Leave Your Legacy Now

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 10-31-2006

Why wait until your retirement party to think about your legacy? It will do you—and your company—far greater good to begin leaving it today, says Robert Galford, co-author of Your Leadership Legacy: Why Looking Toward the Future Will Make You a Better Leader Today (Harvard Business School Press, September 2006). Galford is managing partner of the Center for Executive Development in Boston, a firm that provides executive education and change management programs.

CIO insight: In your book, you use the terms "leadership legacy" and "legacy thinking." What do you mean?
Galford: Your leadership legacy is, quite simply, what people will do differently in their work because they worked with you. "Legacy thinking" is how we make sure that we don't jeopardize our legacies in the long term by taking actions that are too short-term oriented.

How is legacy thinking any different from setting long-term personal goals?
Setting long-term personal goals is a forward-thinking process. Legacy thinking is a process where we take that retrospective view as our lens: What do I want to be remembered for—not what do I plan to accomplish.

Sounds a bit like writing your own obituary.
Obituaries are written when it's too late. But legacy thinking is not too late; it gives you an opportunity to make a difference earlier on. If I want to be remembered for a certain reason, what do I have to do now? Thinking along those lines has all sorts of implications for how we spend time now. Are we spending it most efficiently? Are we spending it in the right way?

What specific benefits does legacy thinking have for those who hold a technology leadership role?
One of the problems people face—not just in technology, but in many service roles, whether finance, legal and so on—is that they are often viewed as narrow thinkers, lacking a broad vision or the ability to help their teams integrate with the business world. Legacy thinking makes them ask: For whom am I doing this? To what end? Here's a very quick legacy-building tool: Before going into a meeting or starting a one-on-one conversation, simply ask yourself: What do I want this person to take away from the discussion? What's the highest and best use of our time? That's really what we're going for.

Isn't it premature, and perhaps even arrogant, to worry about your legacy as a leader in mid-career, especially when you lead a constantly changing function, like IT?
Actually, those uncertainties are the main reason to apply legacy thinking. In this constantly shifting world, it's important to behave in a consistent, appropriate, meaningful fashion that is true to yourself as an individual without being overly buffeted by these changes.

What are the risks associated with legacy thinking?
People may aspire to a legacy that does not connect with who they ­really are. Many people would like to be remembered as leaders, but they're too task-oriented to be great leaders of individuals. Perhaps they're wonderful at getting tasks done or at innovating, but less so at getting people to follow them.

How do you put legacy thinking to work?
Make sure that you take both the long- and short-term view. We ask people to sit for just 20 to 30 minutes and construct a legacy statement—a statement of how they want to be remembered, what kind of characteristics they want to be remembered for, the big values they espouse, and how those values are manifested in their everyday lives. If I want to be remembered as someone who diffuses nasty situations with grace, how will I mediate a situation now in front of me?

Is there anything IT professionals in particular should do to prepare for their legacies?
Make sure your legacy is broader than technology. Consider this: If you were able to create a whole new generation of people following you in this role, what could they learn from you that would help them make better decisions, analyze and solve problems, confront issues and inspire others?