Business As 'Unusual'

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison recalls a childhood song, lines from Lewis Carroll, and six directives as inspiration for today’s “get-through-it” times.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” [Alice asked.]

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

- from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Nobody signed up for this. On New Year’s Eve, no one held up a glass and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” accompanied by resolutions around pay cuts, furloughs, airplanes without passengers, and hotels without guests…

But these are the times we find ourselves in. It’s natural to reminisce about history, even if that’s five months ago, but we can’t stay there. The world has changed.

We’re here now and, unlike Alice lost in Wonderland, we must decide where we are going to go. And it does matter what we choose: We can get up—or give up.

What was business as usual just a couple of months ago has radically changed—now it’s business as “unusual.” Leaders around the globe and in every industry are facing gut-wrenching decisions. As one executive confided in me recently, “They’re all bad decisions. I’m just trying to pick the least worst decisions.”

Yes, ambiguity abounds, but we can’t wait for the clouds to clear. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Take control: Here’s a cautionary tale for leaders at this time. A group of settlers in a remote location were gathering firewood to prepare for winter. The group’s leader thought it was going to be a cold winter but wanted to check with the experts. He went to the next town and called the National Weather Service (NWS), which confirmed his thinking. So, more firewood was collected. A week later, the leader checked in with NWS again, and the forecast had changed: a very cold winter. That meant even more firewood. This went on three or four times, with increasingly dire forecasts from NWS that meant getting even more firewood. Finally, the leader asked NWS: “Why do you think the winter is going to be so very, very cold?” The answer: “Because those settlers are gathering a boatload of firewood.” The moral of this story: Don’t let herd mentality take you down. Take control.
  • Get up or give up: I’m reminded of the late John McKissick, America’s winningest coach in football, who guided high school players for more than 60 years. He motivated them with his own father’s advice: “As my daddy used to say, ‘Son, if you don’t put something in the bucket, how are you going to get anything out of it?’” Winning takes hard work, particularly when the opponent is a virus—invisible but, we have to believe, not invincible. In these times of business as unusual, people have to believe to achieve. You can’t teach hustle, but you can motivate it!
  • Failing to fail: The mantra these days is “we will get through this.” Of course we will—the alternative is impossible and unthinkable. The way back to normal will come in waves, with victories and setbacks. But it will be hard, and there will be failures along the way. In times like these, though, the only real failure is failing to fail. As Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Fail fast, learn faster.
  • It’s one day at a time: Cash, biology, or psychology? Which one is the real secret weapon for getting through this crisis? Cash helps, but not everybody has this luxury; and, besides, it’s not a durable commodity. Fiscal stimulus will only get us so far. Biology will eventually prevail, with the science to produce a treatment and a vaccine. But even with the best minds on the task, it will take time. Psychology, along with sociology, will get us through this crisis. We can’t let ourselves get lulled into paralysis. If we’re not careful, tomorrow can look like today. To break this pattern, the other day I intentionally got dressed up as if I were going to a meeting, even though I didn’t leave my driveway. My wife and my daughter even cut my hair—it took three tries, but I wanted to break the monotony. All of us must go out of our way to make tomorrow different than today.
  • Remember empathy: Although we’re isolated, we don’t walk alone. This is not the time to feel sorry for ourselves. More empowering is to empathize with others. And that’s what I’m finding everywhere. One colleague shared his stresses of overcoming a heart attack and cancer, which left him “severely immune compromised,” and worrying about his aging parents who are thousands of miles away. “Hard times,” he told me. “But still grateful that they are not as hard…as for so many others. I am actually fortunate, grateful, and blessed.”
  • To the real heroes: In this crisis, one group more than any embodies the spirit of taking control in the most challenging circumstances: our healthcare professionals. Every day, these warriors put their own health and wellbeing on the line in service of others. As a chief nursing officer told me, “I can’t tell you how many times, both personally and professionally, I’ve assured someone, ‘It’s going to be OK.’” Indeed, everything will be OK.

As the week comes to an end, I have been reflecting, which brought my thoughts back to Kansas where I grew up. I can remember being in my grandmother’s house on a cold day, and trying to get warm by standing with one foot on either side of the floor register that blew hot air from the furnace. My grandmother was singing her favorite song: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

So appropriate and so timeless:

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There's a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone…