Be the 'Flying Fish' at Work

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights three ways to rise above the masses at work.

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

Years ago, I went salmon fishing. It was a magnificent fall day—towering trees with burgundy, yellow, and orange leaves that shimmered against a blue sky. Wearing heavy waders, we stood thigh-high in the river, casting into the current.

The salmon run was so plentiful, the fish literally bumped into us as they moved in one mass, following an instinctive urge to swim upstream. Then suddenly, one fish broke above the surface. Strong and nimble, it made a perfect arc in the air—a “flying fish” out of its element. The sun caught the scales on its back, turning them shiny and iridescent.

I stood there watching in amazement, caught up in the beauty of this outlier. Something innate in this one fish—an individual among a streaming mass—made it rise above the rest.

That image has stayed with me: a reminder of the dangerous temptation to float along “in the stream” with everyone else. Surrounded by so many others who are content to stay where they are, people can easily fall into the trap of doing what’s enough, but not too much. They stay in the stream with everyone else—playing it safe, never going beyond what’s expected.

This mass is composed of the 80% who accomplish the 20%. They are content to go with the flow and, as a result, get hooked by disengagement and entangled in nets of complacency.

These are not merely clever metaphors to contemplate. Rather, this story goes to the heart and soul of what you must do to have an outstanding career. You need to be committed to continuous self-improvement, with agility and adaptability.

You, too, need to rise above the rest. Here’s how:

Increase your relevancy. In this ever-changing world, the one thing we can be sure about is that tomorrow won’t look like today. Globalization, digitization, automation—these forces of progress that are visible today are likely to become tides of significant change in the decades to come. Ask yourself: Amid all this change, how can you be more relevant? When is the last time you felt truly challenged by your job? When did you learn something new? If you can’t answer these questions with precise answers, you need to consider just how relevant you are—and what you can do to change that.

Exceed your potential. This one sometimes takes a moment to process. How can people (and organizations) exceed their potential? The answer is with opportunities to stretch, expand, and grow, becoming more than they thought they could be. Be insatiably curious and engaged in the world. Never assume that you’re a know-it-all, which leads to a closed mind. You want to be a learn-it-all, with an open mind and a willingness to learn lessons everywhere.

Be the bright spot in the mosaic. Companies everywhere need to attract, develop, and align people who represent a mosaic of talents and abilities— diverse by every definition. Inclusive organizations embrace the multiplicity of differences as a competitive edge for understanding and serving global customers. You want to be part of that mosaic, the beauty of which is in the mix and blend. At the same time, you want to stand out by being engaged in what you do. You’re willing to be an outlier, to be among the 20 percent who accomplish the 80 percent. You bring out the best of yourself and others.

The choice is yours. You can go with the crowd in the stream: head down, drawn along by the current, the path of least resistance. Or, you can tap into your drive—your hunger—and rise above the rest.