When Our Lights Go On

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains how self-reflection can overcome a tendency to ignore problems.  

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

”Every week I say I will do what I am about to do, and every week I fail and forget.”

These refreshingly candid words, shared with me by an executive this week, stopped me in my tracks.

We all have those things we put off. Making that doctor’s appointment. Fixing that one pesky thing at home. And my most recent personal nemesis, doing the taxes (which I’ve told myself I would do every week for the past three months). We tell ourselves we can deal with it all later.

But there is far more to this problem than a little procrastination. Over the past year, I’ve had countless conversations with people who are overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done. We are lost in a fog and sometimes lose sight of purpose or priorities—let alone how to manage our way through it all.

Inevitably, we fail and forget.

Many years ago, I was driving a real clunker. Every time I put the key in the ignition, I crossed my fingers. The engine smelled like burning rubber, and I left a trail of oil everywhere I went. From the rust on the roof to the bald tires, that car was an eyesore and probably a safety hazard, but it was all I had.

The truth was I didn’t have the money to fix it—so I chose to “forget.” When random lights flashed on the dashboard—change oil, check engine, and who knows what—I ignored them all and hoped for the best.

I was bound for disaster—and one night it happened. Just before midnight, as I pulled into a gas station, smoke started pouring out from under the hood. Then I saw the flames. My car was on fire at the gas pump. Could anyplace be more lethal for a car to spontaneously combust?

Luckily, the fire department showed up. The last time I saw that car, it was covered in foam. To this day, I remember these words from one of the firemen: “How on earth did this happen?”

Indeed, how does this happen for any of us? Instead of blocking out the flashing red lights, we need them to become our illumination.

Of course, we have to remember to continually show appreciation and say thank you. This is a priority we can never overlook. But there’s more to it.

When we fail and forget, it’s an underlying symptom of an opportunity that must be identified and seized upon. We will never improve a team or an organization unless we improve ourselves. The starting point: it’s “mirror, mirror on the wall” time, and we all need to see the unvarnished truth.

Self-awareness is everything. Without it, we’ll never learn, grow, or improve. We’ll ignore our blind spots, overestimate our strengths, and gloss over our weaknesses.

Accountability is a surprisingly effective secret weapon. Our firm’s research reveals five key factors for achieving superior performance in organizations. Three are intuitive: purpose, leadership, and strategy. The other two probably don’t come to mind automatically: accountability and capability—but together, they contribute about 50 percent of organizational performance. For individuals, self-awareness and accountability go hand-in-hand.

If we keep ignoring those red lights, we’ll keep failing and forgetting—until one day we hit a brick wall. Fortunately, there’s help—and hope. We can find our way forward through regular checkups and check-ins—a combination of self-reflection and feedback we seek from others. Here are some thoughts:

·  When the switch flips. Linda Hyman, our firm’s executive vice president, global human resources, shared with me just the other day a powerful example of when self-awareness meets purpose—the lights go on and transformation happens. Linda was asked to participate as one of a team of coaches in our firm's CEO & Executive Development Institute—a solution we offer to clients to prepare C-suite leaders for the unparalleled pressures of the job, when even the simplest things become staggeringly complex. Linda told me that as one client executive went through the purpose-building part of the program she seemed “pretty cynical” and said it “just didn't resonate.” Then, during a final session with this executive, a switch flipped. “True transformation occurred—and I don't say that lightly,” Linda said. “It crystalized everything for her. Suddenly, her demeanor, energy, and enthusiasm became palpable. It was truly inspiring.” As she left the program, the executive said: “I worked through the issues that I've been ignoring. Now, I finally got to something I believe in that resonates with my life and experience.”

·  Breaking the bottleneck. No decision is still a decision—and that can be a real problem. One of the biggest bottlenecks—triggering a domino effect of failing and forgetting—is not making decisions. Jamen Graves, the co-leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Development practice, shared a story with me this week about an executive at a large firm who had “hundreds of people waiting for decisions.” Dozens of backlogged decisions stymied dozens of teams. The root of the problem was trying to make all the decisions himself. That’s how things really get bogged down. The solution? Empower others in the moment. “It’s about distributing the risk—and the responsibility,” Jamen said. “Leaders need to be more planful around what decisions can and should be made by others.”

·  Keeping our score. Every day, we face the urgent and the important. The urgent should be delegated ASAP to the right people with the right resources. The important, though, tends to be more strategic and longer term. The challenge is distinguishing between the two—so we don’t get so entrenched in putting out fires that we lose track of the important. RJ Heckman, a Vice Chairman in our firm’s Consulting business, told me this week about a CEO he coached who had a unique solution. Every Sunday night, this CEO reflected on the most strategic things he had to do that week, personal and professional, and assigned points for getting each task done—from his son’s baseball game to a board presentation. He carried this scorecard everywhere. As RJ explained, “Each week, he tallied up the points of all that got done—by him or through others—to see how well he had lived his values and how he created value.” What doesn’t get measured will never get done.

·  Listening to that voice. Making a list of priorities is easy— to do, not do, decide, delegate. That’s table stakes. But what about those things we willfully and intentionally put aside because they take too much time and effort? We need to ask ourselves questions—probing what we intuitively know we should be doing, but far too often fail and forget. What situations have I have avoided that could I have handled differently—in my words and my actions? Do I keep putting off doing that one thing my colleagues need for support, advice, and feedback? Am I quick to critique, but not willing to construct? Do I spend the time to make sure someone feels better after an interaction with me versus how they felt before—and do I really care? Do I just assume people know I appreciate them, or do I actually take the time to say, “Thank you, I appreciate you”? The answers will be different for all of us—whether whispering the name of a colleague, shouting out what we’re ignoring, or speaking the truth that no one else will tell us.

The accountability you want to see in others starts with you and with each of us—more self-aware, more accountable—but it’s not about us. We won’t be perfect. Indeed, there will be times when we will do what we are about to do, only to fail and forget. But not this week….