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“It was a sea of butterflies”

I have taken this time to observe leaders in various industries, especially how they are communicating with others. Some, like the scientists I heard from recently at #efpvirtual in Philadelphia are channeling their energy into innovation—with heart — showing beautiful flashes of humanity in a dark period for the world.  One of my competitors has written such touching communiques to his community, I wanted to share a recent one with you.  The note below was sent by Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry.  – Be well all, Catherine


Hello,

I had a different message for today—all written and edited. Then I ripped it up.

Our company, like so very many others, has had to make excruciating choices. Good people, talented people all over the world are being let go because of the times in which we find ourselves.

It grieves me.

Mountain meadow with butterflies.

This is the seventh time in my career that I’ve had to make these types of gut-wrenching decisions. It never gets any easier. In fact, it gets harder every time. Why? Because over time, you become increasingly sensitive to the burden you are placing on others. This burden, and many others, are being placed on people all over the world.

As horrible as the burden is, however, it may be good to feel that pain. It reminds us of our shared humanity.

It’s one thing to intellectualize this—talk about numbers and cost reductions or to use more abstract terms like head count, synergies, and right-sizing. But these aren’t numbers, they’re people.

Not to contradict The Godfather, but it isn’t “strictly business.” It’s also highly personal—impacting people’s lives.

At 11:30 one night, several weeks ago, I was anticipating what was going to happen. I went over the projections yet again, trying to see if there was any other way—any other lever I could pull other than that one. I didn’t see numbers that night. I saw faces. I thought of our values.

I picked up the scrapbook from our firm’s 50th anniversary last year. I saw smiles and laughter and celebrations of success. I thought of the stories that people have shared with me from their personal lives. Some have struggled with serious illnesses—and a few more than once. I’ve congratulated them on the births of children, and I’ve given them condolences on the losses of loved ones—and even a few eulogies.

Then my thoughts turned to a dear friend and one of our leaders, Bob McNabb, who fought a long fight bravely against terminal cancer and passed away in 2013. During his illness, Bob and I had hundreds of conversations—the last one while I was driving my car to a university where I was giving a commencement speech.

Bob’s number popped up on the dashboard screen—it was Debi, Bob’s wife, calling to say Bob wanted to talk with me.

He struggled to breathe. I could hear the hospital machines in the background. Then came his usual greeting, “How are you doing, my friend?”

We only talked for a short while, but his entire focus—remarkably, but characteristically—was on me, not him. Then he told me, “You give ’em hell,” with a faint laugh. He signed off as he did at the end of every conversation with almost everyone: “Love you, babe.”

And I said, “I love you, Bob.” Then the phone clicked, followed by eerie silence, and I just knew. A short while later, Bob, my beloved friend, passed away.

Business decisions cannot compare to human life. But there are losses today. Fortunately, these are losses we can and will recover from.

At the end of the day, a leader is the steward of the many—not the few. Leaders are forced to make decisions that severely impact the few in order to preserve the many.

It’s a Sophie’s Choice—but not making the decision is not an option. No decision is still a decision, and one we can’t afford in these times.

Self-Interest to Shared Interest to Selflessness

A few weeks ago, I thought this pandemic would lead to anger, but when I look around, what I see are grace and dignity—and far more than I ever would have expected. In tough times, you find out who people really are. You see stunning examples of how self-interest truly does give way to shared interest—all the way to selflessness.

I heard a story this week about a young employee who had assumed it was likely he would lose his job if there were layoffs. On his own, without telling his manager, he prepared a booklet to explain how someone else could take over his job. He was so proud of the firm and the work being done in his department, he wanted to make sure someone else didn’t have to start from scratch. This week, as he was given notice, he handed over the booklet with selfless pride.

I could tell others what this feels like. I’ve walked in these shoes. I’ve been unemployed in the past. But no one wants to hear those stories right now.

What I do know is that out of devastation comes hope and rebirth. I saw that first-hand a couple of years ago during the wildfires that destroyed millions of acres in California and countless homes and cost many lives.

