Do We Ever Get Out of Sixth Grade?

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains how people have the same broad expectations from the workplace as they did from middle school.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

The place that had once seemed so big when I was a kid was actually quite small. But it still loomed large in my memory—and for good reason.

While in the Midwest to visit relatives, I drove to the small town where I had spent much of my childhood. And there it was—or rather, where it was supposed to be... The middle school.

No doubt, these were the places where we all had so many formative experiences and lessons learned.

Back then, our biggest desires were to be liked, to be accepted, to belong. Now tell me, have things really changed?

Let’s face it—we never really get out of sixth grade.

As I rolled up to the school’s location, I looked and looked—but where was it? Did I get the address wrong? Confused and a little perplexed, I glanced at Google Maps. Yep, this was the place.

But all I saw was a small standalone office building. The playground had been paved over for a parking lot. And that’s when I knew—the hallways lined with lockers, the gymnasium, the playground. All of it—gone.

No matter how much I yearned to see that old school again, I could not relive it. But the memories—and emotions—remained.

Looking back, we can remember how uplifted we felt when someone saw our potential—perhaps for the first time.

And we probably all remember how vulnerable we felt when we took the risk to try out for a team or the school play… and our disappointment at not being picked.

I can still recall the day my dad brought home a second-hand drum set. For weeks, I practiced and practiced. When the school band held tryouts, I couldn’t wait to show what I could do. The band director, though, had a different strategy: marching us around the gym to the beat of some scratchy record played over crackling loudspeakers. Afterwards, I waited as name after name was called—but I never heard mine.

So many years later, we still carry all those feelings from our metaphoric sixth grade—joy and elation, fear and insecurities. We’re probably just better at handling—or hiding—these emotions.

Arguably, the workplace has replaced the schoolgrounds of yesteryear in evoking those long-ago feelings. We might even ask—just like that school, is today’s workplace even there anymore? Of course, it is. It’s just different.

As a firm with data from 86 million assessments of professionals, we know what leads to success. There are the traits and behaviors we’re born with, and the competencies we need to develop—and a shifting environment all around us. In between is learning.

Even in a different world, it still comes down to the leadership ABCs: Authenticity to take the risk to show who we really are. Believing to set the stage for achieving. Connectivity to create community. This what we need—then, now, and in the future:

Authenticity. Conversations have been changing over the past few years—more genuine, more emotional. I’ll never forget the colleague who reached out to me—“to share my story, which I have never shared with anyone in the corporate world before.”

This kind of sharing has continued—and that’s a good thing. In just the past few weeks, people have confided in me deeply personal stories of what they’ve struggled with and overcome. The reason? They want to show who they are—not just what they do.

And it makes a difference—because without vulnerability, there is no authenticity.

Make no mistake—it's not charisma. After all, there’s no class for charisma. But people can be drawn to us if we’re authentic and emotive—and we believe.

Believing. It’s the essence of leadership: inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality.

But the fact is doubts can surface at any time and for everyone. When others are discouraged, disappointed, or drowning in doubt—that’s when we must step up. In those moments, our willingness to believe changes everything.

Fear turns into confidence, ambivalence into motivation, despair into joy. And the more people believe, the better they can achieve.

Connectivity. We all need to make emotional connections on a very real and human level. And one of the best ways to do that … is with a good story.

Storytelling is as old as human beings. If our ancestors some 40,000 years ago hadn’t known how to work together and use language, they wouldn’t have survived.

Stories create connection, and connection leads to community. Then people become part of something bigger than themselves.

To be loved, to be picked, to belong… this is what we all desire. We knew it intuitively when we were back in sixth grade. And, indeed, it’s what we all crave now—not only for ourselves, but for others.