Korn Ferry’s chief executive, talks about leadership, search and his own career


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 has written two New York Times bestselling books and just released a third 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.”

To read the full feature in Search, The Global Executive Talent Quarterly from the AESC, click here.

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