The wildfire was perilously close to where I live, impacting thousands of people. Very late one night, with the air thick with smoke and the flames visible in the hills nearby, I tied a bandana over my face and went outside to hose down our house. It was such a stupid, futile thing to do, but I couldn’t just sit there and wait. I had to pretend I was in control.

At around midnight, my wife yelled to me, “We’re out of here!” She preceded the fire department’s evacuation by seconds. In minutes, we left, taking with us only photographs of our kids when they were younger—memories that can never be replaced. I thought many times about that night—about what ultimately matters most and how fast humanity can turn the page.

It was a moment of pure powerlessness against a wave of devastation that had come out of nowhere and mushroomed into a life-threatening risk. It is the same feeling I have during the pandemic—although, obviously, on a different scale.

But this is not the end of the story.

Heavy rains followed the fires. Slowly, life returned. Nature, ever resilient, greened the canyons and flowers began to bloom where, not long before, there had been only charred earth.

Then one day, as I drove to the beach, millions of butterflies filled the air. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at first—it didn’t seem real. I slowed the car and watched as they sailed over the windshield, never striking it.

It was a sea of butterflies, the ultimate symbol of metamorphosis.

Now, as then, the devastation will pass. Slowly, with a heavy heart, newfound humility, and grace and dignity, we will turn this page—not to be forgotten, but to be remembered.

Regards,

Gary Burnison
Korn Ferry CEO

Mentors, Coaches, Friends & Lessons from an Iron-Lady in Texas

I once had a boss that used football analogies in almost every business meeting. Not being a sports fan, I would surreptitiously Google the analogies to understand their meaning. He often spoke of his days playing college football and the lessons he learned from his coaches that were applied to his very successful company. I was proud to be on his team and proud that there were other women in his circle. What was at the foundation of this CEO’s success was the influence of his coaches and mentors. He shared what he was taught through his cadre of teachers and carried on their winning philosophy through others.

Muscular mentorship, tough coaching and the wisdom of team sports is most often associated with men. From the iron-age days of Homer’s Odyssey, on the shores of Ithaca, we remember the story of the ancient warrior and his heroic past. A fearless mariner who slay mythical monsters far away from his beloved home, wife and new-born son. Telemachus, his new-born son whom he left behind to the care of his trusted and oldest friend, Mentor.

This blog offers a tribute to a lady that was an anti-typical, modern-day mentor to many professional women across industries and countries.

To thrive in a man’s world in the whiskey drinking days of 1970’s Texas was no small feat for either men or women. Add to that picture the damp heavy heat of Houston, a sticky bayou swamp with mega sized midges that produced red welts wherever they bit. We all wondered how it was possible for one to be known as a woman of style and elegance in such an environment.

Many of us in the professional world learned most of what we know about how to win, to achieve lifelong client loyalty, to thrive in business, from this elegant woman. A New York Jew who, with her husband, migrated to Houston in the 70’s to build a new market, almost by herself. Arriving in the Bayou City at a time when Texas was barely emerging from the dismal clouds of the racial caste system known as Jim Crow, she understood that intolerance was not limited to the color of one’s skin, thus she anglicized her Semitic surname.

I was one of those fortunate enough to be hired by her decades ago. She became a lifelong mentor and friend to many of us in the commercial world, imparting what she taught to others long after they had left her professional circle.

The business she built in Texas was so successful and profitable, now 20 years into the twenty-first century, the market has still not recovered its decline since her departure over 25 years ago.

There is a profound lesson in this woman’s story. That of a devotion to others that surpassed any iteration of service satisfaction models or loyalty scores with happy or sad-faced digital doodles. The customers she brought into her company’s fold remained friends with her decades after she left the business world in retirement. Those that approved her departure never grasped the depth of her relationships.

Friendship within the context of business may appear as mere whimsical sentiment or irrelevant to those of the investor class, where the stereotypical returns in pounds of flesh are demanded by hardened hearts. These soft touches of Our Iron Lady of Texas found their way into balance sheets gilded with gold and the black ink of profits that her company’s shareholders ultimately enjoyed.

Her legacy lives through us, her friends — former customers and employees.

For her, these words hold true: “At the shrine of friendship, never say die … Let the wine of friendship never run dry … Here’s to you ….”

