Finding Our Why

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights how great leaders will help their charges find something that inspires.

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

I’ll never forget that first day of work—starting with a new Brooks Brothers suit and my shiny wing tips—as I carried a hard-sided leather briefcase filled with (for whatever reason) nothing but a handful of freshly sharpened pencils and a thick pad of yellow lined paper.   

However, merely hours after I pushed through the heavy oak door heading into my first job out of college, ready to take on the new world, the briefcase was hastily tossed under a desk amid a sea of cubicles, and my suit coat was slung over a folding metal chair. My first official assignment was awarded… moving boxes from one storage room to another.

This memory came flooding back to me a couple of weeks ago when I stepped into a conference room filled with our interns in the UK. You could feel their freshness and eagerness—the palpable energy of possibility.

At the beginning of the session, I asked, “Why are we here?” The answers varied but the themes were common – learning, trying, exploring, and experiencing. Then, shortly after the meeting concluded, as I got coffee in the office kitchen, I ran into one of the interns.  

That’s when I asked the question. “So, why are you here?”

First came the smile, then a shrug of the shoulders. “I guess I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.”

An honest answer to a pretty big question—and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Doesn’t it apply to all of us—whether we’re just starting out, in the throes of our careers, or even entering the last stage—and all the experiences that shape us in between? Sometimes we will conquer the new and different, and at other times our ambitious perceptions may not meet reality.

As Mark Royal, a Ph.D. in our firm’s Consulting practice, told me this week, “Engagement walks in the door, and it trips over enablement. Our motivation is going to be driven by our day in and day out experiences and the connections and interactions we have with other people.”

We are all searching for our why.

And this has become even more relevant over the past few years—prompting people to reflect on how (and if) their life and work bring meaning.

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we know how easy it is to forget the “why.” We too often focus instead on “what” must be accomplished—or jump ahead to the strategy of “how” to get there.

But the real question is always the why.

So, when we lose sight of our why, all it takes is a glance back at those momentous first days—and we recall what uplifted, inspired, and motivated us. Walking through the gates of Disneyland for the first time… into a museum to view awe-inspiring art in person… or gazing up at the spires of a historic building.

Our why is a constant even as everything else morphs and changes. I was reminded of this the other day when I met with a CEO who was dressed very casually. I’ll admit, I was surprised—at our last meeting years ago he had greeted me in a suit, button-down shirt, and tie. Yet no matter how he showed up, his passion—his why—remained timeless.

Here are some thoughts:

Minding the motivation gap. Not all motivation is created equal. Think of it this way: Intrinsic is what gets you up in the morning. Extrinsic is what the world delivers to you during the day. No wonder then that intrinsic is the most powerful, and our firm’s nearly 100 million assessments affirm this. People tend to do more when they are intrinsically motivated—by their excitement, personal satisfaction, and sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, there are levers that leaders can pull to support people’s intrinsic motivation. Simply put, create an environment of learning, growing, and developing—then get out of the way.

Tapping discretionary energyIt starts when our personal why gets activated—and we feel a strong connection to the mission and vision of the organization. That’s when we’re more likely to give our all. We unleash our discretionary energy—that currency of commitment that can be withheld or spent freely.

Most people want to grow, learn, and be part of something bigger than themselves. All these deep desires are at the core of their why. In other words, when people are happy, they’re motivated, and when they’re motivated, they outperform. That’s why the why matters.

More than existential, it is essential.