Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
I started this week’s leadership meeting differently, by asking our leaders what they’ve learned over the past few months. Their answers ranged along a spectrum, from managing work/life balance (like homeschooling) to the clout of connectedness and practicing patience. Overall, a few themes emerged:
- The empathy we should have for others
- The fragility of the world
- The mightiness of resilience
- The empowerment of stillness, and
- The power of all
Arguably, this has been the biggest collective learning moment in decades. It’s like studying for an exam but you don’t know when the test will be given, and the curriculum changes almost every day. Your only choice is to learn it all.
Paula Schneider, President & CEO of Susan G. Komen, a leading breast cancer organization in the U.S., reached out to me a few days ago reflecting on these last few months. “We have made more major decisions in the past 90 days for our organization than in the last 10 years,” Paula told me. “Most will be right; some will miss the mark, but all have been thoughtful…. Sometimes things that transpire (both good and bad), inspire. We have harnessed the power of the moment to propel us forward.”
Learning is crucial all the time and is essential in this time. At Korn Ferry, we develop more than 1 million professionals a year, and we have conducted 70 million assessments—so we know what great looks like. The No. 1 predictor of success is learning agility—what I like to call “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
Great leaders tap the power of the collective genius of the many to navigate beyond the unknown. Here are some thoughts:
- Failing fast, learning faster. Today, people need to learn in a new way, and we leaders must have a new curriculum. However, it’s not all that different from one of the first empowering experiences we felt as kids. I can still remember when I learned to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. I pestered my dad to take the training wheels off my shiny Schwinn—even though I wasn’t really ready yet. I kept trying—and failing. I’d make it a few feet and then anxiously look back to make sure Dad was behind me. I stopped pedaling, the bike wobbled, and Dad had to make a last-second grab before I tumbled. Dad crouched down beside me. “I know you can do this—and so do you. Look up, look out—and keep pedaling. I’ll be right behind you.” I started riding down the sidewalk, making it almost to the corner. When I glanced to the side, looking for my dad’s hand on my shoulder, it was no longer there. I didn’t realize it then, but from that day onward, it wasn’t failure—it was called learning. And it is especially true today.
- Achievements fade. Progress inspires. Learning endures. Only one letter separates can from can’t—and learning bridges that gap. The distance between any company and its competitors is not absolute; it’s relative. If leaders want to transform their organizations, they must first transform themselves through learning.
- The learning leader. It starts with the leader—but it’s not about the leader. To elevate themselves and their organizations, leaders must learn—always. That attitude is the difference between being a learn-it-all and a know-it-all. Learning leaders ask themselves: Why did I react that way? What could I have done differently? What are some key experiences that have impacted my leadership? What did I learn from those experiences? Do I acknowledge when I don’t know something? Self-awareness and honesty go hand in hand—and without them you probably won’t learn.
- The 70-20-10 formula. The most impactful learning always comes from experiences and from others—as we know from the 70-20-10 rule of thumb: 70 percent of what people learn is from experiences on the job; 20 percent is learned from other people. The remaining 10 percent comes from formal training. Given this proportion, it’s clear that we must all be more self-aware, mentally agile, people agile, change agile, and strategically agile. At the same time, people who are learning agile know they can’t do it all on their own. They focus their best energy on the two groups that matter the most—employees and customers. That’s the first step in creating a learning culture.
- Learn it all. If my dad said it once, he said it a million times, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Today, however, leaders must have a say/do ratio of 1-to-1. Invariably, that means acknowledging our mistakes and allowing others to help shape the journey. It's how we continuously grow. When people surround themselves with others who challenge them, they will get better. It’s like in sports and being up against better players. At first, you lose, but in time you play at a higher level. This is a time when all of us need to elevate—stretch, grow, and expand. The best teachers are our experiences. With shared experiences, indeed, we help others learn it all.
One final thought: when I look back on the past six months—and look toward the horizon—I’ve learned some important lessons that have helped me personally—and that I’ve shared with others:
All our voices must be heard.
However, we can’t just talk about it; we must be about it—
By first being the change we want to see in others.
In order to achieve, we must believe—not simply in ourselves but, more importantly, in others.
We each must rise up, not give up.
We each must be more than.