The Long Goodbye

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on how, in this time of great transformation, it’s time to put the past behind us.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

The lanes snaked through loop after loop, marked by orange pylons—as if waiting for a crowd. Yet not a car could be seen.

Over the past year or so, we’ve all seen Covid testing sites with countless cars in a bumper-to-bumper chain to get in. But not here. When I drove by this place just a few days ago, it was barren.

This dry and dusty empty lot struck me, paradoxically perhaps, as a green shoot—a sign that we’re starting to move beyond what we’ve all wanted to be over and done with. We are, indeed, in the midst of the long good-bye.

The irony, though, is that it can be difficult to put the past behind us—especially if we cling too long to what once was. Because what was … never will be again.

For me, it was that string of old cars I owned because I didn’t have the means to drive anything else. An AMC Gremlin, an Oldsmobile boat, a sputtering Datsun 280Z, and a red Pinto with a white pinstripe à la Starsky and Hutch (think Nike swoosh painted on the side of my car). The list was long and undistinguished—more rust than paint in spots, and not one with less than 100,000 miles on the odometer.

But none of them spoke to my soul like that old Mercury Cougar. I hung onto that car for far too long—through alternators, fuel pumps, brake rotors, timing belts … not to mention the sagging muffler I hitched up with some wire coat hangers. You name it, I found a fix or a friend or a favor I could call in to keep that car going.

Then one fateful day on the freeway, on my way to an appointment, smoke started pouring out of the engine. When I pulled onto the shoulder and lifted the hood, a lava flow of yellow spongy stuff oozed out. No more patchwork. The Mercury had run out of mercy after our many miles together. There was no way it could take me where I needed to go.

As I walked away from that car on the side of the highway, I finally said good-bye.

In the same way today, we can’t get saddled with vestiges of the past—any more than we get bogged down with what persists, permeating the present. There’s no going back. Instead, we take the best—and kick the rest … to the curb.

Think about times of great transformation and inflection points over the past 20 years. The financial crisis, the great recession, periods of growth, followed by steep contractions. The experiences and lessons learned should never go away—they keep accumulating. We build on top of them, layer upon layer, as they inform and influence where we focus.

If put through this prism of positivity—of looking for what will best serve us in a new world—the long good-bye will lead to a long-awaited hello. Here are some thoughts:

· Why not? It’s been a long haul—we’re in the fourth calendar year of Covid—and it can often feel as if this is never going to end. The reminders are all around us—and it’s so easy to get too comfortable with what has been uncomfortable. This is no time for acceptance. But here’s what can happen. When things are rolling along, it’s as if the music keeps blaring. It’s so loud, it’s hard to tell who is out of tune, who is in sync with the beat, and who is only lip-syncing. The problem, though, is that the music becomes mesmerizing—and we could end up sleepwalking. We need to wake up to our reality. If two years ago, someone had described the metaverse, would we have believed it? Would we have embraced it? How about hiring people we’ve never met in person? Working anywhere—from a kitchen table to a cabin in the woods? Leaving your workplace in March 2020—never to return again, while maybe being more efficient in your job. Sound plausible? I can remember in the old world flying overnight to Germany, going directly to a meeting, and immediately flying home again. Now, I can accomplish the same thing with an hour of Zoom—and that’s here to stay. All this and more is our norm. Instead of asking why, we’re empowered to ask why not. If we want to find a reason to be hopeful about the future, this is it! It’s a reason to believe. And that, in essence, is what leadership is all about: inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become tomorrow’s reality.

· Human doings—or human beings?  “People are our greatest asset.” While well-intentioned, this overused phrase sometimes became cliché. But now, in the Covid era, this belief is becoming indoctrinated into the way of the workscape. As Anthony Goodman, who heads our firm’s North American Board Effectiveness Practice, told me this week, “People have shot up to the top of the agenda, even for boards of directors. They’re asking themselves, what happens if we don’t have our people? What if they leave? What if we can’t find the talent we need? This concern is now extending to all levels of organizations—and even cascading into their ecosystems. Companies are finally thinking more broadly these days about people—and as human beings.” Radically human leaders understand that the very fabric of their organizations is not woven by “human doings”—they are human beings, each with “a story behind the story” and a deep-seated need to belong, to be part of something bigger than themselves. They also understand that, while tenure may no longer be 10 years or 15 years, even the few years people spend are an investment worth making. And that’s a lesson we can’t leave behind.

· Take the best, leave the rest.  Of all the changes we’ve witnessed over the past few years, one of the most dramatic has been the workscape. It’s no longer all about the physical—the bricks and mortar we used to associate with work. We’re abandoning that old-world concept—just like that empty lot along the road. It’s a new world, and it’s all about the relational—the experience of how we work and how we make others feel. As Tarun Inuganti, who leads our North American technology markets and CIO/CTO practice globally, told me this week, “Over the past few years, everything we’ve experienced has been turned on its head. For the younger generation, working virtually is all they know. Now, we all need to think about how we inspire, create, and, most importantly, connect.” The answer can be found, once again, in what we’ve learned: the power of transforming self-interest into shared interest; uniting not dividing; coaching and mentoring not only evaluating; and sponsoring not simply supporting.

Look around. While we may not yet be where we want to be, we certainly aren’t where we were. And that’s the most hopeful sign of all. Only by appreciating just how far we’ve come can we truly aspire to all that we might become. Indeed, that’s a long good-bye worth waiting for.