It's About Time

What time is the meeting? This simple question could provide multiple leadership insights, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

On the lighter side, let me pose a hypothetical question: We have a meeting scheduled for noon, but we need to move it forward two hours. So, I ask you, what time is our new meeting?

That’s the question I brought to our team this week after I saw something similar on a TikTok video. After a dozen phone calls, the responses were evenly divided between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

But there were some notable exceptions. “It depends. You could interpret it both ways,” Bob Rozek, our CFO and Chief Corporate Officer, told me.

An interesting give-and-take ensued when someone asked me the same question, but in different ways. To me, moving a noon meeting forward by two hours meant 2 p.m. Ironically, so did moving it back two hours. Only when another colleague asked, “So, what about moving the meeting up two hours,” did I reply … “10 o’clock.”

Maybe Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was right all along: “… you know sometimes words have two meanings.”

Seemingly simple, yet incredibly complex—this question reveals a deeper meaning, which everyone seems to be searching for these days. Indeed, this basic question can lead to everything from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the abstract nature of time.

“Time is a dimension—just like space,” Mark Arian, the global head of our Consulting business, quipped. “That means we can move forward in time and back in time. It’s the marriage of quantum theory, neuroscience, and linguistics.”

No matter how we process it, time is one of the most common words in the English language. We spend it, invest it, waste it, save it. And yet, it’s so abstract that we can only grasp time in relation to something else—such as space, distance traveled, or the rising and setting of the sun. Add to that, religions and philosophies that embrace the infinite and timeless.

As Amelia Haynes, who focuses on neuroscience in our Korn Ferry Institute, discussed with me this week, we can process time in two ways.

The first is all about our psychology. People who internalize time tend to think of forward as moving toward something in their future. Those who externalize time—such as picturing the days of the week—usually interpret going forward as moving toward the present moment.

The second is steeped in sociology—cultural and linguistic contexts. There are traditions that honor ancestral history and others with social norms that are decidedly focused on tomorrow.

So, what are the leadership learnings from one simple question about rescheduling a meeting?

Provide clarity. Leaders must “paint the bright lines”—the left and right guide rails for actions of others throughout the organization. The leader sets the course and the destination, articulating the “intent”—the mission and the purpose. Then others must take it from there. Clarity is so important, in fact, that our Korn Ferry Institute considers it to be one of “3 Cs of leadership” that people need to be successful—along with commitment and capability. As our firm’s analysis has found, together they exponentially improve performance.

Drop our biases. All humans have biases—conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit. For example, when we first meet someone, it takes us about seven seconds to form an instant opinion—how likeable, competent, and trustworthy they are. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality—and it usually happens unconsciously.

It takes an open mind and a willingness to reexamine biases to overcome our assumptions—so we can provide clarity. We shift to a different lens—looking at things not from our own perspective, but as others see them.

Lead across the past, present, and future. Leaders need to be fluid across the entire time continuum. This brings to mind the advice of management expert Ken Blanchard, who described leadership to me as being the “president of the present,” capable of clearly seeing today’s reality—and also the “president of the future,” with a vision of where we are moving and why.

At the same time, leaders also need to be mindful of the past, to appreciate everything that led up to this point. But while it’s natural to reminisce about history, we know we can’t stay there. “Our relationship with time impacts our reality,” Margie Warrell, a human development PhD who is part of our Consulting team, shared with me this week.

Indeed, the ultimate challenge for each of us is to lead across all time dimensions—past, present, and future. I get it—it’s easy to get too comfortable with what was, what is, or even what is to be. But the balance is found in all three.

It takes all of it to transport people on a journey, from one experience to another. From where they are individually … to where we are together. Indeed, only in time can self-interest become shared interest.