Our Leap of Faith

Right now, when many people are isolated or exhausted, the onus is on leaders to be inspiring coaches, writes Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

A hot July 4th weekend when we were kids usually meant one thing—going to the local swimming pool.

Sitting on the edge of that pool, we’d dangle our toes in the water and look up at the high dive. It didn’t seem that tall. Then we started climbing the ladder, one rung at a time.

When we reached the fifth rung, with what seemed like a hundred more ahead of us, beads of sweat were rolling down our faces. The only thing that kept us going was the fear of being teased by the other kids if we suddenly reversed course and climbed back down. Except, that was exactly what we wanted to do.

Finally, we reached the top. Staring down the length of that diving board, we felt as if we were walking the plank. We just couldn’t take one … more … step.

Then, looking down at our toes as we tried to grip the board, we saw something in our peripheral vision—our friends, bobbing in the water. Just moments before, they had taken the plunge. That’s when we heard their encouraging words: “You can do this!” Or in other words, look up, look out, leap forward.

In an instant, perspective shifted—and off we went.

And that’s what good coaching does. It’s the guiding hand, the gentle nudge—caring combined with directness. Coaches are the voice of assurance and of reason that says, “Don’t give up!”

Without support, it’s almost impossible to take that leap on our own. This calls for “capital C” coaches who have formal training, certification, and experience to help others, as well as informal “lower case C” coaches who listen and encourage—and that means us. In times like these, people look to leaders, not only for advice and counsel, but also for role modeling on taking that leap of faith.

That doesn’t come naturally to most leaders. Why? Because in times of high change, their focus is often more on growth, performance, and strategy—and sometimes less on helping ensure that others are engaged through coaching.

As we jump off that diving board, we caught up with Nike, which knows how to do it—inspiring people to be more than. Jonathan Johnson-Griffin, global creative director at Nike, shared with us just the other day. “Other than experience, coaching is the best teacher you will ever have. A great coach is a gift that inspires, teaches, and supports on and off the court—innovating and evolving every season.”

This is exactly what’s needed everywhere today. It’s been a long haul for everyone—and it’s not over yet. Many people are still suffering and isolated, let alone exhausted, overworked, and overwhelmed. Remote, not remote, hybrid - whatever that means. Things have opened – no, wait. Travel? It depends.

As Wendy Beecham, a member of our consulting team who coaches senior leaders, told me this week, “Leaders and their teams are feeling depleted. They have run out of ideas for resilience. Add to that the whole return to work question, which is just that—a question. Dealing with ambiguity has become a required skill.”

Everyone—in all roles, at every level, and in all companies—is trying to get centered. They’re searching … for something.

Becoming “unstuck” is not just a matter of will and skill. It’s a decision and a discipline to reframe reality, elevate the horizon, and visualize our future. The solution is to focus on the bigger picture. That’s why, when our firm coaches senior executives in times like these, our advice is to “contextualize.”

When we take ourselves out of this moment and focus, instead, on the broadest view, everything changes—our outlook, our energy, even our emotions. People go from hopeless to hopeful, listless to curious, exhausted to exhilarated.

“Success is derived from the good care and feeding of the team,” Judy Gawlik Brown, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Amgen, told me this week. “It starts with purpose. As I tell my team, ‘We have a real mission. We’re making a difference. And while the pace that you have to adapt seems to get faster every day, find comfort in the fact that you are building resilience muscles. Five years from now, you’ll realize just how strong you now are and how valuable this time has been.’”

It’s not a quick fix—there’s no model to adopt or tool to use. A YouTube video or TED Talk won’t do the trick. It takes time and consistent effort, because this is nothing less than literally changing the way we think.

And that calls for coaching, to help us expand our horizons. Here are three key steps—the essence of good coaching that we need to both receive and give to others:

·  Realize. Just as with any transformation, the first step in coaching is to clearly see today—problems and potential, obstacles and opportunities. As the late Warren Bennis, the well-respected leadership guru who advised CEOs and U.S. presidents alike, once told me, “It really starts with how you view reality.” Accurately perceiving today is the key to finding meaning and creating momentum for tomorrow. That reality includes not only what we see and experience, but also what we’re feeling. A good coach will help us realize what’s happening today. As our view becomes clearer, we can help others do the same.

·  Visualize. Amid a swirl of change and ambiguity, the fog can become so dense, it’s hard to look ahead. But that’s exactly where our focus needs to shift. Effective coaching helps set our sights on what is most important—now and in the future. So how do we help ourselves and others develop that clearer, sharper view? There’s a phenomenon in psychology known as “future-priming.” A person looks around a room, then closes their eyes and describes what they saw—usually, they name 10 different things. But if they’re asked, instead, to look around only for something in a specific color and then close their eyes, they will focus quickly on just two or three things. In the same way, the better we can visualize the horizon, the more we can help others to sharpen their focus on what’s ahead.

·  Actualize. With a vision to guide us, we need a game plan to actualize tomorrow. This is not a solo act. We need coaches (capital C and lower case C) who know us, our journeys, our hopes, and our struggles. Coaches help us dive into the deeper questions: Do our ways of doing things still serve us? Does our mindset support or thwart change? What must we do differently? How can we actualize a better tomorrow? This is not one and done. It’s a process of transformation—from the reality we realize, to the future we visualize, and the opportunities we actualize.

We’ve all been on that diving board. Fortunately, others are already in the water—motivating and guiding, encouraging and coaching—as we take that leap of faith. After all, being a leader means being a coach—inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality.