The gig: Gary Burnison is chief executive of Korn Ferry International, a Los Angeles company that does business in more than 50 countries. Burnison manages more than 7,000 employees around the world or more than half the population of his hometown McPherson, Kan. Burnison, who was the first in his family to go to college, is also the author of business books, including "The Leadership Journey, " and "No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change" and "The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership."
In transition: Burnison is leading a major change at Korn Ferry, once known only as an executive search firm. Burnison said most of Korn Ferry's revenue is now generated by advising and consulting. The company's goal, Burnison says, is to become "the preeminent global people and organizational advisory firm." In December, the company completed its $452-million acquisition of the human resources consulting firm Hay Group. In March, Korn Ferry reported record quarterly fee income of $344 million.
Lasting impression: When asked how he manages to connect with a diverse employee base, Burnison goes back to childhood and a teacher who wanted his students to learn how racial discrimination felt by turning a playground gathering into a lesson on intolerance and unfair treatment. In a softball game, Burnison was pitching strikes, but the teacher called them balls. When he tried to score at the plate and was clearly safe, the teacher called him out, then tossed him from the game when he protested. "It felt horrible. I was upset, angry, and 45 years later I can describe the afternoon for you like it was yesterday. It was one of those things that taught me the importance of treating everyone fairly."
Dream or real job: Burnison's advice to young people is that it's OK to have no clue about what you want to do with your life, or to still be wrestling with the plan well into college. "In high school, I had absolutely no sense of what I wanted to do," Burnison said. Even as a student at USC, there was the common struggle of the less realistic dream job and something more marketable. Burnison found his sweet spot through a process of elimination and practicality. "I ended up in business," Burnison said. "It came easy to me and — I've got to be dead honest here — I could get a job."
Fast track: Burnison's first job was with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., which would later become KPMG. "I very quickly made partner. I stayed there 11 years," Burnison said. He used the same traits, in moving up the ladder, that he would later parlay into his own leadership style as a chief executive. "People largely succeed or fail, not because of a technical flaw," Burnison said. "It's usually based on culture fit. There are situations where there has to be a turnaround, and you have to bring to the table a completely different set of skills. But, generally speaking, just getting great players is not enough. They have to be able to work together. It's about how they relate to one another, that is really, really big."
Dot-com dreams: Burnison next tried investment banking with Jefferies & Co., and then found himself swept up in dot-com fever. In 1999, Burnison joined Guidance Systems, a technology business incubator. The timing probably couldn't have been worse as the tech bubble burst and many of the start-ups Guidance Systems had invested in failed or lost major amounts of investment capital. Burnison considers that period his own personal bust but believes that more is learned from failure than success. "Success can give you courage and confidence, but failure imparts wisdom," Burnison said. "Failure is never fatal provided that you learn from it."
Korn Ferry: Burnison was initially involved with Korn Ferry as an investor, and he had a vision about a new direction for the then-struggling company. "I thought I could add a lot to the company, and culturally I thought they fit with who I am." Burnison found that he and Korn Ferry Chief Executive Paul Riley wanted to make the company more agile and diverse and to take on more than executive searches. Burnison was hired as chief financial officer in 2002 and the next year added the duties of chief operating officer.
Answer the call: When Riley was ready to move on in 2007, he tapped Burnison as his first choice to replace him. Now, Korn Ferry is a different company, Burnison said. "Half of our business today is advisory services, how you design an organization, designing the offense, how you implement strategy, how you motivate your team, how you develop people, how you pick the right team."
Worldwide challenges: "You have to meet people where they are, not where they aren't or where you want them to be," Burnison said. "So whether they are in Brazil or Japan or the U.K., they are all different. Their cultures are different. I go back to being that student, when a teacher was trying to teach me the difference between blacks and whites. That is what I draw on."
Personal: Burnison, 55, has five sons and daughters, ages 13 to 23. A longtime muscle car fan, Burnison owns a Shelby Mustang and Dodge Hellcat. As a Los Angeles Clippers season ticket holder, he catches basketball games when he can. If you wind up next to him on your next flight, don't be surprised if he's not talking. "That's where I get a lot of my book writing done," he said.