Our Connection Conundrum

Leaders might not be aware of how important it is to make their colleagues feel linked, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

Several years ago, and half a world away.

We were complete strangers, not even able to speak the same language. But there we were—dancing in the aisles together to songs we all knew.

While in Shanghai for business, I had an opportunity to see the musical Mamma Mia! performed in Mandarin. Although I could not understand a single word, I did not feel like an outsider. I fit in, I belonged—bonded to others in an emotional shared experience. The music spoke to everyone, evoking a feeling that transcended language.

Eighteen months ago, neighbor to neighbor.

“We decided to do this, so that neither of us would be alone in quarantine,” a colleague told me this week.

That colleague was Oren Klaber, a member of our commercial real estate and financial services practice. When everything shut down last March, Oren and his good friend and neighbor, Deena, worked out an arrangement. Oren would work every day at his neighbor’s apartment, since her space is larger and has more natural light. “It has worked out wonderfully for both of us,” Oren told me.

Two tales—as different as can be, yet both telling the same story: of common purpose, shared interest, focusing on others, and the feeling of fitting in with unconditional acceptance.

So how do these connections happen? Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence who works closely with our firm, provides some insights. He recently cited a study of more than 25,000 young adults in 58 countries, which showed that intrinsic values—such as social connections and contributing to one’s community—were more closely correlated to wellbeing than values such as power and financial gain. Goleman’s conclusion: “If we are going to reap the full benefits of purpose, values have to be self-transcendent; they must involve others.”

These kinds of connections are now a universal need, encoded in who we are. Although always important, such connectivity is even more crucial today.

Each and every day, we face the deliberate choice of kindling relationships and forging connections or else pushing ourselves deeper into retreat. After all, most of us aren’t sculptors working alone, chipping away at marble in a studio. That’s not the way we work in today’s collaborative world. We need others—everyone does.

What’s true for individuals applies doubly for leaders who also must find a way to help their teams forge and reinforce connections. Before Covid, I intuitively knew about the importance of community and connections, but I never really made it a major focus. Like everyone, I assumed it happened organically—with places to go, people to see.

Now, connectivity is inorganic—it can only happen with deliberate action. This awareness needs to inform and shape our thinking. The essence of any leadership journey is connecting with others and transporting them from one place to another—inspiring them to believe in what they can achieve.

All of us want the same basic thing—we hear it all the time. What’s the culture like? What is it like to work there? What are the people like?

What they’re really asking—in many different ways and in different words—is simply “How will I fit it in?”

We know where this is coming from. We’re all vulnerable, we all have insecurities. We want to be loved, to belong, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

When we feel connected, we fit in. When we fit in, we belong. And when we belong, we gain a stronger sense of ourselves and who we are. Here are some thoughts:

·  “We need uber-connectivity.” That was the unanimous feeling from our leadership team meeting this week. In fact, as our team discussed, connectivity is the issue facing companies right now. But are leaders aware of just how big a problem this really is for people? Once we’re aware—we need to do something about it. This starts by making connectivity into an action verb—showing others, by our words and actions, how to embody the pursuit of connectivity in our daily lives. “It’s Metcalfe’s Law in action,” Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of our Korn Ferry Institute, said this week. “The value of our network is a function of the number of connections. It expands exponentially with every connection we add.” It happens person-to-person, from one to many, as we become part of something bigger than ourselves.

·  Connect, give feedback—repeat. Earlier this week, I was invited to tape a discussion for 150 high-potential leaders at Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare organization, along with Arthur Southam, M.D., executive vice president of health plan operations. When Artie and I spoke, our conversation turned to connectivity—which is top of mind for both of us—and how leaders can put it into action. Artie’s suggestion was to use feedback—and it’s a great idea. It’s a natural way for leaders to step it up, progressing from merely giving feedback to connecting meaningfully with others. Feedback is a gift—for both the giver and the receiver. The recipient has a part to play, too. As Artie observed, too often when people receive positive feedback, they shrug it off as “I was just doing my job.” But that depreciates the value! For feedback to forge a connection, it must be taken in. After all, we’re 18 months into this and nearing the end of 2021. Yet we’re still trying to help people get through by linking ourselves together, one day to the next—to see the blue sky through that tiny opening in the clouds. So, it can’t just be feedback anymore; it must be “feedforward.” With intentionality and true connection, we can make explicit what used to be implicit when we were all in the same room together.

·  The power of purpose. Purpose precedes the first step of every journey. Daniel Goleman gives the example of an oncologist, whose aim is to eliminate cancer and help patients live longer, more satisfying lives. To accomplish this, the oncologist may tap into values such as compassion, collaboration, and patient-centered care. With a heightened sense of purpose, the oncologist not only understands the aims and values, but also can act on them. As Goleman observes: “The combination of both knowing and acting allows the oncologist to feel their pursuit has meaning and significance.” That’s all of us. We may not be treating cancer patients or performing life-saving surgeries, but we can still seek to bring good to the world around us by harnessing the power of our personal purpose.

·  Top down, bottom up. We’re all “new” these days, onboarding ourselves into this complex world and ambiguous workscape. But do leaders ever think about it this way? To shift our thinking, we need to look both top down and bottom up. For perspective, I reached out to someone who joined our firm less than three weeks ago. “In this virtual environment, I’ve had to be intentional in building relationships,” Lydia Glover, one of the newest members of our Consulting team, told me the other day. “It’s all about being prepared, patient—giving yourself and others grace, and being flexible. Learn all you can about others and then find commonalities.” We all need to find ways to connect with others around the deepest, most fundamental of human needs—to be loved, to know that what we do matters, to be seen and heard, to belong.

Connectivity may, indeed, be a conundrum, but it’s also a collage—of purpose, shared interest, and fitting in. It requires awareness on the part of the person offering the connection—and courage for the person willing to forge it. The result is lasting, meaningful relationships, connecting us all.