Chief Executive Officer
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.
Conversations are changing these days. They’re more real, more emotional, and often happening for the first time. And that’s a good thing.
This week I received an email from a colleague that began, “I wanted to share my story, which I have never shared with anyone in the corporate world before.” The details of that story I will hold in strictest confidence. But I will say that it was truly inspiring: a story of obstacles, adversity, and perseverance—as well as triumph. It moved me deeply.
I’m grateful that this person could be so candid and emotionally vulnerable with me to “speak about who I truly am, what my background is and, above all, for being able to view this as a source of strength.”
Another young colleague wrote a heartfelt email, telling me, “For the first time in this, I was able to really cry and feel the emotions of all that is going on around us.”
I’ve had more messages like these in the last three months than I’ve had in the last three years. Personal, emotional, candid—this is the kind of communication that usually happens among family, friends, and others who are closest to us. Today, these messages are being shared more broadly with the sentiment: this is how I’m really feeling.
In the past, CEOs and other leaders were seen more as a function. Those days are fading fast as their roles require more. Leaders need to show who we are as people—someone who is empathetic and can be trusted. It’s a reflection of what’s happening everywhere: people are leading with their hearts and seeking to understand.
Leadership is about transporting people from one place to another, including emotionally. It takes communication—honest and heartfelt—to truly understand others and their emotions. Communication is where leadership lives and breathes—particularly in times like these.
Communication today must be authentic. Identifying biases and promoting conscious inclusion may at times be uncomfortable, but those efforts must be sustained. Leaders need to communicate why it’s important to go beyond diversity alone to reach “conscious inclusion”—where curiosity about differences is encouraged and where inclusion is the mutual responsibility of all people. Challenging? Yes. Emotional? Very.
Emotions today are off the charts—and for good reason. Here are some thoughts:
- Understanding the Emotion Curve. To be understood is to first understand others and their emotions. I think we all know the research, which shows that, during a crisis or times of great change, people’s reactions and behaviors follow the “Emotion Curve.” On one side is the downward slope from disbelief to anger, and then hitting bottom at withdrawal. When people get to the other side, they rise through acceptance, optimism, and meaning. No one will be in the same emotional place. Let’s not forget that, in the past few months, we’ve also gone from “shelter in place” to “sharing space.” Leaders need to be “emotion listeners” to diagnose and identify where people are. Leaders must interpret emotions because people don’t always say what they feel. Avoidance and shock? That’s denial. Going through the motions of what they’ve always done or avoiding big-priority conversations? That’s overwhelmed. Asking questions about what the next month or quarter might look like? They’re on their way up the curve.
- Responding to the emotions. Next comes the response. Leaders need to draw on their own emotional intelligence to move people from self-interest to shared interest. Where there’s disbelief and anger, it’s all about communication—not just for information, but for connection. When people are overwhelmed, they respond to empathy. On the other side—when in acceptance or seeking meaning—people want guidance and direction. Communication is energy. Your attitude will become your team’s altitude.
- Communicate, always. The question, “How are you?” has been raised to a whole new level: “How are you, today?” This simple question has sparked genuine conversation and connection among people who want to share their thoughts, concerns, and fears. Now, the question is evolving to, “How are you feeling?” as people process complex reactions and emotions. This is far more productive than weaponizing words in hashtags, tweets, and soundbites. When we lead with our hearts we truly connect with others—creating ripples of positive energy. Whenever emotions run strong, we have to talk about it.
- Check your say/do ratio. When there is trust in what you say, there will be belief in what you will do. That starts with modeling a “say/do” ratio of one-to-one. You do what you say and say what you mean. When people have trust in the leader’s words—and actions—they will mirror what the leader says and does. Amid a sea of rhetoric, people are tired of words—they’re looking for action. People are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated—nothing seems to be changing fast enough. In these times, leaders need to be in front. Period.
- Be Conscious, Curious and Serious. If people don’t feel that the environment is safe for sharing, communication shuts down. This calls for a culture of conscious inclusion. Leaders need to be conscious, curious, and serious to make this happen. It starts with everyone looking in the mirror at their own biases (usually unconscious) and assumptions to ensure they do not adversely impact behaviors and decisions. The next step is for leaders to ask themselves: Are we creating an environment that demonstrates respect and appreciation for the unique characteristics and talents of each person? What are we doing—what are we saying so people can flourish? When the environment is safe, conversation will permeate.
In the next two years we will see more change than we have in the last 10. It will be a rollercoaster through every emotion imaginable. Even when we’re uncomfortable, even when we’re anxious, and even when we hit a low, we must keep communicating and leading. Indeed, it’s about first meeting others where they are and then transporting them to a place not entirely visible today. A better place.