March 2, 2021 – Gary Burnison is the CEO of Los Angeles-headquartered Korn Ferry – the largest search firm globally and in the Americas as ranked by Hunt Scanlon Media. He recently reflected on a past family trip. “A few years ago, my family and I went stargazing in a remote location,” he said. “Without city lights to obscure our view, every tiny dot of brilliance shone crystal clear. As we looked through the telescope, we were awestruck by the countless stars and swirls of the Milky Way. In that moment, we felt connected to something bigger than ourselves.” Today, Mr. Burnison says we all need this same cosmic shift in perspective. “Angel Martinez, one of our board members, shared this analogy with me, just the other day,” he said. “When we look through the eyepiece of a telescope, what is distant suddenly zooms closer. But if we look through the wrong end of the telescope, things shrink away from us. We need to ask ourselves, as Mr. Martinez observed: ‘Which end of the telescope are we looking through?’”
That question is more important than ever. A survey of global professionals conducted by Korn Ferry told a shocking story: Sixty percent of respondents said stress, boredom and sadness best describe their mood. Obviously understandable, for sure. “We are connected, yet isolated—hopeful, yet numb,” Mr. Burnison said. “Maybe part of the problem is actually the lens we’re looking through. Ironically, it’s the glimmers of hope that make us impatient. With every piece of ‘good news’—cases declining, some people receiving the vaccine—we just want it to be over. It’s like when you’re on a long road trip and the last 50 miles drag endlessly.”
As paradoxical as it may sound, when nothing seems to be progressing, we actually can make the most progress, according to Mr. Burnison. “When everything appears unchanged externally, we experience tremendous growth internally,” he said. “When things seem so far away, they are much closer than they appear. When we clearly see just how far we’ve come, we appreciate more fully just how capable we’ve become. And it all happens in a moment.”
Mr. Burnison says he will never forget when he got a telephone call a few years ago. “It came out of nowhere—and yet it really wasn’t a surprise,” he said. “As soon as I heard my cousin’s voice, telling me my uncle wasn’t doing well, there was no mistaking her meaning. I was on my way to New York on business and immediately got on a connecting flight to Kansas to see my uncle one more time. When I arrived at the nursing home, I instantly saw just how frail he had become. He knew and I knew—but we let it be the unspoken truth. It was just my uncle and me in that small room. My uncle was one of the strongest people I knew, and there he was—smiling at me. The last thing I wanted to do was break down in front of him. And so, I didn’t think about the days ahead or what would come next. Embracing the moment was all that mattered.”
Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry. Under his leadership, the firm has been transformed to an organizational consulting firm with thousands of global colleagues. Mr. Burnison brings hands-on experience to his current position, having served as COO and CFO for Korn Ferry from 2003-2007. He joined Korn Ferry as CFO in 2002. Prior to that, Mr. Burnison was principal and CFO of Guidance Solutions, a privately held consulting firm developing and supporting technology solutions, from 1999 to 2001.
“We reminisced about old times,” said Mr. Burnison. “My uncle had worked at the local oil refinery and had remodeled my aunt’s house himself—everything from the framing to the plumbing. He had taught me how to fish. Even though my eyes misted as I gave him one last hug, I felt far more gratitude than sadness. As I left the nursing home and stepped out into that hot Kansas sun, I finally let my tears flow.”
Embrace This Moment
Today, despite sporadic ‘green shoots’ all around us, Mr. Burnison says that we still must embrace this moment before we can own the next. He offered some thoughts:
- Our existential moment.Over the past year, companies and even entire industries have transformed. It has happened on a personal level, too—and to all of us. Everyone has stories. “Who we are in March 2021 is not the same as who we were in March 2020,” said Bryan Ackermann, managing partner of Korn Ferry’s global leadership and professional development practice. “If we’re not self-aware, we can lose our perspective on just where we are. Are we still in the old world or in the new world? Do we have a foot in some weird hybrid of both?” Mr. Ackermann said. These questions can be a welcome opportunity to continually shift our focus to the bigger picture of what we value, how we find meaning, and who we want to become.”
- The neutral zone.Even as we look ahead with optimism, the reality is we’re not quite there yet. We’re in transition—moving through a neutral zone—from one place (physical, mental, emotional) to the next. “We’re like trapeze artists, flying through the air ungrounded,” said David Dotlich, a CEO and board advisor and a senior leader in Korn Ferry’s consulting business. “We can’t make the next trapeze appear automatically. We have to wait for it. And as it approaches, we have to let go of the old trapeze so we can reach for the new one.” Being ‘up in the air’ can feel uncomfortable. But in that instant, we develop the courage and creativity that will bring us closer to whatever comes next.”
- Making the most of our ‘now.’We have a choice of what we see: obstacles or opportunities. When Christina Gold, former CEO of Western Union and a member of several boards, including Korn Ferry’s, started out in her career, there were few opportunities for women. As she related to Mr. Burnison, her first job out of college was counting coupons for the local grocery store—at a time when a man with a college degree could easily land a supervisory position. Her break came when she was hired by Avon as an inventory clerk. Ms. Gold went on to a series of firsts in her career, but always made the most of the here and now—which led to the top spot at Western Union. “I never thought of what I faced as being obstacles,” Ms. Gold told Mr. Burnison. In other words, her attitude was her altitude.
“Look up, look out, look forward,” Mr. Burnison said. “The signs of hope that had once seemed as unreachable as the most distant star are suddenly within our grasp. Indeed, we can see the future—but only if we ground ourselves in this moment.”
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media