Chief Executive Officer
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.
We have had our share of challenges and tragedies…
I can’t think of anything that compares to the current situation.
I’d like to believe that nothing again will ever come close….
Take one day at a time and celebrate every accomplishment and milestone with gratitude…
[It’s] a great reminder to leaders everywhere who are making difficult decisions with great uncertainty about the future…
- A top executive of a multi-billion-dollar travel industry company
Victories are hard to come by these days and far less visible. The numbers we hear, day after day, are sobering to say the least. And yet, even in a pandemic, it’s still OK to celebrate.
Earlier this week I received this candid and moving email from a top executive in the “eye of the storm.” Yet even amid layoffs and furloughs, and deep concerns over the health and safety of employees and customers, there was this word. Celebrate.
Yes, we’ve had to cancel the celebrations, but we don’t have to cancel celebrating. In fact, I think we need it more than ever. And for any reason.
I received a text the other day: “Welcome back soon, Gary.” It was from my dentist. I scrolled through the message with all the new rules and procedures—no more waiting in the reception area, no more magazines.… I replied, “Looking forward to seeing you again—words I never thought I’d say!” (I actually really do like my dentist).
What used to annoy us—long TSA lines, lost luggage, jury duty, unannounced visits from the in-laws—can’t come back to us quickly enough. A two-hour wait at the DMV? Sign us up! That picked-over continental breakfast buffet? Bring it on.
And when we can have them again, we’ll appreciate and celebrate what they stand for.
In the meantime, we can’t hold off celebrating until this crisis is over. We need to acknowledge every small step along the way. More than ever, we need to remember: It’s the journey not the destination. Here are some thoughts:
- Celebrate—and Notice—Everything. To celebrate the small stuff, you need to notice. Everything. This leadership skill was brought home to me years ago on a visit to a billionaire who, at the time, was the world’s wealthiest person. The day before our meeting, a colleague and I were traveling through a very remote airport. As we passed a boot shop, I noticed these incredibly loud red cowboy boots on the top shelf. “Those are the bomb,” I said, half joking. Later, on the plane, my colleague brought out a box—yep, the cowboy boots. The next day, as I got ready for a speech before hundreds of business leaders and then our meeting with the billionaire, I decided to wear those boots. Not my usual business attire, but I knew my friend and colleague would be so pleased. When we walked into the billionaire’s office, there were stacks of papers and books everywhere. Sitting at his desk, going over a thick report, our host was clearly distracted and did not seem to pay much attention to us as we sat down. Then, at the end of our two-hour meeting, he gave me a sly smile and said, “So, where’s the horse?” We all laughed. What was truly amazing, though, was that this billionaire, who appeared unaware of anything except the papers in front of his nose, had noticed. Nothing was beyond his line of sight.
- It’s not numbers, it’s the people. What gets measured, doesn’t just get managed, as the well-known saying goes. It also gets celebrated! Without measuring, you’re only practicing—as if it doesn’t matter how much progress is made. Once goals are set, leaders need to make sure they’re monitored in ways that are relevant and contribute directly to achieving them. It takes more than one metric to measure progress—a dashboard of data that reveals a more complete picture. But it’s not just about data. Even more important are the people. Listen for the stories of what went into those incremental achievements. The team that went the extra mile. The colleagues who spontaneously worked together to solve a problem. Share the data and the story behind the story. Progress inspires!
- Catch people doing things right. It used to be everyone waited until the big milestone was reached. When asked, “Now that you’ve won [fill in the blank], what are you going to do?” the answer was, “We’re going to Disneyland!” Times have changed, in so many ways. The journey we’re on today has no parallel—we’re really headed into an unknown. And yet, as we accelerate through the crisis curve toward waves of recovery—whatever and whenever that is—there will be abundant opportunities. They will no doubt involve change—in products, processes, or both. Given the enormity of this journey, leaders can’t afford to hold off celebrating until some end point. If they do, they will likely find that they are traveling alone. Find any reason to celebrate. During this crisis, I’ve been reaching out to at least 50 people a day. Sometimes my messages are very simple: Thank you. I appreciate what you’re doing. I know this is a hard time. In the words of leadership guru Ken Blanchard, “Catch people doing things right.”
- For love or for money. You can never say “I believe in you” too often. Many times during the crisis I have asked my team, “What do you recommend?” After asking a couple more questions, I told them, “OK, I trust you.” These subtle, but powerful, motivators are like tossing a pebble in a pond. The leader’s words and actions will ripple throughout the organization. It all comes down to two motivators: for love or for money. Let’s be honest here: in these times, celebrating and rewarding are not going to be about money. Intrinsic motivators are more important than ever. Love wins out every time. People want to be loved and they want to belong. They want to know that they matter, that they make a difference. In recognizing each person, the leader melds self-interest into shared interest—a kinetic, moving force for good to pursue the overarching goals of the organization. Shared purpose creates shared urgency.
- Celebration is motivation. When we acknowledge and celebrate how far we’ve come, we become even more motivated for what undoubtedly will be a long road ahead. It’s a journey that must be successful. The stakes are too high. The only choices are positivity or negativity, construct or criticize. Give energy, don’t consume it. Just the other day, I was about to go on a global town hall videoconference to discuss some serious matters when I passed the room where my college-age daughter Emily was standing on her desk and singing (screaming) Beyoncé into her hairbrush/microphone. Seeing her just reset the context for me. It made me laugh—and I went on that call with high energy and appreciation that even amid difficult times there are still reasons to smile. It was a reminder: create a culture of celebration.
Navigating the crisis curve is not a journey measured in months and miles, but rather in milestones. Indeed, turning discouragement into encouragement will elevate the mundane into the miraculous. And that’s a real reason to celebrate.