Defining Your Leadership Legacy

Ambitious business owners and professionals want to leave their mark on the world, but they're often too busy to answer an important question: How do you want to be remembered?

It's worth the time and effort to consider what contribution you want to impart to your company and people — whether it's a new way of thinking, learning or doing. A powerful legacy also enables a leader's influence to continue well into the future.


How to Create a Leadership Legacy

Many business owners may begin thinking about their legacy as they prepare to exit their company, but it's just as important for leaders to create a living legacy — one that is built throughout their career, not just at the end.

Not only will building a living legacy provide purpose throughout your career but getting clarity on your legacy early on can be an effective way to help you set goals and priorities, said Kevin Cashman, global leader of CEO & Executive Development at organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry in Minneapolis.

Whether you're just starting your career or preparing for retirement, following these guidelines can help define and develop your leadership legacy.

Define What You Want Your Legacy To Be

You need first to decide how you would like to define your leadership legacy.

A leadership legacy can take different forms. It might be something tangible, like a revolutionary invention or a history of corporate revenue gains. It could be organizational, like establishing a new workflow model. Or it could be supportive, like setting a new policy on continued educational training - to name a few examples.

Cashman encourages leaders to consider connecting their legacy with their core purpose, a "contribution that goes forward without us." Purpose is usually broader than legacy, encompassing career, personal life, community involvement, and other areas.

In order to start thinking about your legacy, begin by setting aside a block of time when you won't be interrupted. That way, you can give some deep, serious thought to the future direction of your business. Some leaders may choose to take a retreat away from the office to clear their heads and find inspiration.

During this personal brainstorming session, ask yourself questions such as:

  • How would you like your legacy as a business owner to look after you have moved on from the company? Is it by the invention, annual revenue growth, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, social responsibility or something else?
  • How would you like your business to look three, five and ten years in the future? What would you want it to be known for?
  • What is the single most important value you want to instill in your employees?

You may also consider engaging your top-performing employees in your brainstorming session. Ask them to share their opinions on why they joined the company and where they'd like to see it go. This is a good way to ensure that you're aligned with the advocates who will carry on your legacy when you've stepped away from the company. This process is as much about asking and listening as telling.

Unite Employees

Leaders often have big ideas, but they need help executing them. It's important to build a team of advocates who effectively spread your message and connect to other employees so they buy into your vision, innovate and work together to reach common goals. After all, once you leave an organization, your legacy will be dependent on others carrying out your mission and continuing to believe in your vision.

How successful you are at inspiring others often comes down to how well you communicate. "If you want people to rally around a vision, you have to paint a picture that's so exciting that others connect to it and get behind it," said Suzanne Bates, chief executive officer of Bates Communications in Boston, which provides executive coaching and leadership programs to Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing, Intel and Under Armour.

Work on becoming a compelling storyteller — sharing personal and professional stories — to spur others to support your vision. Try writing a weekly email to your employees about company values or holding periodic all-company meetings where everyone can share ideas about building a company legacy.

In between those communications directly from you, company ambassadors can uphold the values you want to create within the company, spread your messages and inspire other colleagues.

"One of the things leaders of large companies can do to move the needle and drive change is to identify the people who are the influencers," said Bates.

Remember that your best influencers aren't necessarily restricted to top management. Focus on peak performers who get the work done and are role models for others. Employees who feel they've played a role in the evolution of a company will be more likely to continue striving towards the vision even after you have left. You may also consider rewarding employees who go above and beyond to support the company's mission.

Lead by Example

Legacy is defined not only by the accomplishments and vision you leave behind but also by how you conduct yourself as a leader and the decisions you make every day.

"If you decide to do the right thing when no one is looking, you build a track record, and people trust you," said Bates. "It's important for leaders to understand that who you are as a person defines who you are as a leader."

Self-awareness requires inner reflection — defining your best traits and seeking feedback from others about yourself, said Cashman, who has written six leadership books and advised Fortune 500 companies in more than 80 countries.

He advises asking yourself these questions to help clarify and define your traits:

  • What gifts do you bring to add value to a situation?
  • Do you help forge deep connections between people? Do you inspire others? Are you a visionary?
  • What is the most important growth area that can elevate your game in a new and different way?
  • What traits of yours will most impact the lives of others?

Bates said that social media and sensitivities to diversity in the workplace have put additional scrutiny on leaders who don't act with integrity or act outside of their company's values. That's certainly worth keeping in mind as you build your legacy.


How to Keep Your Leadership Legacy on Track

It may be difficult to keep your leadership legacy top-of-mind amid the everyday crush of meetings and emails. Get into the habit of daily reflection — whether you take 15 minutes during your morning commute to think about how to engage people in that day's meetings better or you spend time reviewing at the end of the day what has transpired, what went well and what you could have done differently.

"As we elevate from transaction-based management toward more transformative leadership, we should pause and sort out what's important and what's next," Cashman said. "It seems counterintuitive because we have so much more to do and more responsibilities, but pausing elevates purpose and performance to another level."

Here's another option: Many senior managers and business owners seek the guidance of executive coaches to help them develop their leadership legacy and create achievable goals. It's worth taking the extra effort to ensure they're continuously improving and refining their focus and legacy.

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