"I Believe that Search Changes People's Lives"

It can be lonely at the top. Embodying what it means to truly be a leader – to have the energy to drive strategy, inspire colleagues and provide them with security and affirmation about the direction of the business – can be exhausting. Just last year Joseph Kennedy, CEO of Pandora, resigned from the position “to get to a recharging station”, and in 2011 the Lloyds Banking Group CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio took a period of leave due to exhaustion.

“When you become a CEO you stop being a person and are treated as a function,” explains Gary Burnison, chief executive of Korn Ferry.

Burnison is a scholar of leadership; he is a New York Times bestselling author and just released a third book on the topic, as well as leading Korn Ferry to achieve record revenue figures.

But it hasn’t always been this way. In his second book, The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, Burnison describes the role of a CEO as an “opportunity and burden”. During his transition from chief operating officer to chief executive officer in 2007, he struggled with the shift in how his peers perceived him. He went from being “one of the guys” to the realization that “I could not just talk about the mission; I had to exude a steadfast belief in it”.

“We’re in a fight for relevancy”

Burnison explains that his experience is not the exception, it’s the norm. The pressure on CEOs during the financial crisis inevitably ratcheted, but with the average tenure of a CEO being just five years, has this intensity lingered? “We live in a culture of instant gratification,” Burnison says. “We’re in a fight for growth and a fight for relevancy. Businesses aren’t going to benefit from conspicuous consumers. You have to drive growth through borderless consumption, consolidation or innovation.”

Burnison belongs to the contingent of economists, businessmen and observers who believe we have experienced an economic paradigm shift, entering a new era where growth is slow and change is fast. He says: “Your workforce needs to be very agile and, as a result, the number one factor of executive success is leadership agility. We’ve looked at the leadership styles of millions of professionals. CEOs do not make immediate decisions – they are more reflective, more complex and more creative. When you’re looking for a CEO, you are looking for people who wake up at 4.30am without an alarm clock with a sense of purpose.”

Burnison’s experience at Korn Ferry reflects his own aptitude for agile leadership. After a distinguished career – which includes working at an accounting firm, as an investment banker and as a technology consultant –  he joined Korn Ferry as chief financial officer in 2002, having previously invested as a shareholder. He describes receiving a call from an industry analyst shortly before assuming the position, notifying him that the search firm was on the brink of bankruptcy. Following a healthy IPO in 1999, Korn Ferry’s stock price rose from $14 to $43, but following the dot com crash, it fell to around $6.50.

The search firm endured a challenging five years, ultimately halving its workforce. But, following Burnison’s appointment as chief executive officer in 2007, Korn Ferry has become the largest search firm in the world. So what leadership lessons did he learn during this difficult time, and what has he found to work since 2007? “CEOs are typically in the business of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’,” he explains. “But I believe that more emphasis needs to be put on the business of ‘why?’ and on the business of people. 90% of strategy is execution and 90% of execution is people. The risk of leading is that you go up a hill, look back and realize that no-one is there behind you.” 

This article was originally published in the second issue of Search Magazine. now renamed Executive Talent Magazine.