Who Are We?

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why we all have a responsibility to be inclusive.

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

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a top-ranked tennis player, whose father is Congolese and mother is French, gave a tearful retirement speech at the French Open just a few weeks ago—reflecting on how he has often been labeled and perceived.

“One day Swiss, one day French. One day White, one day Black. One day a fraud, another a national hero. One day young, one day old.”

Hearing these remarks, while I was in France, captured for me the emotional journey of the past two years at home. My thoughts immediately went back to the US and the essential questions of this time. Who are we? How have we changed? Who do we want to become?

Sunday was Juneteenth, a national holiday in the US (observed on Monday), that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people—a time for soul-searching and self-reflection. Yes, we’ve made progress, but so much more needs to be done—and that takes leadership.

In life, it’s never about the leader, but it does start with leadership. Leaders everywhere—whether in communities or the workplace—are trying to be more empathetic and worthy of others’ trust. It’s a role that requires us to know—and show—who we are as people.

People are striving to lead with their hearts and, more importantly, seeking to understand. In fact, as I’m hearing from colleagues and organizations around the globe, it’s clear we’ve had more personal, emotional, and revealing conversations in the past two years than we’ve had in a lifetime.

This kind of open and empathetic communication used to happen only among family and friends—those who are closest to us. Now, these messages are being shared more broadly with the sentiment: This is how I got here. This is what I aspire to be. This is who I really am.

Each of us embodies our own story—our experiences, our differences, and how those influences impact who we are.

JT Saunders, our firm’s Chief Diversity Officer, shared with me an experience he and his wife had when a bank asked to clarify some information. A man with the exact same name, whose birthday was two weeks after JT’s, had several criminal charges associated with him and was incarcerated at the time. Two people, one name, a mistaken identity—and two very different paths.

This became a moment of deep self-reflection on his own life in sharp contrast with this man’s experience. “He went one way, and I went the other. Why was that?” JT told me.

After pondering that question and how he became the person he is today, JT realized that, yes, he’d made “good choices.” But the bigger point, he explained, was that he had been given good options by his parents—the leaders in his life and in his home who made all the difference. “The reality is, not everyone has that support,” JT said.

It is a reminder of how we should seek to understand those who may feel pushed aside and forgotten. When we have good options, we are better able to make good decisions. Fortunately, there are leaders in communities and organizations that are providing this support—often in unexpected ways and unexpected places. It’s all about ensuring that people are included—not excluded—from society.

Tom Vozzo is a friend of mine—and the first-ever CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. It provides training and support to some of the most marginalized members of society.

When he first took on the job 10 years ago, Tom told me, he had “all the hubris of a typical corporate leader”—believing that those who worked hard got ahead. His first encounter changed all that. Tom’s voice broke as he described how an ex-felon asked permission to take off a few days so he could “report in.” That meant voluntarily spending three days in jail to reduce his debt from justice system court costs.

The conversation changed Tom—how he saw himself and what it meant to lead others. Now, he sees the importance of providing an environment in which people can find their own self-worth—where achievements are “a byproduct of thriving.”

To appreciate who people are takes empathy and understanding. But here’s the sobering truth: all of us have biases, many of them unconscious. Identifying our biases may be uncomfortable at times, but our efforts must be sustained.

Diversity is a fact. Differences make each person unique.

Inclusion is a behavior. We need to go beyond diversity alone to become consciously inclusive—where curiosity about differences is encouraged and inclusion is a mutual responsibility.

This is how we can tap the richness of collective genius that comes from a mosaic of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. More than that, it also opens our minds—and our hearts. We see that everyone, truly, should be included.

Challenging? Yes.

Emotional? Very.

We are all works in progress. Some of us are striving, some are closer to arriving. It’s a journey—from who we are, to who we want to be.