When Will We Get There?

Regardless of the broader economy, it’s a leader’s job to point out what’s right in what’s wrong, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

It’s the question we’re hearing everywhere.

Just the other day, one of my daughters, who’s in her first job out of college, asked me, “When’s the economy going to get better?” And there it was—the dreaded “R” word again.

I responded to her question—by asking another question: “Do you remember that trip?”

She looked at me, puzzled. “Which one?”

“You know the one.”

“Oh—that one,” she replied, smiling.

It was several years ago. Hoping to recreate the camping trips of my youth, I rented an RV for a tour of the western United States—two parents and five kids.

Ten minutes out of the driveway, the kids started asking, “When will we get there?”

That excitement lasted about as far as the breathtaking Lake Powell, on the border of Utah and Arizona. Then disaster struck.

First, we had an infestation of bugs in our RV—followed by a “bug” of another variety that swept through the family. There wasn’t enough Imodium and Pepto-Bismol to keep us afloat. To make matters worse, the septic tank filled, and it was about 112 degrees outside.

We had enough and headed home via Las Vegas—rumbling up to the front door of a hotel for a decent night’s sleep. The next morning, as we were about to depart, we discovered the RV had two flat tires—and it took all day to fix them.

Finally, feeling as if we had stumbled into a remake of National Lampoon’s Vacation, we departed. We couldn’t wait to get back home.

As disastrous as that trip was at the time, we all look back on it with surprising fondness. And that’s a reminder for all of us.

We have a choice. Instead of looking at what’s wrong in what’s right, we can look for what’s right in what’s wrong.

Ironically, this brings us back to the question about the economy. Up cycle or down cycle, headwind or tailwind, soft landing or turbulence…Whatever aviation jargon you want to use—it’s all about the journey.

I was reminded of this in a conversation this week with Angel Martinez, a member of our firm’s board of directors who has a passion for art. As he explained, “All great art, all great artists see the light—not just the color. The light is the process. Without light there is no color—and without process there is no outcome.”

In other words, what matters most is appreciating the process—and not just the outcome. After all, the process is the only thing we can control—to give ourselves a better outcome, whatever the circumstances. It’s a context that can be liberating!

And that’s the role of the leader. To not only see the light, but also beam the light for others.

Because here’s what we know to be true—the economy does go in cycles. It’s the immutable outcome.

Beyond that, it’s all our attitude and approach. So, come what may, we will find our way—just as we’ve done before. Here’s how:

Stop looking at the clock. Forget about how long it will be until we reach a certain outcome. It’s time to find joy in the process. How? By setting small, incremental goals—weekly, even daily. Then, we can celebrate each step along the way.

Get comfortable… with being uncomfortable. Yes, we might want things to be different—but ambiguity still abounds. In coaching senior executives, our advice in handling ambiguity is always to contextualize—like hitting “Google Earth” to zoom as far back as possible. By taking ourselves out of the frame, we focus on the broadest view. That’s when we see that we’re not the only ones on the journey. If others can do this, so can we.

Perfection is the enemy of progress. It’s tempting to pursue perfection as if it were a virtue. After all, who doesn’t want things to be 100%? But perfection and ambiguity don’t go together like peanut butter and jelly. There’s no time to wait for all the information, or even most of it, to make a decision or take action.

It’s far better to have a strategy that is 75% perfect but 100% executable, than a strategy that is 100% perfect but only 75% executable. The secret is in practicing being imperfect.

No matter the outcome, what matters most is the journey—the process. Whatever, wherever, and whenever—that remains ambiguous. But in truth, ambiguity is simply reality revealed. Indeed, we will get there.