#100K: Robert Burnside


Head, heart, feet - whenever you want to teach people something, you have to address these three areas. I know this from Robert Burnside - a learning expert who has certainly had the most influence on my career. Without knowing it.

When we start working in a job, we watch leaders around us. Sometimes we get lucky and learn from them, sometimes we don´t. I was lucky in my career - almost always. Then there are other colleagues, peers, teammates from whom you learn. Older, experienced colleagues. And also younger, courageous colleagues. Sometimes you're lucky to work in great, diverse teams, sometimes you don´t find that inspiration. I've been lucky most of the time.

And then there are the colleagues who don't work closely with you at all. But who take care of you – who are responsible for your learning progress, your development, your skills, your ability to discover new things and expand your capabilities.

One of these wonderful people and colleagues is Robert Burnside. He has made it his mission to move people forward. Accompanying them on their career path and helping them to move forward again and again. I am very happy that he joined for this little interview - an American who emigrated to Europe some years ago and who is reporting today from a charming little town near Milan in Italy.

Hello Robert, I am very happy that we finally meet again after so many years. Milan is not that far from Munich. But especially in the last years - in these pandemic years - even the smallest distances became insurmountable. Finally we have overcome this difficult time. My first question to you: what do you remember from last three years? Is there a learning that you made during the pandemic that is very important for you to keep?

To me it´s amazing – and that´s what I learned - that you can start and build relationships purely online. I would not have thought that before.

When I think back to my role as Chief Learning Officer at a large and international agency like Ketchum, we already had lot of experience with virtual meetings and virtual exchange since the late 90s. We run numerous learning programs that worked with Webex at that time with 50, 100 and more colleagues participating. Long before Zoom or Teams.

But, to be honest, these virtual meetings were great for exchange. And simultaneous learning for three continents and sometimes across 70 countries at a time. It was great for sharing knowhow and teaching leadership skills, introduce and explain values of the company and train communication standards. But what we did not foster were "relationships" or even “friendship” through these formats. Many colleagues who participated in these programs knew each other before partly from physical, international conferences or individual telephone calls and meetings.

So to me this was a new learning from the pandemic: get to know and learn about a person on a personal and spiritual level – only on zoom. At the very beginning I joined an online-program called “Leadership in Transformation” – with 80 other members – folks I have never seen or met before. We meet every Tuesday for 90 minutes – again and again.

And with this regularity and through the intensive online discussions with these colleagues, we developed a special connection – a connection that goes beyond the professional one. In July this year we´ll meet physically for the first time. I am very excited about this first real meeting.

I believe that whenever you have a common interest and give the space to develop this common goal together - a spiritual connections is born. And that can happen online.

Oh, and by the way: the best thing about online meetings is that everyone is equal! No matter if you are extroverted or introverted - everyone has the same rights online and the same possibilities - to express themselves. That's actually a gift of the technology.

Inspiring and motivating others to continue to learn and develop - that is your mission until today. You are an adviser to the Nomadic Learning organization – so you always need new ideas and new inspiration. How do you keep coming up with new ideas yourself? What do you need for yourself to be creative?

My way to be and stay creative is the openness for continuously learning – learning of new things.

It almost doesn't matter what you learn. Most important is that it's something new. Every learning has its meaning. You can use everything in life.

For some years now I've been living in Italy and, like many people, I spend some time in the garden. I was not very good at gardening, so I took a “course for farming” from an old friend. His name is Giuseppe. He teaches me all about tomatoes. Giuseppe is a master of tomatoes. He knows all varieties, shapes and colors, he knows how to plant them and how to take care of them.

This course is interesting for me not only for a culinary reason. No. The course also stimulates my curiosity and creativity. Keeps me interested and open to the things of this world. And with the wisdom of “how to plant and grow” you can do a lot in the learning business.

Robert, the world is going crazy. In your old home country, the USA. In Europe as well. Worldwide. We are jumping from one crisis to the next. Leaving us with the impression that the world will not get back to "normal times" at all. Looks like, we have to adjust to a new - complicated - world challenging for all of us. Therefore each of us is called upon to make the world a little bit better. How do you see it?

Yes, we are called upon to send positive signals - in small and large ways.

When it comes to climate change, I certainly feel a little guilty. For too long, we have carelessly ignored the problem - for example, the use of plastic. I'm trying to do better here on a very small scale.

In Italy, for example, sparkling water is only available in plastic bottles. That is changing very slow or not at all. That's why I now make my own sparkling water. I bought a machine to do it on my own - and with that save a little bit of plastic.

These are the very small steps. But something also has to change on a large scale. In our attitude.

For quite a while I am working on a concept that allows managers to take a more comprehensive view of their work and their actions. I call it the "Spiritual View".

At first glance, this may sound esoteric or even religious. But it is not meant that way at all. In our working lives - and in our lives as a whole - we - leaders and managers - have become accustomed to categorizing the world, explaining it logically and shaping it from our own point of view.

This has led to a very selfish and competitive situation. For a while this competition might have been good - but today - in the face of these big problems - we need a much more holistic and empathic view of the world.

We should learn to think beyond ourselves. Putting ourselves in others' shoes. Looking through their eyes. This change of perspectives is not easy - especially when many leaders and managers have divided themselves from their employees, stakeholders and customers. When they live such a different life in comparison to others.

And in the end, it is our task not only to look beyond our own horizon or to look beyond the horizon of entire target groups: we must go a step further and train leaders and managers to adopt a "world view" - to think about humanity and what´s their role in this.

That is a very big claim. But managers today need to develop this POV – both for their own health and the health of the world.

I have been training executives since 1985, and never before has the responsibility for the world, and the opportunities for executives been greater than today. So I very much hope that I can help to train this "spirit at work" - so that leaders can make a meaningful and purposeful contribution for the future.

About #100K

In 2023 Ketchum - an international communications network - celebrates its 100th anniversary. This makes it probably the oldest communications agency in the world. I´ve worked more than 25 years at Ketchum and learned so much at this agency. I am thankful for this time and the many colleagues and friends I´ve met there. So I´ll take this as an opportunity to meet old Ketchum-friends. And ask them some fundamental questions. Thanks to Robert, Lukas Adda, Linda Eatherton, Gustav Averbuj, Sabine Stadel-Strauch, Gesine Märten and Martin Dambacher.

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