Soul Searching

Why Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says it’s time to move past 2020 and find an overarching purpose for 2021 and beyond.

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

Another year has passed me by…
And I’m still in the dark
‘Cause I can’t seem to find the light alone

- “Man in the Wilderness,” by Styx

We’re at the 11th hour of the 11th month of a year like no other. From time to time, the sentiment for all of us has been, “What else could 2020 possibly bring?” During those times, we are like that person in the wilderness—wandering along, never quite knowing why—trying to make sense of it all.

Yesterday, my wife, Leslie, and I took a long walk on a local beach, stepping away to find meaning amid today’s unsettled waters. Never would we have suspected that the perspective we sought was right around the next cove—where we came upon a young couple standing at the shore. At their feet, etched in sand, were the couple’s names and “4ever Together,” surrounded by a heart. The woman held up her left hand so that her ring caught the sun’s rays just at the right angle and sparkled, as she snapped selfies.

They were newly engaged, as it turned out. Watching them, we were transported to a different time when we had our whole future ahead of us and everything seemed possible—even though we had no idea what that could be. Leslie turned to me and said, “See that sparkle between them? I know they’re going to make it.”

That’s the magic that happens whenever there is engagement and genuine connection. It’s the light that can’t be extinguished no matter what life throws at us.

For all of us, coming together is ultimately all about transforming finite self-interest into infinite shared interest. How does this happen? First and foremost, through purpose and then much more. Most people want to be connected to something bigger than themselves. They want to be loved; they want to know that what they do matters to someone else. They want to grow; they want to be recognized. They want to be seen and heard—and, yes, they want to belong.

Whether personally or professionally, we all search for the same basic things: purpose, love, and happiness. Here are some thoughts:

  • Catching people doing things right. We have a choice: critique or construct; divide or unite. I received a call this week from someone who was being reprimanded because, ironically, he was not handing out enough reprimands to others. It was quite simple for him. As he told me, “It’s 2020. This is not the time to dampen spirits. It’s the time to enlighten, to elevate, to inspire.” It’s like what management guru Ken Blanchard has said: we need to catch people doing something right.
  • Finding our why. For some of us, in different ways and at different times, we need to stop trying to make sense of 2020. Instead, we need to have a sense of purpose for 2021—an overarching “why.” Purpose brings us out of the wilderness and into a new light, a new beginning. But it does take some effort. The late John McKissick, America’s winningest football coach, shared with us the wise words of his father: “As my daddy used to say, ‘Son, if you don’t put something in the bucket, how are you going to get anything out of it?’” With a sense of purpose, we need to ask ourselves: What are we willing to put in the bucket today to help ourselves and others? 
  • Showing love... I can still remember that phone call. It was about three years ago, while my family and I were living in London for a few months. I had just flown to Ireland to visit our team there, and I was in a cab. The person calling me out of the blue was Richard Ferry, one of the two pioneering founders of our firm; we had not spoken in some time. I can’t even recall exactly what he told me, but I remember vividly the love in his voice as Richard expressed his pride for how far our firm had come. It wasn’t about him; it wasn’t about me—it was all about our 10,000 colleagues around the world. Even today, the memory of that call lifts me up. All of us want to belong—we all want to be loved. It’s a timeless truth that resonates more deeply in challenging times. When we tell people, “We couldn’t have done it without you,” what we’re really saying is, “You are loved.”
  • …And pursuing happiness. It is the ultimate pursuit. In the United States, it is our inalienable right, as the Declaration of Independence promises us. And so, we chase after what we believe will make us happy, usually things like money, possessions, leisure time, adventure, even a job title. We tell ourselves that when we get this, can afford that, arrive there, we will be happy. Yet, it often doesn’t turn out that way. This year, we know all too well that everything we cherish can be gone, in seconds. A colleague recently shared a heartbreaking story about a child’s drug addiction—“losing a child who is still alive”—and then, after much worry and sadness, the almost indescribable joy of that child’s return. Can anything else compare? 

After all, happiness is not given to us; it is recognized by us. It’s not about chasing tomorrow’s promise, but rather comes from savoring today.