What Time Is It?

You can still own the moment, even in these tough times, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

I used to look at my phone to find out the time—now, I need it to tell me the day of the week. When someone mentioned that this is Memorial Day Weekend, I was shocked: “It has to be weeks from now.”

Yet here we are. In the U.S., Memorial Day honors the military personnel who have died in service. As the unofficial start of summer—beach, barbecues, and the Indy 500—it used to be a time of fun and relaxation. But it sure doesn’t feel like it!

That may lead us to ask the deeper question of “why”—as in, why did all this happen?

As a parent, I don’t know how many times, after something didn’t quite work out, I’ve said, “Everything happens for a reason”—just as my grandmother used to say to me. These are supposed to be words of comfort, but to be honest, I don’t find any comfort in them right now. I think we need to stop looking for the reason—and instead truly own the meaning.

While that’s personal to each of us, some of the meaning may be found in the season. In Kansas where I grew up, and in agrarian communities everywhere, this is prime time to plant. There’s no checking out, putting the shovels down for the next few months, and then “see you in September.” The upcoming long, hot days of summer can’t be wasted.

A friend told me a story the other day about her grandfather, Giuseppe, who emigrated from Sicily to the U.S. around 1910 and became a sharecropper.

Slowly, he saved enough money to buy one acre at a time until finally he had a farm of his own. Then came the Great Depression and three years of bad crops. With no cash and the farm deep in debt, Giuseppe tried to buy lettuce and onion seeds on credit. The farm supply store owner refused, then threw an old box of carrot seeds at him and told him to leave.

And so, Giuseppe planted the only thing he had, along with a lot of hope. It turned out to be a bumper crop—a miraculous harvest, as captured in this photo of one of Giuseppe’s six sons. By owning the moment, Giuseppe saved the farm and left a legacy for future generations.

So, we need to ask ourselves, what are we planting now?

Today, different work needs to get done—and work needs to get done differently. Here are some thoughts:

  • It’s not a year—it’s four quarters. 2020 cannot be viewed as one year. Amid so much change, uncertainty, and ambiguity, it’s simply too hard to wrap our brains around 12 months of a year that’s unlike any other we’ve experienced. Rather, this year needs to be approached as a series of quarters—each as distinct as the seasons—making it four years in one. With this shift in thinking, we start each quarter with its own set of resolutions as if it were New Year’s. At Korn Ferry, we just began a new fiscal year. Candidly, we’ve thrown the old annual plan out the window and have broken this year down into 3-month increments as we reimagine how we engage with customers and deliver our IP and services.
  • Don’t let isolation become insulation. If you don’t know what day it is, it’s Blursday—when Monday feels like Friday that feels like Wednesday. It’s like being in a Las Vegas casino where there are no clocks on the walls and no windows, and you can’t tell day from night. A couple of colleagues laughed with me this week that the only way they can tell how long the day has been is by counting the number of times they charged their phones. Joking aside, though, people are feeling isolated—but we can’t let them become insulated. They have to be seen—and for that to happen, they must know others are watching. In a conversation we had about leadership, Daniel Lamarre, CEO of Cirque du Soleil, described the artists who perform at a very high level because thousands of people are watching them. “My ultimate goal,” he said, “is that other people, even if they are all by themselves in an office, will think and act as if there were people watching what they are doing.” The irony is he told that story years ago. At the time I thought it was profound. Now it is precisely the challenge we’re facing. It starts with the leader being present. Practice presence and watch how others react to truly being seen.
  • Let it go. My daughter, Emily, who is a college sophomore, came to me a few days ago completely stressed out. She had just received an email wanting her to commit to housing and she didn’t know what to do since it’s not even clear how classes are going to be held in the fall. Instead of stepping in to try to solve it for her, I gave my daughter some advice: “You can’t control any of this. You have to take it as it comes.” It’s challenging to let go of the need to control the outcome or “save” someone else. But when others are told what to do and how to do it, it’s incredibly disempowering. Rather, it’s the leader’s job to set expectations, then leave it up to each person to decide on how to go about it. Yes, they may struggle a bit, but we can’t rush in to fix things. Sometimes you have to let go, but that doesn’t mean giving in—or losing the fight.
  • Make sure everyone gets an “A.” Ken Blanchard, the leadership guru with whom I’ve had great discussions, often tells a story about his early days as a college professor. His habit was to give his students the answers to the final exam on the first day of class. Because of this approach, Ken often found himself in trouble with other faculty members. But he defended his decision by explaining his main job was to teach students the content they needed to learn—not to evaluate them along some distribution curve. It’s a concept Ken calls “Helping People Get an A.” There’s no “grading curve” in this pandemic. To get out of the time warp that feels like it has no beginning or end, everyone has to perform—with the same purpose, at the same time. This is the purpose of leadership: to make others successful. It creates a ripple effect of positive change that may not fit neatly into some outdated annual plan. But this change is exactly what’s needed to achieve goals in surprising and tangible ways.

 So, what time is it? You decide – but own the moment.