chief executive officer
This Week in Leadership
Work at the Office, Win a New Car!
The pros and cons of giving incentives to employees who are reluctant to return to the office.
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
I’m just not happy… I feel lonely… I’m not very motivated these days….
Just this past week, one of my daughters confided her feelings to me—and she’s not the only one. We’re all hearing comments like these from people around us.
As I listened, I thought back to December—the holidays, a New Year, vaccines rolling out…. The world just felt like it was ready for change. It’s as if, with the stroke of midnight on January 1st, we all expected some backstage rope would be pulled, revealing a new set. Instead, we seem to be watching the same scene, over and over.
In that moment with my daughter, I knew actions would speak louder than words. So, I asked, “What are you doing this afternoon?”
She gave me a look. “Nothing—and that’s the problem.”
“Let’s take a ride,” I suggested.
Soon, we were on a journey with three key stops—to Realize, Visualize, and Actualize.
As we drove to our first destination, my daughter seemed lost in thought. But when we turned toward a hospital, she sat up and gave me a puzzled look. Then she saw the sign marking the entrance: “Heroes Work Here!”
“This has been the front lines of the battle for nearly a year, and it’s not over yet—even with the vaccines,” I commented.
Sitting in the parking lot, we watched doctors and nurses in uniforms heading into and out of the building—often with heads down and hurrying. Dramatic scenes such as this one help us all Realize the magnitude of challenges we continue to face—a shared burden that falls heaviest on essential workers.
As we sat there, I shared with my daughter the heartbreaking story of a colleague, Sue Puncochar, a long-time administrator of our Minneapolis office (who graciously gave me permission to relate her story here). Over the holidays, Sue lost her husband when a blood vessel burst. He was declared brain dead, and the next day his organs were donated. Forever etched into her memory, Sue told me, was walking down the hospital corridor and seeing all the doctors and staff “standing in honor with their heads down”—a feeling she will never forget.
Next, we drove to an elementary school—eerily silent and deserted. On a playground full of colorful equipment, only the wind moved the swings. “This is who we are fighting for—teachers, staff, and students—so they can come back here and learn,” I commented.
Amid all that emptiness, I asked my daughter if she could Visualize what this school will look like in 2022. “Can you picture the children, laughing and playing?”
When she nodded, I added: “That’s what you need to do for yourself. Instead of the emptiness you feel today, visualize your life. Who would you like to be, what would you like to do—six months or a year from now? But always remember—what you do will never be a substitute for who you are.”
Suddenly, my daughter’s mood elevated as we continued to our third destination: a local food pantry and homeless shelter. By giving of herself, my daughter understood that she could Actualize a better future for others (and for herself). It wasn’t about anything she was doing—this change came about because she elevated her thinking. My daughter is certainly not alone—it’s the process we all must undergo continuously.
It’s been a long haul for everyone—and it’s not over yet. Getting to the other side will take more than just will and skill. We need to shift our mindsets so we can expand and reframe our reality. But it takes some effort. As Dennis Baltzley, our global head of Leadership Development, told me this week, “With a mindset shift, there is no model or tool to learn. You literally have to think differently about something you think you know. You are not going to YouTube or TED Talk your way into this shift. You need help —a coach, a mentor, or a trusted peer—to help you ‘see’ differently, then change the way you view the world.”
As we shift our mindset, the horizon broadens. We look up, look out, look forward with three key steps. Here are some thoughts:
· Realize. We don’t need to become visionaries, trying to discern the future through the fog. We just need to see today clearly. 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. After all, honesty and self-awareness go hand-in-hand.
· Visualize. Pick a date—three months, six months, a year in the future. And just imagine... Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be? Who can help you? Who can you help? It’s like “future-priming,” a phenomenon in psychology, where 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 sharper our focus, the clearer our vision of the future. We see what’s most important to us—and that’s how we’ll notice opportunities as they present themselves in the future. Our mindset shifts—from hopeless to hopeful, listless to curious. We visualize the light—so we can become that light for others. Then we all can rise, just like the sun on a new day.
· Actualize. We need a game plan, the steps we must take to actualize our future. Otherwise, we’re at risk of losing the most precious of commodities—time. As lifelong learners, especially now, we prepare ourselves to be present and open to the change we want to see—and be—in the world. This is not a solo act—we need to find trusted people—guides who know us, our journeys, and our struggles. They’re the ones willing to have meaningful conversations with us, for us, and about us. With this trusted peer, friend, or mentor, we ask ourselves: Do our ways still serve us? What should we do differently? What is our vision of the future—and how can we actualize our place in it?
There is always blue sky above the clouds. The question, though, is whether we will elevate to reach it. And that must start when we accurately realize reality, visualize tomorrow, and actualize those steps today to break through. By changing our mindset, indeed, we will change tomorrow.
During this week where we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, may we all remember his legacy: the reality he realized, the tomorrow he visualized, and the hope to actualize a future he envisioned.