The Burden on Others

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison describes making some hard choices. “It grieves me.”

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

I had a different message for today—all written and edited. Then I ripped it up.

Our company, like so very many others, has had to make excruciating choices. Good people, talented people all over the world are being let go because of the times in which we find ourselves.

It grieves me.

This is the seventh time in my career that I’ve had to make these types of gut-wrenching decisions. It never gets any easier. In fact, it gets harder every time. Why? Because over time, you become increasingly sensitive to the burden you are placing on others. This burden, and many others, are being placed on people all over the world.

As horrible as the burden is, however, it may be good to feel that pain. It reminds us of our shared humanity.

It’s one thing to intellectualize this—talk about numbers and cost reductions or to use more abstract terms like head count, synergies, and right-sizing. But these aren’t numbers, they’re people.

Not to contradict The Godfather, but it isn’t “strictly business.” It’s also highly personal—impacting people’s lives.

At 11:30 one night, several weeks ago, I was anticipating what was going to happen. I went over the projections yet again, trying to see if there was any other way—any other lever I could pull other than that one. I didn’t see numbers that night. I saw faces. I thought of our values.

I picked up the scrapbook from our firm’s 50th anniversary last year. I saw smiles and laughter and celebrations of success. I thought of the stories that people have shared with me from their personal lives. Some have struggled with serious illnesses—and a few more than once. I’ve congratulated them on the births of children, and I’ve given them condolences on the losses of loved ones—and even a few eulogies.

Then my thoughts turned to a dear friend and one of our leaders, Bob McNabb, who fought a long fight bravely against terminal cancer and passed away in 2013. During his illness, Bob and I had hundreds of conversations—the last one while I was driving my car to a university where I was giving a commencement speech.

Bob’s number popped up on the dashboard screen—it was Debi, Bob’s wife, calling to say Bob wanted to talk with me.

He struggled to breathe. I could hear the hospital machines in the background. Then came his usual greeting, “How are you doing, my friend?”

We only talked for a short while, but his entire focus—remarkably, but characteristically—was on me, not him. Then he told me, “You give ’em hell,” with a faint laugh. He signed off as he did at the end of every conversation with almost everyone: “Love you, babe.”

And I said, “I love you, Bob.” Then the phone clicked, followed by eerie silence, and I just knew. A short while later, Bob, my beloved friend, passed away.

Business decisions cannot compare to human life. But there are losses today. Fortunately, these are losses we can and will recover from.

At the end of the day, a leader is the steward of the many—not the few. Leaders are forced to make decisions that severely impact the few in order to preserve the many.

It’s a Sophie’s Choice—but not making the decision is not an option. No decision is still a decision, and one we can’t afford in these times.

Self-Interest to Shared Interest to Selflessness

A few weeks ago, I thought this pandemic would lead to anger, but when I look around, what I see are grace and dignity—and far more than I ever would have expected. In tough times, you find out who people really are. You see stunning examples of how self-interest truly does give way to shared interest—all the way to selflessness.

I heard a story this week about a young employee who had assumed it was likely he would lose his job if there were layoffs. On his own, without telling his manager, he prepared a booklet to explain how someone else could take over his job. He was so proud of the firm and the work being done in his department, he wanted to make sure someone else didn’t have to start from scratch. This week, as he was given notice, he handed over the booklet with selfless pride.

I could tell others what this feels like. I’ve walked in these shoes. I’ve been unemployed in the past. But no one wants to hear those stories right now.

What I do know is that out of devastation comes hope and rebirth. I saw that first-hand a couple of years ago during the wildfires that destroyed millions of acres in California and countless homes and cost many lives.

The wildfire was perilously close to where I live, impacting thousands of people. Very late one night, with the air thick with smoke and the flames visible in the hills nearby, I tied a bandana over my face and went outside to hose down our house. It was such a stupid, futile thing to do, but I couldn’t just sit there and wait. I had to pretend I was in control.

At around midnight, my wife yelled to me, “We’re out of here!” She preceded the fire department’s evacuation by seconds. In minutes, we left, taking with us only photographs of our kids when they were younger—memories that can never be replaced. I thought many times about that night—about what ultimately matters most and how fast humanity can turn the page.

It was a moment of pure powerlessness against a wave of devastation that had come out of nowhere and mushroomed into a life-threatening risk. It is the same feeling I have during the pandemic—although, obviously, on a different scale.

But this is not the end of the story.

Heavy rains followed the fires. Slowly, life returned. Nature, ever resilient, greened the canyons and flowers began to bloom where, not long before, there had been only charred earth.

Then one day, as I drove to the beach, millions of butterflies filled the air. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at first—it didn’t seem real. I slowed the car and watched as they sailed over the windshield, never striking it.

It was a sea of butterflies, the ultimate symbol of metamorphosis.

Now, as then, the devastation will pass. Slowly, with a heavy heart, newfound humility, and grace and dignity, we will turn this page—not to be forgotten, but to be remembered.