When Your Career Lands in a Divot

How to overcome traps and hazards, whether they're on the links or in the workplace, according to Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

Winning at anything—from golf to your career—isn’t just about making all great shots. Success comes from knowing how to make the most of the terrible ones. 

I saw this in action at a recent Korn Ferry Tour event, where I watched the pros warming up. Players were honing their short games by putting from every possible distance, speed, and angle. It wasn’t enough for one golfer to practice hitting out of a sand trap; he made the lies even worse by stepping on the ball to bury it deeper in the sand.

What applies in the game of golf can also advance your career. The parallels in attitude, skills, and lessons learned are numerous. For one, the more you practice how to handle what could go wrong, the better prepared you’ll be for the unexpected. Like that picture-perfect drive down the fairway that lands your ball in a divot. Or when you walk into work one day to discover your company is being acquired or your boss was fired—or both!

You’ll build an arsenal of skills and experiences that you can adapt and deploy to respond to and even take advantage of whatever comes your way. Here are a few “tips” for winning despite the traps and hazards, whether on the links or in the workplace:

Don’t curse that water hazard—it’s a learning moment. It’s a fact of life: not everything will go your way. On the golf course, you land in the water not once but twice—and sometimes on the same hole. In your career, you bomb a big client presentation—not just a small flub, but bad enough that your boss has to step in and take over. What happens next determines everything. You can gripe and complain, finding excuses to blame everyone and anything. Or you can own your mistakes and learn from them. In other words, you fail fast and learn faster. With this attitude, you find learning experiences everywhere. 

One of the keys to success is learning agility. It’s so important, our firm considers it to be the number one predictor of success. When you’re learning agile, you can apply past experiences to first-time challenges—or, as I like to say it, you know what to do when you don’t know what to do. You purposefully build muscle memory to help you face the unexpected, whether getting out of the bunker on the course—or dealing with your difficult boss, that coworker who is intent on undermining you, or the customer/client who is notoriously hard to please. By gaining experience in handling pressure and making tough decisions when things are unclear, you’ll figure out what to do—and learn in the process.

Prepare for the inevitable. Human nature being what it is, most of us want to assume all blue skies. But you must anticipate what could be around the corner, which means you prepare for the inevitable problems. It’s not a matter of if, but when something will go wrong. Like that golfer I saw practicing bad lies in the sand trap. During the tournament, when he hit a ball into a trap right up against the lip, he walked up to it with the confidence of having done this a million times—which he had, in practice.

To advance in your career, you mentally prepare for whatever scenario you can foresee. This enables you to change your mindset from “this is how it’s always been done” to “this is what we can do now.” You become a change-agent, in your own career and within your organization. You’ll gain a reputation for being clear-eyed, level-headed, and well-prepared, and make yourself even more indispensable.

Respond in the moment. No matter how well you anticipate, the unexpected will happen. The wind shifts (literally or figuratively) and suddenly the game changes. You need to respond in the moment by navigating in real time. 

In golf, this is getting out of the rough, onto the green, and as close to the hole in as few shots as possible. You may triple bogey the hole, but the faster you can shake it off, the more likely you’ll play even better on the next hole. As they say, you need to have a short memory—it’s all about the next shot.

In your career, you learn from the past, but you’re not held hostage by it—neither successes nor failures. By seeing reality for what it is, you can chart a way through any challenges or crisis, and quickly gain traction on the other side. Along the way, you’ll make more impact in your organization and position yourself to advance.