with me: “Having my job eliminated last week was a huge blow. I have three kids, two in college and one a year away from attending. I find my mind at night swimming in thoughts of ‘how am I going to get my family through this?’... It’s times like these when I believe you have to set an example for your kids and show them through actions and deeds that we have the spirit, determination, and compassion to muscle through this.”
- “Take a load off.” More than at any time in my career, so many people have reached out to me only to inspire, uplift, and bring a smile. One colleague shared a poem that is going viral these days: “…And when the danger had passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they themselves had been healed.” Many of us are also getting links to music that mentally transports us to a different place and time when we will know that this too shall pass.
Earlier this week, I’d had a long morning of tough phone calls and some very hard decisions. Then, out of the blue, Linda Hyman, our firm’s executive vice president of global human resources, shared this link with me: an amazing rendition of The Band’s “The Weight” performed virtually by musicians across five continents. The timing could not have been better, and I was touched. When I heard that “take a load off” chorus, my burden suddenly felt lighter. So listen. See what it does for you—and who you want to be.