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Boston Herald

Leave a legacy via career-long thinking

By Regina Fazio Maruca/ Leadership
Thursday, February 1, 2007

Most of us never deliberately attempt to learn much about the full scope and scale of our influence at work. Our leadership legacy is something we think of only at the end of our tenure at a company, or when we’re on the cusp of retirement.

What’s more, when we do look back, we often measure success in broad terms of corporate growth, strategies fulfilled, or processes set or changed.

We sometimes see how our work has influenced others, but only if the examples are obvious and publicized in the media (a prominent example of this comes from former GE executives reflecting Jack Welch’s style in their next endeavors).

The problem is, considering our legacies in this way leaves a lot on the table. And that’s why we recommend something we call legacy thinking.

To our minds, considering one’s legacy shouldn’t be relegated to the last stages of your turn at leadership. Instead, it should be a catalyst for action — a frame through which leaders can reconcile their strategies and organizational vision with their own instincts and values.

When leaders engage in this kind of thinking, the concept of legacy becomes much more personal; at its best, legacy thinking marries the one-to-many nature of leadership with the one-to-one reality of day-to-day work.

Consider the people you see every day in the course of your work. Your words and actions are having an effect on them. You are encouraging them to take creative risks (or discouraging them from doing so). By your example, you are teaching them that certain aspects of running a business are more important than others.

You may be showing them the highs and lows of being passionate about your work, or you may be showing them how awful it is to feel trapped in a job you can’t stand.

Either way, these people leave their desks each day and return home with a more complete picture of you. Each day, they also leave their desks with a more complete sense of what you are doing for them, or to them, in either a positive or a negative sense.

Over time, their behavior is likely to be shaped in some manner by yours.

There is a connection to be made between these streams of personal influence and a leader’s desired effect on the overall organization. But most often, leaders don’t recognize that connection explicitly. When you do recognize it, you can use legacy thinking to become a better leader.

For example:

If you’re the kind of leader who tries to take on too much, legacy thinking reveals to you where your influence is actually having a lasting effect, and where it is not. When organizations are in crisis, or even when the complexities of day-to-day operations reach a peak level, leaders often take a scattershot approach, firing at anything that moves. Thinking about leadership in the context of your legacy helps you establish — and reestablish — priorities.

Legacy thinking locates you in the history of your company, a benefit that can be particularly valuable for early leaders. Roger Lang, who retired as an executive vice president at Turner Construction after more than 25 years, put it this way: “If you think of the history of your company in a linear fashion, along a timeline, you can place the founder at one end, and early top executives, chronologically, along the line...You can also place yourself at those points, and you can begin to see the scope of your work in a different way. You start to see your potential legacy. You look at the person the company hired 10 minutes ago...and you can see how the way they are going to work has already been shaped or framed to an extent by the people who came before. You can see what you might do for that person, and you can also see what you might do for that person in the context of the organization you’re both a part of.”

Legacy thinking helps you recognize when you are wasting your time in a given senior management slot and also helps you identify when it is time to make a move. When leaders have to make wrenching decisions — for example, when an entity’s survival is at stake — a focus on legacy pays off. (Think of the top managers at Fiat in the early 2000s who had to wrestle with the thought of exiting the automobile business, which they had once led in all of Western Europe.)

Legacy thinking helps you put the important task of succession planning in perspective. By revealing your natural role (which has little to do with the requisite responsibilities of the position of leader), it helps you let go and even helps you seed the success of your successor.

Perhaps most important, legacy thinking tempers your necessary focus on the tasks at hand with a sense of greater purpose. It embeds your work with meaning that goes beyond one more sales visit, or one more management meeting, or one more deal.

Adapted with permission from Harvard Business School Press from “Your Leadership Legacy — Why Looking Towards the Future Will Make You a Better Leader Today” by Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca. Copyright 2006 Robert M. Galford and Regina Fazio Maruca. All Rights Reserved.

Regina Fazio Maruca is a veteran journalist, a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and former associate managing editor at the Boston Business Journal and New England Business magazine.