On the Fence

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights the two critical leadership actions on which bosses will increasingly rely.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

A high-pitched scream, like nothing I’d ever heard, sent a chill right through me.

It was 1:35 in the morning. I had been sound asleep when my wife, Leslie, woke me up, telling me, “There’s something outside.”

Flashlight in hand, I followed that awful sound to the fence around our backyard where I discovered the source of that penetrating shriek.

A rabbit.

This was the last thing I expected. I’d always thought of rabbits as timid and silent. If someone told me that rabbits could scream, I wouldn’t have believed it. For $500 in the Jeopardy! category of “Animal Noises,” I would guess lions, tigers, and elephants. Rabbits? Not a chance.

I still had to act—I had a stuck bunny to deal with. I tried to untangle the rabbit, but it kept squirming and screaming. After a few attempts to free its leg, I went to the garage for some tools and came back with cutters. I cut the fencing, and that rabbit shot out of there. All was quiet again.

Today, if we are not purposeful, it’s easy to be like that rabbit—stuck on the fence and unable to make a move in any direction.

Our Leadership U “Emotion Curve” assessment, grounded in behavioral science, helps leaders pinpoint exactly what they’re feeling as they face the largest, most impactful changes we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Based on our analysis of recent results, we found that less than 1% of executives are in disbelief and only 7% in anger. Now, they’re moving up the other side of the curve—first acceptance, then optimism. But only 1-in-4 leaders has made the move all the way to meaning.

Finding meaning will be the key to sustained action and course correction to move forward toward the future we reimagine.

We saw evidence of this in the results from our recent Leadership U assessment of global executives on their leadership approaches in this environment. The most frequent self-assessment of what they do as leaders in various scenarios of crisis and change was listen. That’s certainly not a bad thing—it’s important to lead with empathy as leaders seek to understand the “story behind the story” of where people are right now.

However, two of tomorrow’s most important leadership actions—anticipating (projecting what lies ahead) and navigating (course correcting in real time)—will need to be increasingly relied on.

While we don’t want to leave behind the importance of grasping and appreciating the moment—and all the emotions involved—we need to take that understanding and learning input and turn it into leadership output.

We must continue to free ourselves from the “fence of yesterday.” Here are some thoughts:

  • The “Pause Principle.” It sounds paradoxical, but even though leaders must act quickly, they can’t just flip a switch from survive to thrive. It’s not time to be frenetic—they need to move at a pace the organization can absorb. This does not mean slowing down. But it does mean continually and accurately assessing today’s ever-changing reality. Today, nothing is static. In his book The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward, Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s Global Leader of CEO & Executive Development, defines this moment as “the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose and contribution.” As our research indicates, leaders are showing they know how to dig deep for purpose and connection. After that brief pause, understanding is brought forward to anticipate scenarios of what lies ahead.
  • A tale of two types of leaders. There are two types of leaders these days: those who are stuck on the fence—and those who are constantly learning and growing, with an acclimation toward action. I saw this clearly in a “tale of two types of leaders” told to me a few days ago by Evelyn Orr, Chief Operating Officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, who provided an overview of the types of assessments we’ve been seeing of late as executives are assessed for their strengths and blind spots. Group No. 1 takes in the feedback, all of it constructive. Often, they’ve heard some of this input before. But instead of taking any action to improve, these leaders only want to keep reaching for the same bag of tricks of what’s worked in the past. How can leaders unwilling to move themselves ever move their organization? In contrast, Group No. 2 absorbs every word of the feedback, taking pages of notes and asking insightful questions about how and where to improve. These leaders are clearly ripe for transformation—and, indeed, they want to drive it! They are exactly the kind of leader companies need today—lifelong learners with a startup mentality.
  • We have been here before…. Amid massive change and uncertainty, there is comfort in knowing that history does repeat itself. I was reading an article recently about the iconic company General Mills, which has been in business since 1866. General Mills Chairman and CEO Jeff Harmening described going into the company’s archives to examine strategies and trends during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic—and being surprised to read about making sure employees wore masks, washed their hands, and practiced social distancing. “It’s amazing how little has changed over 100 years,” he stated. Indeed, as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Knowing that we’ve been here before provides both context and comfort. In early March, when the pandemic was officially declared, Korn Ferry was announcing the best results in our history—record fee revenue and a successful transformation from a monoline firm to a multi-solution consultancy. Then the world turned upside down. Back in early March, I’ll admit I was bummed out for two or three days. Then, I never looked back again. I reminded myself that, from the depth of the financial crisis to our peak, our firm grew fivefold. Today, we’re even better positioned. If people focus only on what was, they will never visualize beyond tomorrow. We all need the mindset of a basketball player who never thinks about missing, only making the next shot—even if the last 10 shots were off the mark. After all, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
  • …And here’s where we find meaning. With a perspective on the past, it’s time to shift our focus forward. About five months ago, the pandemic was declared. Now, let’s imagine five months to the future—mid-January 2021. The holidays are over. A new year has begun. What will the world look like? It’s an interesting exercise for leaders. What will be the availability and efficacy of a vaccine? Will the rate of infection slow in the Northern Hemisphere as people stay indoors? What will the sociopolitical landscape look like? Based on the world each of us imagines, we consider what we want to accomplish—as individuals, teams, and organizations—between now and then. What we envision will no doubt differ, but one thing is certain for each of us: Our vision of possibilities and opportunities is one place where our meaning can be found.

It’s fine to reminisce about the past, but we can’t get stuck in it. Indeed, we need to decide—what was or what will be. We cannot stay on the fence.