Second Chances

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights the reasons leaders should often hand those who fail another opportunity.

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

Slowly, she entered the headmistress’s office, not sure of what to expect. To her shock, she saw kindness on the woman’s face. “I think you’re being punished enough,” the headmistress told her. “You don’t need me to add to it.”

It was many years ago, and a 15-year-old Sonamara Jeffreys had been accused of breaking the school rules—“ironically, for something that I didn’t do … at least not that time,” she shared with me just the other day.

Today, Sonamara is president of our firm’s business in EMEA. But on that long-ago day, she was walking a tightrope—between her very strict mother and the headmistress of the school.

She waited outside a closed office door for an hour that felt like an eternity. Suddenly, her mother emerged. “You’re staying,” she said brusquely, then left without any explanation.

That’s when the headmistress called Sonamara into her office. “That second chance was a turning point in my young life. After that, I just put my head down and got on my studies.”

It’s a fact of life and leadership. We all have failings and flaws—it’s the fallibility of our human nature. There will be times when we need and even ask for a second chance. And there will be moments when we need humility and graciousness to give that second chance to others.

This is where the psychology comes in. “When someone has been on the receiving end of compassion, they will be more likely to give it to others,” Angela Castellani, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist in our firm’s Consulting business told me this week.

Having worked as a psychologist in both federal women’s prisons and marriage counseling, Angela described how giving second chances “creates an environment in which we can surround ourselves with people who will support and rally around us.”

And that’s the leader’s role—recalling, but never dwelling. It’s understanding the past, but not staying there. Here are some thoughts:

It’s not called failure. Think about it for a moment. When someone is given an opportunity that really tests them, there’s a high probability for mistakes. It’s not what counts at the moment of failure, however, it’s what you do after that matters most. Instead of viewing failure as an impediment to progress, it’s embraced as the best pathway to improvement. That’s why we all should give and get second chances—for the simple reason that there is far more potential in the future than error in the moment.

It’s called learning. When a second chance is required, it’s up to leaders to help people flip the switch. And there’s science to back it. When negativity gives way to positivity, the result is a corrective experience that builds confidence and competence. This is why the most profound learning comes through redemption.

It’s quite the paradox. We’re hard-wired for safety and self-preservation—yet we are most fulfilled when we take the risk to expose our frailties. And that’s the grace of a second chance—reinventing, refreshing, renewing.