Our Teachable Moment

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why employees need to make time for learning experiences, even as their work environments change.

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

While in the Midwest a few weeks ago, I visited my father’s gravesite. Instantly, I was brought back to a much earlier time when he and I were at the cemetery together—ironically, for my first driving lesson.

At age 13, I wasn’t really ready and couldn’t get a learner’s permit for another year. But Dad took me to the cemetery parking lot to practice a little—his hand on mine to guide me through the “three on the tree” pattern of the shifter on the steering column. He also grabbed the steering wheel a couple of times—like when I rounded a corner a little too sharply, jumped a curb, and nearly clipped a tombstone.

It was a hands-on, old-school teachable moment—one I never forgot.

The first time any of us did anything—riding a bike, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or folding origami—more often than not, someone showed us, instead of trying to do it all on our own. Through the power of observation, we learned as if through osmosis—adjusting our progress, in real time. Along the way, we learned not only what to do, but we also corrected bad habits and misunderstandings before they became engrained and harder to undo.

Flash forward to today. While the workscape has changed dramatically, the need for learning is a constant. We can’t YouTube tutorial our way forward. Our experiences will always be the best teacher. We just need to be even more deliberate and intentional to find those experiences, and it’s critical today when teacher and learner are sometimes virtual, and our power of observation may not be as finely tuned.

One of our daughters recently began an internship with a large professional services firm—virtually. It’s a far cry from what my wife, Leslie, and I experienced early on in our careers. Back then, we observed and absorbed everything in person—from how our managers interacted with clients and led teams, to how colleagues operated every day. Early in my career, I had so many learning inflection points, from simply observing how a senior leader gave a toast at a dinner, to watching a colleague host a meeting—or the partner at another firm who was grace under fire with an upset client. These were master classes before our eyes, and each time we took note and said to ourselves, “This is how I’m going to do it.”

Looking back on how on we learned, Leslie and I asked each other: How would our daughter have those same teachable moments in a virtual world? Then, just the other day, we overheard our daughter on the phone. “That’s great feedback…. I can see that…. Absolutely—happy to reconnect on that….”

It was more than just a proud parent moment to hear our daughter open to learning on a call. It mirrored the kind of teaching and learning that must occur everywhere today—to motivate and elevate. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

A year ago, as some of the world shifted to virtual work, we were all in the same boat. Now, it’s a complex mix of virtual, in-person, and everything in between—and learning is all over the map. As Bryan Ackermann, Managing Partner of our firm’s Global Leadership and Professional Development practice, told me this week, “Every class we’re teaching is different. Sometimes Korn Ferry is physically present and the learners are not, and sometimes they are physically present and we are not—and everything in between. We deal with combinations of company policies, individual preferences, and even the day of the week as companies do partial returns to the office. We all have to adapt to this new reality of how people learn, teach, and mentor. Agility is critical for success in today’s shifting landscape.”

We are not yet at center point as the pendulum continues to swing, but learning must continue.

Learning is life-changing—and even brain-changing, thanks to neuroplasticity as new neurons are formed, and synaptic connections are developed and reorganized. Bottom line: when people are happy, they’re motivated; and if they’re motivated, they’ll outperform. Learning is a big part of that. Here are some thoughts:

·  Our first day of class. Ken Blanchard, with whom I’ve had discussions about great leadership, often tells a story about his early days as a college professor. His habit was to give his students the answers to the final exam on the first day of class. Because of this approach, he often found himself in trouble with other faculty members. Ken defended his decision by explaining his belief that his main job was to teach students the content they needed to learn—not to focus on evaluating them along some distribution curve. It’s a concept he calls “Helping People Get an A,” and Ken has applied it to work, as well. Just as Ken found a different and sometimes uncomfortable way to teach, today’s leaders need to be open to teaching in ways they never thought of before. Why? Because no one has had to teach—and learn—in this kind of environment. This is the first day of class—for everyone.

·  Insatiable, Zoomable curiosity. Learning experiences, as our firm’s research has found, boil down to three main ingredients: having the motivation, developing abilities, and applying what’s been learned. Put it all together, and the result is learning agility—or as I call it, knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. When we’re learning agile, we’re engaged with the world around us. Insatiably curious, we don’t just default to the “same old” experiences or problem solving. We go beyond the status quo of tactics that worked in the past and what we prefer to do—because that may not work in today’s new world. As it’s been said, perfection is the enemy of good, particularly today. We all need to be curious, experiment, and be willing to fail.  

·  World-class observers. Learning means asking questions—and from those answers must come actions. For this to happen, people must become world-class observers—and that can be a real challenge in a virtual environment. Just as different work needs to get done, and work needs to get done differently—learning must change at the same pace. As Ken Merritt, a new member of our Organizational Strategy practice, told me this week: “I’ve had to teach others, especially more junior colleagues, in a way that helps them learn—even though we’re not in the same room, and even though I can’t walk over to the whiteboard like I used to. It’s about being creative to help others engage and observe.” Jeff Constable, who co-leads our Global Financial Officers practice, added in our conversation this week: “There are words and then there are actions—and the actions always win out over time. When we observe people’s actions, we find great role models to emulate—and sometimes they’re not the most conspicuous people. And those who Zoom-well aren’t necessarily the ones who perform well.” The more we observe, the more learning happens—course correcting in real time.

Knowledge is what we know. Wisdom is acknowledging what we don’t know. Learning and discernment are the bridge between the two. In today’s world, it’s all about finding our teachable moments.