chief executive officer
This Week in Leadership
This Week in Leadership (Apr 12 - Apr 18)
How are firms cramming two promotion cycles right now? Plus, how to keep mistakes at work from becoming career killers.
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
Many times in my life, I’ve made the proverbial comment, “If I only knew then what I know now, I would have … [fill in the blank].” This is one of those times.
Reflecting on the past, I can recall the years that I eagerly anticipated—when I got my driver’s license, when I graduated from college…. Sometimes, though, those remarkable years turned out to be quite unremarkable. Not this past year, though, 2020 will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
From the darkest days of last spring until now, I can distinctly recall every single month. Even though, paradoxically, every day felt like “Blursday,” each of the past 12 months are indelibly etched on my mind.
The irony, of course, is that if we had really known then how relatively quickly things would turn around—what would we have done? Would we have waited it out? We had no choice but to rise above, to be resilient, to drive change, to look forward.
Surprisingly, this is the same wisdom that can be found at “the kids’ table.”
Whenever we get together with family and friends for holidays, I always spend at least part of the time at the kids’ table. I’m interested in hearing their take on things. They’re not biased by what used to be. Their focus is always forward, never backward—and that’s a perspective, quite frankly, we should all share.
I’m not alone in this thinking. In our conversation this week, Dominique Virchaux, our president of South America—father of five, grandfather of 11, and uncle to 40 nieces and nephews—told me how he is “constantly challenged by and continuously learning from” by both the younger members of his extended family as well as his colleagues. “They will change the world, transforming it for the better,” he said.
It’s a choice we all have. Joe Griesedieck, managing director of our Board & CEO Services practice, was 20 years old when he was handed what felt like a death sentence. After delivering a life-altering diagnosis, a doctor told Joe that, if he took care of himself, he might live to age 45 or 50. Joe has greatly surpassed that expectation and continues to live life with passion. “I made a determination that I was not going to let this defeat me, and I was going to do whatever it took to beat the odds,” Joe told me. This is the attitude that raises our altitude.
In this spirit, I reached out to members of our senior team this week for their thoughts on what we know now that we wish we knew then. Here’s some of what they had to say:
· It was never about failure. The most important aspect of failure was not the moment of defeat or loss. It was what we all did in the moment after that. It was never about failure—it was all about learning. As Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute, told me, “It was experience and experiment, failing and learning, re-experiencing and growing.” Failure was usually temporary; it passed like a storm. So why would we let the fear paralyze us? What were we really afraid of? Was it that we couldn’t stand the possibility of failing? Hindsight being what it is, the real question to ask now is what greater accomplishment or goal could our organizations achieve if we never give into our fears? What will happen as we continue to inspire courage among our teams and across our organizations? What might others become if failure is part of our culture—and not viewed as terminal?
· Between the devil and the deep blue sea. So many times over the past year we needed to navigate unthinkable challenges—sometimes picking between the “least worst decisions.” Or, as Mark Arian, head of our global Consulting business, referred to it—the choice between Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the giant whirlpool, from The Odyssey. During the pandemic, this is the choice we all faced countless times—course-correcting the way to safety. Along the way, we had to make choices to move forward. Not making a decision was still a decision. Win or lose, that decision ultimately rested on our shoulders, and we had to get comfortable with taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions—making our path as we walked it.
· How wrong we were. In January 2020, Jane Stevenson, global leader of our CEO Succession practice, felt certain 2020 would be a year of clarity and insight. Little did she know…. “It certainly was clarifying, but who would have predicted it would play out the way it did?” Jane told me. “It was a tough lesson, but we had to learn it—everything that happened was beyond our control. It forced us to recognize our priorities and what really matters.” As much as we all might have wanted to believe otherwise, this was not the time for individual heroics. Instead, we needed humility—the grace that constantly whispers, "It's not about you." With humility, we understood that ego is not our amigo. As Tierney Remick, co-leader of our Board & CEO Services practice, observed, all of us had to take a step back. "It was a true lesson in just how fragile things were. We were so busy doing. We needed to more fully appreciate that it's not just what we do—but why we do it and how we're doing it."
· Play to the whistle. Growing up I watched a lot of basketball. But when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town, their fast-paced play—shooting, jumping, doing tricks, entertaining—was more my speed. The Globetrotters kept up their energy until the very end, including staying around on the court after the game and signing autographs for any young fan who wanted one. During the pandemic we all seemed to be like the Globetrotters. We had to keep the ball spinning on our finger, taking every shot we could—and as quickly as we could. Play to the whistle—plan a little, think a lot, decide always.
The clearest view is always the one in the rearview mirror. The problem, however, is it is just that—in the rearview mirror. What matters most is forward. A journey is nothing more than a series of moments—from this moment to the next moment, to the one after that. It’s what we do with each of them that matters. And that’s what we truly know now—if we didn’t already know it then.