Thinking About Your Legacy

It’s pretty typical of retiring CEOs, lame duck presidents, and people approaching their twilight years to think about their legacy — whom and what they’ve influenced, what will be remembered and passed down.

I don’t know if I’m unusual in this, but I think about my legacy a lot, and I’m only at mid-career (I hope).  I find that, by viewing a near-term situation through the lens of how I may be remembered guides me to see the big picture and, I believe, make a better decision.  This applies to all kinds of decisions, from how I tackle a difficult conversation; how I think about the professional development of my team (see the Massive Digression below); to what policies/approaches I want to champion in my role.  

I don’t have kids (yet 😉), but I have heard from parents that having kids makes them strive to become better people, because they recognize that their decisions will form an impression for the child about who they are as a person/parent.  And they more clearly see the connection between an action taken today, and the impact made later.

Massive Digression:  Here’s how considering my legacy re: the professional development of my team affects my everyday behavior.  I’d like to be remembered as the person with whom they learned and accomplished the most.  (I aim high when it comes to my aspirational legacy.  😁)  This means that I try to do the following things, to get as close to achieving this as possible.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 1.57.52 PM

  • I believe my team members can do and accomplish more than they believe they can.
  • I expect my team to put forth their best effort in everything, large or small.  A mediocre job won’t cut it.
  • I believe that, if you care enough, your hard work can lead to amazing outcomes.
  • I expect people to always be looking for improvements, innovations, ways to do things better.  Status quo is never good enough.
  • My team members are hard-wired to want to grow and to learn.
  • I expect openness to giving and receiving candid feedback.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 1.57.59 PM

  • You will always have an overwhelmingly full plate.  When you can’t take on more, I will help you prioritize and prune, including transferring tasks from your plate to mine.
  • You’ll accomplish things you didn’t think you were ready for.  I’ll always be optimizing the balance between your strengths and your weaknesses, especially if those weaknesses may become career limitations down the road.
  • You will get the unvarnished truth about how you are performing, from my point of view.  And I’ll be proactively transparent with you about what’s happening or might happen at the company-level.
  • You can get my time/attention when you need me.  You should never feel alone.  Lost, yes.  But not alone.
Focus on you
  • My commitment to your development isn’t limited by the job or company at which we work.  If there are external opportunities that will give you a better development experience, I will help you get it.
  • I am your safety net, and share the responsibility for things that go wrong.  It’s my job to make you successful.
Relationship of equals
  • I expect you to tell me when I do something right or wrong.  And I would never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.

(Whoa, I just wrote out my management manifesto without even intending to!  This is why I love writing a blog….)

Companies should also think about their legacies as they go about their business, because they’ll have one, whether or not they intend to.  Each employee eventually becomes an evangelist of the company’s culture and experience — either an evangelist for, or against.  This diaspora of former employees/evangelists — and how they operate in new companies — is what a company will be remembered for.  On the positive side, think about Xerox PARC and Bell Labs (innovation); Google (data-driven people operations and cultural norms; innovation; among others); McKinsey (leadership development); Apple (design); GE (Six Sigma quality); Zappos (service); etc.  There are plenty of negative examples as well.

What’s the difference between a company’s legacy, its core values, and its definition of success?  There are definitely ties, but I think they are different things.  The legacy is what gets carried forth and transferred by alumni from company to company; core values and definitions of success aren’t as fungible because each company is different.  However, ‘how’ core values and success are achieved can be part of a company’s legacy, since it’s about how decisions get made and how people are treated and motivated.

At McKinsey, the core values are a set of 8-10 principles, all of which support the dual mission of impeccable client service and industry-leading employee development.  From a legacy perspective, the concepts of ‘caring meritocracy’ and the ‘up or out’ method of advancement are what I hear alumni refer to the most when they reflect on the artifacts they take away from the Firm.  (Can’t say with any confidence that these are what the McK leadership would want to be their legacies.)  How do these two seemingly counterbalancing practices play out in practice? 

Here’s an example: anyone we hired through the rigorous McKinsey hiring process became our responsibility to develop.  That meant pouring extensive resources into mentoring, coaching, teaching someone who might otherwise be labeled a “hiring mistake”.  But at some point, after being given multiple opportunities to demonstrate their potential, this person may be counseled to leave.  This comes with a generous severance package, called “search time” — i.e., time to seek out a new job on McKinsey’s dime and with the support of the partners and other people who were involved in that person’s McKinsey experience.  9 times out of 10, people who have gone through this process leave knowing a lot more about themselves:  their motivations, their strengths and development areas; and feel grateful to McKinsey for helping them realize their next opportunity.  

That’s how the ‘caring meritocracy’ and ‘up or out’ policy plays out.  These artifacts of a company’s legacy tell you a lot about the company, what it values, and how it treats its people.

What is the aspirational legacy of your company?  How do you think about this for yourself?  I think it’s never too early to start thinking about these types of questions.


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