Our Path of Purpose

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights five principles leaders should impart to workers even amid all the uncertainty around inflation, political instability, and AI.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

Some joined 30 years ago—for others it has been only three. And for one, just a few weeks. Yet, there we all were.

Over the past several days as I travel from country to country, office to office, across Europe I have been rekindling, forging, and reaffirming relationships—both new and renewed. And each time, as I catch up with colleagues, it’s been an epiphany.

Many of these colleagues were not here during Covid. They weren’t with us for all the ups and downs and the myriad emotions that were triggered. Their experiences were formed elsewhere. Many more have not been together for the various cycles and economic downturns over the years. And, if I’m being honest, a few of them may have been learning to walk when I started my career with our firm.

This enlightenment has opened my eyes to the fact that, during my 16 years as CEO, our firm has probably seen thousands of colleagues come and go. No doubt it’s the same for every organization and team these days: for every time and place, a roomful of different faces.

Unique experiences have molded us over the years—they are what we bring with us. Now, what matters most is that we are all here—on the same path of purpose.

This recalls the words of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who wrote, “There is no road, the road is made by walking.” Individually and collectively, we make our path as we walk it.

This is why I compare a leader’s journey to guiding others on a cross-country trek—on foot. As the group moves slowly and steadily, people join and depart at different points and places. Some miss the thunderstorms in the Great Plains. Others don’t see the Grand Canyon. For others, their path leads down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, through Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, along Copenhagen’s historic harbor, or through the streets of Agra, India to the Taj Mahal.

And the leader’s role? Transporting people—emotionally and sometimes physically—from here to there.

The fact is—from place to place, season to season—the landscape always changes. But the destination—embodied by an overarching purpose that literally moves people—remains the same.

Because here’s the thing: Whether we’re immersed in warmth and love or burdened by heartache and tragedy, each day starts the same for all of us. With every sunrise, we have a choice of how we show up.

But let’s be honest—tectonic shifts are happening everywhere. How we produce and consume. Where and how we work. How we are entertained. An ongoing war. Shifting trade lanes. Inflation and interest rates. And now, the threat of AI. It’s quite possible that what the Industrial Revolution was to manufacturing, AI is now to the knowledge worker.

If only I had known—we hear these five words constantly. They describe so much about this world of constant change. The reality, however, is that there are a lot of unknowns. By definition, that means we cannot know!

But before we give in to thoughts that we’ll somehow disintermediate ourselves, let’s keep our focus on purpose. No matter where we came from, or how we got here, we’re all in this together. Here are some thoughts to guide us:

When we have an idea … tell someone. It’s all about planting a seed, inviting others to help cultivate it, and watching what grows.

If we want to try something … ask. Because if the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that solutions and answers often emerge from unexpected people in unexpected places.

When we want to collaborate … just do it. The fact is, in today’s collaborative world, we always need others. Everyone does.

When we must measure ourselves … it’s not by what we are against, but rather what we are for. What matters is not the miles or meters—but our meaning.

If we stand for something … let it be for opportunity. For collective and self-determination. For each and all of us to be more than.

As the poet reminds us, “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road…” Indeed, where we now walk together, no one has trod before.

And all along our journey, we commemorate those who have left us, the empathy that unites us, the resilience that carries us—and our shared purpose and humanity that define us.