Are We Listening?

Don’t expect your colleagues to give you their full, undivided attention unless you’re doing the same, especially now, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.


Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

“Yep, yep, yep …” Whenever we hear that response to something we’re saying, we know the other person is only hearing—and not listening. It’s code for “just get on with it” (as anyone with teenagers will tell you).

When someone is truly listening, they’re paying close attention to not only the words, but more importantly to the silence—the pauses between the words—and the tone and emotion.

No doubt, we all know what the opposite feels like. For me, it happened on St. Patrick’s Day, just a few years ago. My family and I were up half the night with Maddie, our beloved dog. Finally, at 3:36 a.m., we had to put Maddie down. The whole family was heartbroken.

A few hours later, with hardly any sleep, I headed into the office. I knew my energy level was low. So, when a client called me and asked, “How are you?” I took the question at face value and explained what had happened that night.

The reply? “Huh—” And then this person just continued with what they had to say.

I was stunned. I don’t want to assume that this person didn’t care. But clearly, they didn’t care to listen. No one can show empathy unless they actually have empathy—being radically human is more important than ever these days.

Last year tripped all the circuit breakers. This year is the big reset. After months of disconnection, desperation, isolation, and numbness, now there is more hope and positivity.

Paradoxically, even when nothing seems to be progressing, we actually can make the most progress. When everything appears unchanged externally, we experience tremendous growth internally. When we clearly see just how far we’ve come, we appreciate more fully just how capable we’ve become.

We’ve embraced the work-from-anywhere world. All around us, we’re seeing greater mobility—and more movement among career nomads seeking new opportunities. We’re rising to the challenge of different work needing to get done—and work that needs to get done differently. At the same time, we need to make sure that work works for everyone.

It’s a tall order—and one that calls for a new type of leadership.

Just this past week, our firm held three global town halls, bringing together thousands of colleagues across EMEA, APAC, and the Americas. After giving a few minutes of opening remarks, I listened to get a pulse on what our colleagues are thinking and feeling. A common theme emerged: How can we further accelerate our growth, development, and support for each other in today’s environment?

“It takes humility, authenticity, and vulnerability,” I explained. “And the starting point is listening.”

Listening is to hearing as observing is to seeing. Listening and observing are participative—we’re all in and fully present.

It’s a quirky knack I have, but within the first few words of a conversation, I can usually tell someone’s mood. Listening is a long-term investment—when we give others our full and undivided attention, we let them know that they really do matter. We’re interested not only in what they have to say, but also in who they are.

A couple of years ago, our firm was pursuing an acquisition. During the due diligence presentation around the conference table, I picked up on something one of the executives said. Turning to his bio, I saw he had a master’s in divinity—an unexpected background for someone in sales training and leadership.

“How did you get here?” I asked.

That person was Dave Brazel, who today is a colleague and part of our digital team. Looking back on our conversation, Dave remarked to me the other day, “I don’t think anyone else at the table understood your question, but I did.”

Admittedly, my question was abrupt and had nothing to do with the topic at hand. But it had everything to do with getting to know the people who would be joining our firm—and how well they would fit into our culture. That’s the power of listening to others.

These days, we all need to tune in more closely to everyone, everywhere—people in every type of company, large or small, and in every industry. Here is a sampling of what we’re hearing—and some thoughts:

·  “We want to believe.” Over the past year, people have become encouraged by what has been said in many organizations, especially about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now, they are waiting—and wanting to believe that the change they hear about is, indeed, the change we will see. As Marquitta Cherry, one of our Korn Ferry Advance career coaches, told me, “People want to know that companies and their leaders are moving beyond statements to action—and holding themselves accountable for what comes next.” This change must start with commitment and intentionality. It’s not about power—but empower. In our assessments, we actually look for this, in determining what motivates professionals. For some, it’s about having structure. For others, it’s taking on challenges. For some, it’s about affiliation and building relationships. Yet there are those who are all about power—the desire for status and influence. If power is someone’s biggest driver, to me that raises a red flag. Today, we need to be self-aware, humble, and motivated by affiliation—all of which speak to being empathetic and capable of truly listening to others.

·  From survive … to thrive. “Last year was just surviving—getting through everything. Now people are saying, ‘This moment is really about how I can take care of me—so I can be my best and thrive,’” Korn Ferry Advance executive coach Valerie Hayes told me this week. Every organization, including our own firm, is hearing this. Although we’re far from perfect, we have taken steps, including offering Leadership U for Korn Ferry, to grow and develop our own talent, and Mosaic, an inclusive, global development program for our colleagues. All of us need to truly listen and address the needs of others. We can’t fake this—we really need to show that we care.

·  From happenstance to intentional circumstance. Post-pandemic, we won’t be in an either/or world—of people either working in an office every day or working remotely. Many of us and our teams will have the freedom of an “and” world—a hybrid of in-office and remote. Different times, different days, different combinations of people. The trade-off for having that freedom is the need to keep our connections alive and well. It used to be that casual conversations occurred by happenstance—the “see you tomorrow” and “have a good weekend.” Now, we don’t know what tomorrow’s workplace will look like—and who will be there! We need to keep our ear to the ground on how people are adapting. “There is still something special about that personal connection—that glance across the table at an in-person meeting,” Val Olson, another Korn Ferry Advance coach, shared with me. “But the fact is, we’ll have to be adaptable and for a long time to come.” When we can’t count on happenstance, we need to create intentional circumstance—to keep connections alive.

There has been so much noise—the temptation may be to just get louder. It’s counterintuitive, but this really is the time to listen—with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.