In This Moment

In his weekly message, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison offers four lessons on getting "comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

I will never forget the first time I got caught in an ocean riptide. I was young, and my first instinct was to swim to shore, as fast and as hard as I could. But I never got anywhere; instead, I sank, lower and lower.

Fortunately, an older teenager was out there with me. He grabbed my shoulder and yelled, “You need to swim the other way!”

By the time I finally reached the beach, I was so exhausted I fell to my knees, completely spent. But I learned an invaluable lesson: instead of fighting the current, I had to go with it.

That is what this moment feels like. There is so much uncertainty and anxiety swirling around us, if we are not careful, we can drown in the moment.

This moment is hard. Leaders are pulling every lever possible to reduce costs and protect the viability of their businesses. With millions of people losing their jobs, it will get even harder.

Then there are the other, more personal challenges. On the night of Easter Sunday, as I gathered my thoughts for another video that would go out to our company on Monday about the gut-wrenching actions we were taking, I received incredibly sad news. One of our board members had passed away earlier in the day. Len Lauer was energetic, passionate, and full of life—a devoted husband and father and a wonderful person. I was stunned. My immediate thought was, “What if I could have one more hour with Len? One more day? One more year? What would I ask him—and what would I tell him?”

The best any of us can do is to get more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Anxiety is energy without a goal. We must adjust our approach. Together, we can make our way to shore—the other side of this crisis.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Imagine April 2022…: It’s the future, and just as you had hoped, everything is OK. There is a vaccine, businesses are back up and running, unemployment is low again, and the global economy is strong. As you look back to today, you say to yourself, “Instead of worrying so much, I wish I had used the time to [fill in the blank].” Right now, though, it’s hard to think that way. Believe me, I can relate. Earlier in my career, I left investment banking and joined a dot-com company that later imploded. I spent the next year without a job and worrying constantly. How was I going to provide for my five children; when and where would I get my next job? Then I joined Korn Ferry, and my life changed forever. If I had told myself that everything would turn out fine, what would I have done with that year? Maybe I would have learned to fly or become a scratch golfer. (Who knows, I might have taken up painting as a hobby). Anything would have been far more creative and productive than drowning in uncertainty. It’s the same today. We know that humans will conquer this challenge—just as we have so many times before and will again. Knowing that everything will be OK, how do you choose to spend the most precious of ‘commodities’—time? Will it be a lost two years—time that you can never get back? Or will you set goals to sustain your momentum?
  • The moments that define: When I was ten years old, I had a defining moment that shaped me forever. I can still remember, it was a cold day, about two-thirty in the afternoon, and a heavy rain was pouring down. A huge truck pulled up in front of our house; its back doors swung open and the ramp was brought down. As two men approached our house, I looked past them to the truck and wondered: were we moving? When my dad came up beside me, there were tears in his eyes. “Son, it will be OK,” he said. Then I watched as all our furniture was carried out the front door. My father had gone bankrupt, and everything was repossessed. That moment defined my work ethic and drive to succeed. Everyone has these kinds of stories, of hardships and losses—experiences that serve to make us stronger. These pivotal moments also teach us compassion and empathy. We learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, understand their fear, and help them move beyond it.
  • Attitude is altitude: A friend of mine called me the other day to complain about what was happening at the firm where she works. She’s had to take a salary cut and her employer is making everyone take vacation time while business is slow, even though there is nowhere to go. As she told me this story, I could tell she was bringing herself even lower. We know that, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. When we get stuck though, all we can do is stare at the closed door. It’s a conscious choice to open another door. We’re all making sacrifices, big and small. Amid challenges, we can choose to either give energy and rise up, or drain energy and sink lower. Attitude really does determine altitude! A colleague of mine, who is currently quarantined alone, shared with me “if I could hug my family (which is quite large) right now, I would be the happiest human on earth!” But instead of complaining about her desire for human interaction right now, she chooses to focus on the importance of safety and health for the long term. An HR executive confided much the same sentiment: “A lot of things are not within our control right now. But we always control how we act and respond.”
  • What are you fighting for?: Purpose is best and most simply defined as why an organization exists. I used to say that purpose was “in the halls and on the walls.” Now, in a virtual world, it must be in our hearts. For me, that is grounded in a scrapbook of photos and memorabilia from our firm. So often during this crisis—particularly as I, like everyone, have had to make the “least worst” of what are painful decisions—I pick up that scrapbook. My attention goes immediately to the pictures—the people in our firm. They remind me of exactly what we’re fighting for in this moment. Each day, we have a choice: do we rekindle lost friendships and business relationships—or do we retreat? Now is the perfect time to reach out and connect. With self-awareness, we can make progress toward who we want to be—rather than solely worrying about what we are going to be. Here are some questions that can give you perspective:

How have I contributed positivity or negativity to others?

Does someone feel better after an interaction with me versus how they felt before?

How many times today did I complain about someone or something?

Did shared interest rise above self-interest?

Did I listen more—or talk more?

What did I learn this week?

How many times did I simply say thank you?

When we were young, we always wanted to be older. In sixth grade, we dreamed of being in high school. In high school, we couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license. We just couldn’t be in the moment—we wanted time to hurry up.

To reach that future moment, though, we need to be fully present in this one—not drown in it. 

It is always darkest before the dawn—but we know that’s only a moment in time. In the next moment, we will see light.