Career Path

Be a Learn-It-All

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on why professionals should always be expanding their skills.

One of the most pivotal scenes in the seminal movie Glengarry Glen Ross is Alec Baldwin’s lesson in business: Always be closing. It’s a mantra for salespeople that they should abide by throughout their entire career.

But the lesson in the real-world business landscape is a different one: Always be learning. With companies and industries constantly changing as big data, artificial intelligence, and emerging technologies continue to change the marketplace, the best defense in an unpredictable world is to learn as much as you can. Learning is the only way to parlay what you know now into the new and different of tomorrow.

All too often, people talk about being “lifelong learners,” when really very few make the effort. In reality, they want to be lifelong climbers, reaching for more money, more prestige, or more freedom. But that isn’t really what will accelerate your career path. What’s going to propel you forward, according to Korn Ferry research, is learning—it’s the No. 1 determinant of a person’s earnings for life.

Early in my career I was told “be known for something”—and be indispensable to someone. While I didn’t listen to every piece of advice from mentors, this one sunk in. It changed my attitude toward learning and my career trajectory. In every job, I sought to learn all I could and challenged myself to know something that no one else, or few others, knew. My objective was not to be a know-it-all, but rather a learn-it-all. This helped my engagement, I believe, take a great leap forward.

Always ask yourself: Am I learning? Who Am I Learning From?

I’m not trying to gloss over immediate needs: a paycheck to put food on the table or pay the mortgage. And it’s understandable that you want to make more money as your career continues. But you can’t take a job only because it pays more and not think about what it will do for your career path. You have to consider what you will learn in that job to better position yourself for the future.

The danger is being blinded by “the bling” of the salary and ignoring real opportunities. Take the example of Bryan, a teacher who was well-liked by colleagues and respected by parents and students. But he was fed up with his salary, bothered that other people were making much more money than him. So when he saw, in the early 2000s, that mortgage lending seemed to be a promising gig as the housing market was heating up, he wanted in. Through a mutual connection, Bryan reached out and we ended up meeting for coffee. When we sat down he told me, “I can’t believe all these people are making this kind of money. How hard can it be to write loans all day? Anybody can do that.”

I cautioned him about making the move, knowing it would be a big mistake. It was clear he had lost perspective, thinking something like mortgage lending was easy, when it’s actually very difficult. He assumed he’d have a ready-to-go client base through connections with other teachers and parents, and backing from the mortgage company to show him the ropes. He gave up his teaching job, along with the benefits and security, for what he saw was a “big money” potential of earning commissions on the loans he wrote.

Then reality hit: The mortgage company provided no help in training him—a common way to see who “sticks” and who doesn’t—and his financial losses were considerable. The situation put stress on his marriage and caused him and his wife to divorce. Bryan now is working part-time as a teacher, and trying to find his way back to a full-time position.

Of course, Bryan’s tale is particularly rough. But it’s a lesson in how you can’t be shortsighted in your career thinking. You need to think and act in the context of your overall career goals. Always ask yourself: Am I learning? Who am I learning from? There is no greater impact on your future than what you learn today.

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