Exceeding Potential

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison reminds us that a time of unyielding change, like now, can bring an abundance of opportunities.

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

Potential. It’s the common denominator for all of us. Yet, it will always remain a mere fraction—substantially less than one—without the numerator of opportunity.

“I’m going on a date tonight,” one of my daughters announced excitedly this week. “We’re having dinner together.”

Given the lockdown, I wondered how that was going to work.

“It’s by Zoom,” she told me and went on to explain they were having food simultaneously delivered.

Instantly, I was reminded of the first time I heard of internet dating sites to “meet” people and wondered how that would work. Yet, it has—different times always demand another level of adaptation.

Flash back a few weeks ago, when my family and I socialized with another family on New Year’s Day. We didn’t give a second thought to having to be outside, masked, and socially distant. But when my friend brought out a treasured vinyl LP to play some music for us, my first thought was I could do the same thing with an app on my phone. For my friend, though, the physical album was clearly a tangible part of the whole experience. In his mind, it was the only way to listen to this “classic.”

I get it—nostalgia has its attraction. For me, seeing that album took me back to my hometown record store. I can distinctly remember going there to buy a “45” record of “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Later, when I was in college, I’d go to Tower Records, a Hollywood landmark on The Sunset Strip. I’d stand in front of displays of my favorite artists, walking my fingers across stacks of albums, flipping from one cool cover to the next.

Now it’s a swipe left, swipe right world.

So many things that used to be special have become commonplace—like travel. Growing up, I’d see pictures in “old” magazines of people all dressed up to get on an airplane. Flash forward, now we’ve taken it to ultra-uber-casual.

Until we reflect, we just don’t realize how much has changed—even the little things. Pre-Covid, I used to start each day early, reading newspapers and magazines for a couple of hours. Now, I start with a walk—always with phone in hand and buds in ears, scrolling the headlines and calling to catch up with people. Then, I head back home to work, as I have over the past 10 months and counting – understanding that so many people on the front lines don’t have this option. Just a year ago, all of this would have been unthinkable.

Mindset is a conscious choice—one we make every minute of every day. We need to ask ourselves: What lens are we looking through? Do we resist change? Or, do we embrace it—a chance to expand our perspectives and seek out opportunities to meet new people, learn new things, and have new experiences? Paraphrasing slightly, Aldous Huxley, the philosopher and author, observed, “Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.”

Change continually confronts us. There’s no escaping it. That’s not to say change isn’t hard at times. For many, the losses suffered recently have been excruciating. And yet, here we are. It’s good to remind ourselves just how far we’ve come—and how resilient we can be.

With change comes an abundance of opportunity. And that’s how we actually exceed potential. Here are some thoughts:

·  Take a bow. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. We’ve adapted more in the past few months, and at a faster pace, than we have in years. Yet, we’ve been moving so fast, we probably don’t understand, recognize, or appreciate how much has changed in every aspect of our lives. Frustrating and exhausting at times—yes, but also an accomplishment we can all be proud of. The fact is humans are wired to be agile and adaptable. As Charles Darwin observed: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Having proved just how agile, adaptable, and resilient we are, we know we will not only survive—but thrive. And that’s a very good thing—because in the next two years, we will see more change than we have in the past ten. What that will entail exactly may not be clear just yet. But make no mistake—the seeds of seismic change have been planted.

·  “Comparison is the thief of joy.” These wise words from President Theodore Roosevelt remind us of the danger of measuring today against the nostalgia of yesterday or some idealized vision of tomorrow. It’s a formula for disappointment. We learned this in the early days of the pandemic when we longed for the “normal” of what used to be and tried futilely to replicate it. As Evelyn Orr, Chief Operating Officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, observed in our conversation this week, “The more we let go of the past, the more we greet the new. Instead of trying to meet some previous standard, we can create new experiences that are not diminished by comparisons to what we used to do.” As such, that object in the mirror—the one that’s “closer than it appears”—will never pass us by.

·  Appreciating relief, respecting loss. We need to be honest with ourselves: change stirs a multitude of emotions. Even a positive experience—a new job, a new relationship, moving to a new home—is stressful. Rather than judging our experiences as “good” or “bad,” we must simply acknowledge what we’re feeling. For example, people who used to deal with the grind of near-constant business travel might feel relief now that they’re home every day. At the same time, they probably also feel loss over not being able to travel to different places. “Relief and loss are two sides of the exact same coin. We hope that change brings relief, just as we fear loss will come with it,” Janet Feldman, a Senior Client Partner in our firm’s CEO Succession Practice, told me this week. “Relief/loss and hope/fear travel together and need to be acknowledged together to integrate and embrace the whole of any change.”

·  Fail fast, learn faster. It’s like we’re back to the first day of school again—the pandemic has made novices of us all. It’s made us humble, which should lead to self-awareness and, ultimately, to learning. But where there’s learning there will be failure, especially at the beginning. That’s why, over the years, I’ve encouraged colleagues to “fail fast, fail often”—because if we’re not failing, we’re not learning. Indeed, the only real failure is failing to fail! We should always be a “new beginner” at something.

It’s true that leaders are in the “what,” “how,” and the “when” business. But, ultimately, we all must be in the “opportunity” business—because exceeding potential is not just about each of us, it’s about all of us.