Spring Cleaning

It’s time to clear out the outdated, pre-pandemic corporate thinking, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

Spring cleaning was a yearly ritual when I was growing up in the Midwest: replacing storm doors with screen doors, washing windows, cleaning out closets. It was the rite of passage to summer.

As we mark the start of spring this weekend, we are hopefully on the precipice of this century’s rite of passage: a vaccinated, post-pandemic world—a new world.

The question for each of us will be: Do we revert to the old world, or do we advance to a new world? The reality is that it’s not either/or, it’s AND—taking from the old and the new to create the different. As I told Business Insider this week, it’s up to leaders to model a new way forward.

Spring cleaning takes us first inward, so we can move onward. Only then can we consider moving outward. It’s a subtle point that’s easily overlooked. We can get caught up in trying to change the external, without really seeing what’s internal. Self-awareness, after all, precedes self-change—and at every level of the organization.

As Kevin Cashman, our global leader of CEO & Executive Development, and I discussed this week, “It’s not about transactional doing—it’s more of transformational being.”

For change to take root, we need to decide what stays, what goes. Reminiscing is one thing, but getting stuck in the past is quite another.

When I was a kid, people used to talk a lot about the “good old days.” And sometimes, it seemed like those were the days they wanted to live in. My grandmother had a small black-and-white TV, but she always preferred the radio. I used to sit at the kitchen table with her, listening to the Wichita State Shockers basketball games. The announcer gave such vivid descriptions, dribbling the ball from left to right across the radio dial.

To be sure, memories are to be cherished. In the back of my closet, I have a pair of green scrubs that I wore at the hospital when one of my children was born. I’ll never wear them again—but I won’t get rid of them, either.

It’s amazing what we hold onto—like those five pairs of faded khaki pants or the jacket that doesn’t fit anymore. If we don’t make space, however, we’ll never incorporate the new—to illuminate our own attitude.

Our sights must be on where we want to go, not where we have been. If we don’t evolve and grow, and if our colleagues don’t grow—and go—with us, we will all be left in the old world. As I’ve said to our team, “We can’t think of ourselves as a 52-year-old firm. We need to think like a 5-month-old startup.”

At the same time, our spring cleaning can help us gain new appreciation for what has brought us to this point. As Carolyn Vavrek, our firm’s North America Assessment and Succession leader, told me, “Instead of revamping everything, we also want to focus on what has served us well.”

It’s time to wash the windows. Here are some thoughts:

·  What goes—chaos, clutter, outdated thinking. This is the “junk” that takes up the space we need to grow. As Don Lowman, our firm’s global leader for Total Rewards, remarked in our conversation this week, “It’s about removing clutter, eliminating chaos, restoring a sense of order, and ushering in the new.” Top of the disposal list—the complacent inertia of conventional wisdom that keeps people and organizations stuck in “that’s the way we do things around here.” Easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize—part strategy, but mostly judgment. It’s sense and sensibility. A clean sweep, though, is liberating. It brings fresh air—and opens the space for new perspective.

·  What stays—the five mindsets: Purpose. Courage. Awareness. Inclusion. Integrative Thinking. These are the five crucial mindsets—identified in our firm’s latest research, based on hundreds of thousands of executive assessments. They’ve guided the best of leaders through the crisis, and they’re non-negotiable in a post-pandemic world. This is what we need to keep—and develop. “These five mindsets will continue to make a huge difference, in terms of impact and contribution,” Kevin Cashman told me. “And they apply everywhere, at every level.” Purpose is the reason behind everything we do—the bridge from what we’ve been, to what we will become. Courage—not having “no fear,” but rather to “know fear”—as we embrace continued ambiguity. Awareness, as we shift from “me” to “we.” Inclusion—it’s a behavior: leading the many, while at the same time understanding the perspective of all. Integrative thinking—sculpting a mosaic, rather than only chipping away at the individual tiles.

·  Clean the whole house. Once we create order for ourselves, now we can help others. Not everyone is in the same place right now. Despite the longer, brighter days, many people are still suffering and some of us are still locked in winter, as Mark Pierce, head of our Chicago office and a consultant in our Board & CEO Services practice, observed on a recent drive to Madison, Wisconsin. While sitting at a stoplight, Mark told me, he looked left and saw a man jogging by in shorts and no shirt—then, looking right, an ice fisherman huddled in a parka on a frozen lake. Last week, as I called to make dinner reservations, the person asked if we “would like to eat inside.” I was dumbfounded—what a novel concept. In the old world, the question was, “Would you like to sit outside?” My mind had only myopically focused on the present, not fully incorporating the reality of the past. For many more months, as we live in the duality—masks or no masks, Zoom or in-person—the key will be AND, not simply either/or, as we clean the entire house. It’s a holistic approach.

As we spring clean the nooks of our minds, we may find things that may not be of use to us, but they may be of use to others. Spring cleaning is a lot like leadership—it can be learned and absorbed only by doing, starting with the most important lesson of all: to lead others, you must first lead yourself.