Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
In March, our fear was the unknown. Today, our fear is the known.
Here’s a sample of what I’ve heard, just this past week:
“I thought things were getting better, but now this. Open? Closed? I don’t even know any more….”
“I’m a parent with two kids. We just learned our school will be closed for the fall. We are two working parents, living week-to-week. What are we supposed to do…?”
“It feels like our life has been suspended….”
We’ve all heard the “stories behind the stories.” And, I’m sad to say, there are also far worse: people who, because of their circumstances, don’t even have the ability to engage in social distancing, don’t have access to adequate health care, who fear that remote learning will put their children behind—and more.
As much as we might like to wish all of this away, we really have no other choice than to make a path forward.
When I was about 15 years old, I needed surgery on my foot because of a basketball injury. It was a minor procedure with a local anesthetic. Afterwards I felt fine—my foot was still numb. My dad drove me, and on the way home we stopped at the grocery store. Since I had this big “boot” on, I stayed in the car.
I waited and waited, but still my dad didn’t come out of the store. I began to wonder what was keeping him. When an ambulance pulled up, I had a weird intuition that sent me hobbling inside. There was Dad, lying unconscious on that grocery store floor with a pool of blood next to his head. Immediately, I knelt beside him—squeezing his arm and calling his name over and over to no avail.
I rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital, where I was told that he’d had a heart attack. By the time he was fully conscious and out of danger, it was nearly midnight. The hospital told me I couldn’t stay the night. Since I didn’t have any money, I had no choice but to walk home—it was probably four or five miles.
The anesthetic had worn off and the pain was nearly unbearable. But with every step, I told myself to keep moving—one foot ahead of the other—all the way home.
That’s what we need to do right now—slowly and steadily move forward.
Here are some thoughts:
- Today’s triathlon. For a while, it’s been clear that this is not going to be a sprint. Now, we’re awakening to the reality that it isn’t even a marathon. It’s an Ironman Triathlon composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, followed by a 26.2-mile marathon—all raced in that order for safety and performance. Using that Ironman analogy, I’d say that, at this point, we’re still in the middle of the ocean. As disappointing as that message might be, it helps us to calibrate expectations and accurately perceive today. Just as we did at the beginning of the pandemic, we must rely on a framework of safety, caution, and agility. As long as we have these three bases covered, we can become more comfortable transforming the unknown to the known. We must elevate not only to the horizon, but also have the perspective to weather the actual duration of the journey.
- Those were the days…. Just a few years ago, the biggest concerns for most organizations were things like new technologies, emerging competitors, geopolitical shifts, and fickle consumer tastes and trends. What we wouldn’t give to have only those worries today! What’s important to remember, though, is those levers of change did feel very uncertain for a lot of organizations. In fact, a Korn Ferry survey of leaders conducted five years ago found that about 60% of them thought they were in the midst of a “revolution” with a high degree of change. If we thought things were revolutionary then, what label would we use today? What label would we use 20 years from today to describe 2020? What label would we use in 5 years to describe who we became in 2020? Context can be liberating.
- The king of uncertainty. Attitude is altitude. A colleague shared this story from the earliest days of his career, when he had an on-campus interview with a large accounting firm. As he was getting dressed, he realized his suit was still in his car. Barefoot, wearing a dress shirt and shorts, he went outside—without any of his keys. Suddenly, he faced the ultimate in uncertainties—locked out, with no suit, no keys, no access to his apartment, no way to get into his car—and the interview was fast approaching. Desperate, he stopped a guy on the street he didn’t know who was about his size and asked to borrow a suit, tie, belt, and shoes. To top it off, he borrowed the guy’s bicycle, which he rode four miles to the interview. When he showed up late, the interviewer was not amused. So, he grasped the only chance he saw to turn the situation around. “A funny thing happened on the way to this interview….” By the end of the story, the interviewer was laughing and said, “Anybody who could show that much creativity in the face of uncertainty is exactly the type of employee we’re looking for.”
- Let it go. "It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small. And all the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all. It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through …” These lyrics from Frozen, indelible in most people’s memories, apply uncannily today. The unknown is not the enemy—fear is. But once we know fear, we build courage. Quite a pedestrian example: When I was in my late teens and out on my own for the first time, my wisdom teeth became impacted and needed to be extracted. The dentist wanted to put me out for the entire procedure, but I didn’t want to be put to sleep. Instead I had a local anesthetic, which deadened the pain, but did not keep me from hearing all the “cracking” noise in my mouth. My pulse was rapid, and I was white knuckled on the arms of the dental chair. Being stupid, I ignored all the post-op directions about applying ice—the swelling and pain over the next few days were unbelievable. But I got through it. Flash forward to a year ago when I needed a dental implant. Once again, I requested not to be put to sleep. I didn’t pay any attention to all the drills and other tools around me – I’d been there before. But I had also learned—my face was literally on a block of ice for hours! In the same way, if we learn, every challenge builds our capacity to create a tomorrow that’s different from today.
My colleague Andrés Tapia, a global diversity & inclusion consultant at our firm, shared one of his favorite sayings with me from his native Latin America: “Se hace el camino al andar”—“You make your path as you walk it.”
Indeed, it is the only way forward.