Our Time of Change

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says that only when leaders open themselves up to change can they persuade others to also adapt.

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

Change. As we look in the mirror of a New Year, we can ignore it, roll with it—or create it. But it always starts with each of us.

Many years ago, as a recent college graduate, I scraped together the money for a plane ticket to pay a surprise visit to a family member who lived in the middle of the country. When I arrived at the apartment where this person lived, the shades were all drawn. But I heard the TV and saw the light of the screen through a crack in the blinds. I knocked and knocked—no one answered.

After a while, I found the apartment manager, explained who I was, and asked to be let into the apartment (which was possible in those days). The minute I went in the door, I could not believe my eyes. I found my relative lying on the floor, passed out, surrounded by empty bottles and complete disarray.

Not knowing what else to do, I put my family member to bed and spent the night on the sofa. In the morning, amid the strewn debris and stench, I simply said, “We’ve hit rock bottom—something has to change.”

It led to a courageous, tearful conversation about what this person had been struggling with in secret for years. And it ended up being a turning point for both of us.

My family member admitted the truth of having a serious problem and in time joined a 12-step program—I even had the privilege of going to a few sessions. Eventually, through a lot of self-reflection and help from others, this member of my family got sober. As for me, I learned an important lesson: I couldn’t “make” someone change. They had to do it for themselves.

For leaders, the tendency is to rush to solve the problem. And, quite frankly, that’s the easier thing to do. Far more difficult is to invest the emotion to understand the back story.

It comes down to one thing: I could wish that you change … You could hope that I change … But none of that will happen—except through both of us. Together, we can change.

And that takes time. Let’s ask ourselves: Do we ever really stop to think about how we spend that most precious of all commodities? Time—it’s the one thing we can’t make more of.

In our lifetimes we’ll be spending 10,625 days looking at a digital device … 9,490 days sleeping … 7,709 days sitting down … 1,769 days socializing … 240 days laughing … 180 days exercising … But not nearly enough time thinking about what each of us can change and, more importantly, making that change in how we lead.

It’s far too easy to just keep turning the pages, hoping for a new ending, and reliving yesterday’s story—especially when you consider that we’re starting the fourth calendar year of Covid. Before long, it will be the Covid Decade, as history books will define it.

But now, as we reflect on the year ahead, might we offer …

· It starts with you … It was one of the first calls I received, on the first business day of the New Year. The person on the line was really fired up—eager to charge ahead, but also frustrated about the world around us. I tried to offer a few suggestions—Have you ever asked…? Did you think about …? But I never got out more than four words before the other person jumped in with, “I agree, but …” Finally, I said, “I get it. What could you change?” Sounds simple, even basic—but it’s harder than we think. Therefore, before we do anything else, we must look inward before we look outward. We resolve to take a look at our values, motivations, strengths, and blind spots. Self-awareness awakens! We’re probably not as good as we think we are, and not as bad as others might say we are. But by knowing ourselves, we can manage ourselves first, so we can positively impact others.

· … But it’s not about you. Once we improve ourselves, our job is then to improve others. After all, we aren’t solo performers—poets in a garret, writing by candlelight. We work with and through others. Quite simply, our success is measured in what others achieve. One thing I’ve learned in my 15 years of being a CEO is that strategy is 90 percent execution—and 90 percent of execution is people. But the biggest risk we face as leaders is going up the mountain and suddenly, halfway up, when we look behind there’s nobody there. Ultimately, leadership is about inspiring others to believe. But if we don’t believe it ourselves, why should anybody else? Our aspiration should truly be the inspiration of others.

· Take control. Here’s a cautionary tale, particularly pertinent for these times: A group of settlers in a remote location were gathering firewood to prepare for winter. The group’s leader thought it was going to be a cold winter but wanted to check with the experts. He went to the next town and called the National Weather Service (NWS), which confirmed his thinking. So, more firewood was collected. A week later, the leader checked in with NWS again, and the forecast had changed: a very cold winter. That meant even more firewood. This went on three or four times, with increasingly dire forecasts from NWS that meant getting even more firewood. (Sound familiar?) Finally, the leader asked NWS: “Why do you think the winter is going to be so very, very cold?” The answer: “Because those settlers are gathering a boatload of firewood.” The moral of this story: Don’t let herd mentality take you down. Take control.

The Covid era has revealed an enduring truth: it’s people—colleagues and teams, managers and leaders— who discover and disrupt, innovate and create. The New Year is our time of change. Indeed, the change we want to see in others starts with us.