Our Power of Togetherness

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison argues that leaders need to discover the connection points that resonate—no matter how or where we work. 

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

The prevailing winds these days seem to swirl perpetually. A world of hope, a world of worry, triumph and tragedy, a lingering pandemic, and now even that “R” word looming over us—like the threat of an economic storm front.

How long, how strong—who knows? Yet during all the gusts and gales, we need to keep our center and find our balance point.

For me, perhaps unexpectedly, that’s one local grocery store, six cans of soup, and 26 months ago.

It was the early days of the pandemic. Life as we knew it just seemed to come to a stop. We feared for our health, for our loved ones. Uncertainty and fear clouded the sky. There were so many dreary days and questions—so much we didn’t know. Could we even touch anything?

I remember that checkout line as if it all happened yesterday. My wife, Leslie, and I were standing behind an elderly woman with six cans of minestrone soup in her cart—and nothing else. “I’m sorry,” the cashier said. “We have a limit. You can only get four.”

Overhearing the conversation, Leslie spoke up: “Don’t worry, I’ll buy the other two for her.” Immediately, the man behind us said loudly, “Count me in for four more!”

Seeing the woman’s nearly empty shopping cart, people in that checkout line asked her what else she might need. By the time she left the store, the woman had all the essentials—including supplies that other shoppers cheerfully took out of their own carts.

Since then, this story has become my parable of those times—and these times—a poignant point of learning. It is my level set, recalibrating and reminding me that the smallest of lights can be a beacon in darkness. This shared humanity is our better selves—our insatiable need for togetherness.

This story also reminds me that commonalities can overshadow differences—even in a world in which left seems further left and right seems further right. Korn Ferry’s research suggests that a company’s journey from individual self-interest to shared community interest entails many steps, including a collective purpose, a compelling vision, individual and joint fairness, accountability and responsibility, and recognition. The starting point? We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Which brings me to today….

I am traveling internationally right now for the first time in nearly three years, meeting with colleagues and clients in person. There’s no doubt that virtual meeting software has been a game changer and will be a substantial part of tomorrow. But there is something about being physically together. The conversation just seems to go in a different, deeper direction. Sometimes it’s completely unexpected—an outpouring that’s authentic, vulnerable, and healthy. Last week, a person shared with me a deeply personal story. “I’ve never shared this with anybody in the corporate world before,” they told me. We were both misty-eyed.

It’s a reminder—palpable and tangible—of just how much we need to be together. Make no mistake, togetherness is not necessarily about a location; it’s all about intention. No matter where we are, no matter how we work, we need to rediscover the connection points that resonate.

For more than two years, we’ve done our best. When we come together virtually, it’s always about something. However, when we gather in person, particularly by happenstance, it’s sometimes about nothing—but the result is always something! And there is something really impactful about observing and absorbing together.

It’s up to the leader to help ensure that this happens. Whatever the new world of work becomes, we can find this balance. Always and everywhere, it’s community, connectivity, and culture.

We’ve always known intuitively about the importance of these 3 Cs, but we never really made them a conscious focus. Like everyone else, we assumed it all happened organically—with places to go, people to see. Then togetherness became inorganic—only happening with deliberate action. It’s a shame that it takes times like those, when the you-know-what is hitting the fan, for this awareness to truly inform how we think and feel about being together.

As leaders, we’re the fulcrum of that balance: on the one hand, understanding people’s concerns and answering their questions, and on the other, helping them to relate better to one another.

The direction may change but the winds will always blow. And while we can’t control the storms—neither in life nor in leadership—togetherness is what adjusts our sails.