Here’s to…Sheila Prenowitz.

(b.1931, d. 2020)

Catherine King

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Lessons from a Courageous Entrepreneur

I was privileged to work with Fiona Wilson on numerous occasions when in the UK. This interview is a glimpse into the thinking of a young professional shifting from a corporate executive’s mindset into the exhilarating world of private enterprise.  The courage and vision Fiona shares are worthy of special note. Enjoy her story, Catherine King (Jan. 2020)

Fiona Wilson, Managing Director, FJWilson Talent Service, United Kingdom

Fiona Wilson is Managing Director of FJWilson Talent Services (FJWTS: fjwilson.com), a business she founded in 2009. 

FJWTS’ clients are organisations for professionals. They include membership organisations, awarding bodies and learning providers.

Clients use FJWTS’ solutions to help them recruit fresh talent and to make the best use of the talent they already have specifically in senior and mid-level roles.

Previously she worked for Adecco’s professional staffing brands: she was Operations Director of Jonathan Wren, Ajilon, and then of the London 2012 (LOCOG) contract. Before that, she worked for Kelly Services.  Fiona’s early experience in sales was developed at Hobsons, part of the Daily Mail Group, where her clients comprised professional membership bodies, universities, and employers.

Fiona has been a “Pilotlighter” since 2010 (www.pilotlight.org.uk). As part of a ‘Pilotlight team’ Fiona has worked on five programmes helping chief executives of charities and social enterprises to build capacity and make more impact.

How, and when did you first get into the talent industry?

Having worked in education publishing for six years, in 2003 I took a 6-month belated ‘gap year’ experience in India. I did voluntary work whilst taking some time to decide what to do next. I knew I wanted to combine my love of sales with commercial and people management.

A couple of key people in my professional network suggested recruitment. In 2003 I joined Kelly Services as a ‘competency-based hire’ from an assessment centre. My task was to open and manage a new branch in Hammersmith.

You’ve stayed in the industry: what do you like about working in the sector?

I thrive on the degree of changes. For example, change brought about my online development, such as growing connectivity. And change in candidates’ expectations –- for example, the growing importance of employment branding and the demand for flexible and remote working.

Fiona Wilson

I enjoy learning how organisations function and how they revolve around their greatest asset, namely people. The business of talent acquisition is always related with other aspects of organisations, such as their strategy and business plan. I particularly enjoy developing long-term relationships – especially when we become a trusted supplier who is viewed as a specialised extension of an organisation’s HR team.

The biggest buzz comes always from establishing a wonderful two-way match between the employer and the candidate, leading to a durable placement.

Prior to launching FJWTS, you worked for some large employers. What motivated you to launch your own business?

I wanted to maximise the time I spent on the aspects of talent acquisition that I enjoy and minimise the amount spent on administration -– such things as internal meetings and email management. I also didn’t want to devote energy to playing corporate politics or fixating on short-term returns.

I wanted to build a business founded on a strong customer-service model and to work with clients that ‘got’ and suited our model – and to be free to choose to not work with or exit clients that didn’t! 

One further point: the ability to work truly flexibly was never present in my previous career, so I wanted to forge a working life where I, and my team, enjoy this entitlement.

Over the first decade, what have been the main challenges?

The endless drive, commitment, energy and belief that has been required to create something sustainable out of literally nothing! — Our business has never had debt, never accepted any external investment.

Initially, a challenge was to develop the acumen to generate the sufficient cash-flow to meet the needs of a growing business and to scale the balance sheet.

Operationally, I’ve need to work out how to build a business comprised of remote-based workers across the country; to hire and develop a team who can deliver independently of me; and avoid the trap of allowing unnecessary meetings and emails to creep in as we have grown. Part of the solution has been to integrate our internal communications, using in particular video meetings (using Zoom) and messaging (on Skype) to minimise disruption to the working day.

On a personal level I’ve needed to find my own voice, shorn of big-corporate vocabulary. And to withstand the challenges of major life events: bereavements; illnesses; medical operations; miscarriage; and relocating and moving house. And (more positively!) of having a child. 

