The Exchange editors sat down with Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn/Ferry International, during his April 28 visit to Anderson. Korn/Ferry was founded in 1969 by Lester Korn (MBA ’60) and it is today the world’s largest executive search company. In 1988, the Anderson School’s main convocation hall was named after Lester Korn and his wife Carolbeth.
The Exchange: Here at Anderson, most students know of Lester Korn as the namesake of Korn Hall. Can you tell us about the history of the business that Lester Korn founded?
Gary Burnison: [We] were founded about 45 years ago. And Lester [Korn] and Richard Ferry both were at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., and they had a vision about creating a global executive recruiting company, and they got together and started here in Los Angeles. And, you know, one thing led to another. From a very humble beginning and small office until today, a company that has a market cap of a billion and a half dollars, and we’re in 40 countries…
The Exchange: In your book, The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, you talked about leaders having blind spots that stemmed from a lack of soft skills. What does Korn/Ferry do to measure those soft skills? Is there a methodology that you have within the firm?
Gary Burnison: We’ve both developed and acquired a tremendous amount of intellectual property around really what separates great from good. A lot of it anchors around one’s leadership style, thinking style, emotional competency. All of which we believe is really trying to get at the notion of learning agility and whether people really continue to have an appetite to learn and to grow. We think that that’s the number one predictor of executive success today.
The Exchange: Do you think that can be taught? In other words, is that a skill that can be imparted in a business school setting?
Gary Burnison: Well, it can be taught, but the person has to have a willingness to grow and to learn, so it absolutely can be taught. But there’s also a piece of it that comes down to insatiable appetite to listen to music, to read all sorts of different things. One has to have the desire to do that.
The Exchange: What are the challenges of leading a public company? How has the experience been for Korn/Ferry as a public company?
Gary Burnison: It really comes down to your strategy that you have for your business. If you believe that you need access to capital, to financing, then each business owner needs to make the decision on how best to do that. So you can find friends and family, you could go to venture capital, you could go to private equity, you could go to your bank, or you could tap the public market. I really think it first starts with where you’re trying to take your business and what kind of capital do you need to foster that growth. Then, you need to make a decision on what avenues [are] going to be the best [ones] for your company. For us, we do need access to capital to make our brand more lasting and to get into other types of businesses that reinforce the flagship recruiting business, so we need access to capital for acquisitions as an example. So we’ve done almost 10 acquisitions over the last few years. If we were not public that would be very difficult for us to do.
The Exchange: You mentioned in your talk [at the Anderson Speaker Series] that your business has moved beyond just search and that now only 60% is the core recruiting business. Do you expect this percentage to change over the next few years?
Gary Burnison: Well, I think that it’s always going to be the foundation of the business. There’s no doubt about that, but I see that there’s a huge opportunity to continue to build solutions and services for what the board or CEO really thinks about it. It’s great to get really good people in the organization but it’s a whole other thing to get them to work together and move in the same direction. So we’re trying to anchor our organization not only in finding great people but finding out who they are and then getting them to work together towards the organization’s, the client’s common purpose.