Your Career Has Hit a Wall – Now What?

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on why tapping into your “right brain” skills is critical to advancing up the ladder.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

When you look at any organization, you will see a mosaic of specialties. There are the technical-minded: the numbers savant, the IT wizard, the R&D guru. Then there are the creative types: the rainmaker, the idea machine, the social media maven, or even the self-proclaimed Picasso of PowerPoints.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a need for people with deep expertise: like the highly-valued coder with noise-cancelling headphones who works all night amped up on energy drinks. But no matter how good these high-performing individual contributors are, they can still get siloed.

The brutal reality is what got you here won’t get you there. If you’re over-reliant on your technical skills, you’ll be left to wonder why (and when) your career hit a wall.

People miss this all the time. Here’s what happens. At the start of your career, your technical—or what I call “left-brain” skills—matter the most. It only makes sense—you need to be proficient in certain areas so you can get the job done.

Over time, though, these left-brain skills are only “table stakes.” To advance, you must also develop what I call “right-brain” skills. At the center of the right brain are crucial “people skills” that help you connect with and influence others.

Sound easy? It’s not. Most people don’t even think about their people skills.

The truth is if you’re not in your “right brain,” you’re going to be left behind.

The Right Brain Rules

The higher you rise, the more your right brain rules. Developing your right brain makes you a more rounded person, which will help you grow and stretch to new assignments and career opportunities. Here are five critical right-brain skills to develop:

  • Being “social” – it’s all about relationships. Developing social leadership skills will help you interact with and relate to a diverse group of people. This means being able to engage and influence others and build relationships. So, take out the earbuds, walk around, talk to people, and find out who they really are.
  • Inspiring others – becoming their best selves. Leaders inspire others by painting a compelling vision and conveying a message that makes people excited about the future. And a leader can be anyone at any level. Even if you’re a first-time manager of a small team you must be able to motivate people to become more than even they thought possible. How? Lead yourself first by becoming the best version of yourself.
  • Optimism – when the going gets tough. This has nothing to do with rose-colored glasses. Rather, optimism is all about being confident that there really is a way forward—especially in difficult circumstances. Whether you are part of a team or leading it, your optimism will help others dig in and do what’s necessary when it matters most. 
  • Courage – saying and doing what needs to be said and done. Everyone else may be tempted to keep quiet and avoid the heat, but you speak up. By being courageous, you help make it safe for others to say and do what needs to be said and done. When people have courage, the result is a culture in which people do the right thing.
  • Insatiable curiosity – seeing the new and different. You can’t stay in your comfort zone. Instead, you’re like a shark that must keep moving or else it dies. When you follow your curiosity, you become engaged with the world. That’s a sure sign that you’re learning agile—and it’s one of the most important traits anyone can possess. Learning agility is defined as the willingness and ability to apply lessons from past experiences to new and first-time challenges and situations. Or, as I like to say, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Your left-brain, technical skills will always be important, but don’t expect them to be more than a baseline. If you want to elevate and expand your career, you need to get out of your workspace, move away from your whiteboard, exit your Excel spreadsheet—and get into your right brain.