chief executive officer
This Week in Leadership (June 7 - June 13)
Are in-office or remote employees more productive? Plus, how to deal with a toxic boss.
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
The hands of time are frozen at 7:39—whether A.M. or P.M., I’ll never know.
Over the past year, staring at me on my desk has been a pocket watch on a chain—the one that had been passed down from my grandfather to my father to me. My grandfather carried it to work every day—first at the railroad and later at a wheat mill.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve frequently held this watch in my hand, a tangible connection to my past. And it occurred to me—it will never tell time in the present again. Sure, I could probably get it fixed. But this heirloom is more poignant to me as a reminder to savor the past—while not trying to stay there. After all, time is the most precious of all commodities—we can’t make more of it.
This realization seemed particularly meaningful given the conversations we’ve been having recently. Just the other day, while speaking to a client’s leadership team, I was asked, “When are things going to get back to the way they were?” My answer was instantaneous: “They’re not—there’s no going back.”
Time has not stood still for any of us. Nor can we simply turn the clock back to 2019 and start again. That moment is gone forever.
It’s like a saying shared with me recently by an executive who had been in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps for 33 years: “These things are irrelevant to fighter pilots: the runway behind them, the altitude above them, and three seconds ago.”
This is our “telling time.” Given what we know now—about ourselves and each other—we no longer contemplate when we will move forward. The only question is how. We have three choices: procrastinate, pause, or push.
The starting point is to accurately perceive the reality of today—an unbiased picture of where we are—personally and organizationally. Anticipation comes next. It’s future-focused, projecting beyond the horizon—Plan C for Plan B for Plan A. Navigation is the companion to anticipation—course correcting in real time. Together, they keep the wind at our back.
If anticipation is the course we chart, and navigation is the ship’s mast—then agility is the rudder. Indeed, these times take world-class agility that stretches our intellectual and strategic abilities to navigate in the moment.
As we anticipate and navigate, we keep making our way. After all, the path of progress is never linear. But that’s how we develop agility—from our experiences, both positive and negative.
Not that long ago, my daughter, Emily, and I were out riding our bicycles. The street was busy, so we rode on the sidewalk. Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, a dog raced toward us and sank his teeth into my leg, just above the ankle. Fortunately, the dog had its shots and didn’t do any real damage. Afterwards, I had plenty of time to reflect on exactly what happened.
First of all, we were riding on the sidewalk, which was not where we were supposed to be. Second, we failed to notice the dog on the lawn, which no doubt got scared as we “invaded” its space. Wrong place, wrong time. The fault was ours, not the dog’s—lesson learned.
Now with summer coming, I anticipate long bike rides on the weekends. But I won’t be riding on the sidewalk—agility ensures learning never ends. Here are some thoughts:
· Connecting time and space. When I spoke with Nathan Blain, an organizational expert in our firm, this week, I asked him about the top concern he’s hearing from clients these days. He didn’t hesitate in his response: “Connectivity.” He shared a conversation he had the other day with a senior leader who expressed concern that, while her teams were productive, continued isolation is creating a culture of verticality—working only for their managers instead of working horizontally as part of cross-functional teams. “This organization had committed so much time and effort to collaboration, they can’t get caught up in silos again,” he told me. Regardless of where or how we work, we need a horizontal mindset—taking the time to connect across our organizational space, even as scattered as it might be right now.
· Survival of the agile. Amid great uncertainty and ambiguity for more than a year—when change has been the only constant—agility was our survival. There was no other option. Although our firm’s research reveals there are many types of agility, learning agility tops them all. All of us have had to become increasingly learning agile—synthesizing and applying our past experiences in real time to fluid, changing conditions. Or, as I like to say—knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do. So, why learning agility and why now? The ability to navigate ever-present ambiguity with agility separates those who are merely effective from those who are truly exceptional. Agility transmutes loss into learning in first-time situations; the new world belongs to the most agile. Learning agile people are insatiably curious and engaged with the world around them. They don’t just rely on the same old solutions and status quo problem-solving tactics that worked in the past. They’re willing to go against the grain of what they know how to do and prefer to do.
· Tempus fugit. Time flies. It’s wisdom as old as time itself, captured by the poet Virgil in 29 B.C.—and it’s as true today as it ever was. If we become stuck in the past, unable to keep pace, we will be left behind. As Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author of The One Minute Manager, described in a conversation we had a few years ago, we all must be the “president of the present” and the “president of the future”— both at the same time. If the past 15 months have taught us anything, it’s the importance of adaptability. This is the equivalent of surfing: paddling out and choosing the right wave. While you ride that wave, you decide whether to take it all the way to shore—or bail out and find a better one. We make our path as we walk it, with agility and learning in the moment—while elevating our horizon.
Just like that old watch, nostalgia has its attraction—but all that remains are shadows of what was. In the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road—Only wakes upon the sea.” Look up, look out, look forward. Indeed, a new world is right in front of us—waiting for us to discover. That’s how we tell time.