Through it all I’ve learnt to let go, 100%, of the thought of ever working for another employer.

And what changes in the market have you observed in that time?

At the junior role (aka ‘commodified’) end of the scale, new technology has made it easier for in-house teams to effect their own recruitment. That’s why we don’t deal with junior roles at all. At mid- and senior levels, though, it remains the case that talent agencies can add value.

For example: internal recruiters sometimes attempt to fill a role but then feel dissatisfied with the field they come up with; or they tend to have difficulty discovering passive candidates; or they might be less effective at discovering.

What’s your vision for FJWTS long term?

Throughout the history of our company, we have been inspired by the story of Sophie Macpherson. Her business, SML, sources talent for leading institutions in the art world – employers such Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and the Scottish Gallery. Our vision is to become the equivalent for our sector, which comprises organisations for professionals — membership organizations, awarding bodies, and learning providers.

Outside work, how do you spend your time? What makes you tick?

Anything horse-related is a winner.

I also enjoy going to gigs — mostly electronic rock’n’roll stuff from the ‘80s and early 90s…). And I like camping and visiting places with a beach.

Wisdom From a Citizen of The Crown: 

The importance of love in the workplace.

A well-known and high profile figure, Paul has spent over 40 years within the recruitment industry. He is the former Managing Director of Office Angels, Board Director of Adecco UK & Ireland and Chief Talent Officer of Hudson UK, Ireland, and the Middle East. Watch this insightful video as Paul speaks to career aspirations and success. 

The Pursuit of Happiness

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…endowed with unalienable Rights…among these are…the pursuit of Happiness…” with the word ‘Happiness’ capitalized according to the authors. Brave souls who penned the Declaration of Independence in the Americas over two centuries ago in what was then a New World remain an inspiration for leaders of our time.

Today, many leaders of the world’s companies and organizations, whether large or start-up innovators, are modern pioneers in the new world of technology and science. They are the latter-day disrupters that are carving paths through a wilderness that is in some ways as daunting and unexplored as those in the early days of the sixteenth century.

Yet, even a cursory view of organizations seeking such brave talent to explore these new worlds, are void of the words that tap into the hearts of most people on the planet – the desire to be happy. Masked in the business jargon of “employee satisfaction” there hints a deeper need for human beings within the workplace: the need for happiness.

Business professionals seldom mention this goal when discussing their career aspirations. Their common stated desire is for higher compensation, equity ownership, or the next rung on the corporate ladder…these are seemingly rational reasons for the business professional’s next career.

Many years ago, the first executive placement I ever made was that of a Chief Financial Officer.  The placement was unintentional, as I was then a very young and green recruitment representative in a temporary employment agency. My first interview was with a mature gentleman who had been with an oil company that had recently shed many thousands of employees. This gentleman (and he was exactly that – a gentleman) had a quality rarely seen in many executives –humility.  He sat attentively through an indoctrination for new employees, as the benefits associated with becoming an hourly temporary employee were very thoroughly explained. Admittedly, I did not immediately grasp his salary requirements ($225k annually), but boldly pressed on and offered him a temporary accounting assignment for a company at a nominal hourly rate. He accepted. He was assigned to a company outside his sector of experience and was soon hired as that company’s new CFO shortly after starting his hourly temporary job. When I called him to check on how he was enjoying his new job, he said he was “not just happy, but very happy.”

What he taught me so many years ago, was a lesson in humility.

That is the first step in seeking what so many of us desire but are hesitant to articulate in our search for a meaningful profession or career. The pursuit of Happiness is the foundation of what makes a successful executive. It takes humility to articulate this desire – even if only to ourselves. We are trained and educated in sophisticated ways that teach us to speak the language of business that is full of intelligent-sounding phrases that demonstrate our expertise in our respective fields. This expertise and knowledge are of course necessary, as is the ability to explain our experience.

However; wanting to be happy in what takes up a good portion of our lives – the world of work — is to be human. Do not be hesitant to articulate this desire to yourself as an essential ingredient in your next career.

Be brave and be happy.

Catherine King, Founder & Executive Consultant, Crown Talent Assets

www.linkedin.com/in/catherine-king-crowntalentassets