American memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying, “If you’re going to live, leave a legacy…make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.”

For better or worse, each of us will leave a professional legacy; a record of our impact, character and reputation that will set an example for others to either emulate or avoid as they chart their own futures. Yet, for the C-suite, approaching the concept of executive legacy-building can be fraught with uncertainty.

By the very nature of their highly-visible roles—both within an organization and as the public-face of an enterprise—chief executives face pressures to construct long-term, lasting competitive advantages, transformations, or breakthroughs that will enable their companies to thrive long beyond their tenure.

Unfortunately, such long-term aspirations must often be juxtaposed against the business needs of right now.

In a op-ed published by Harvard Business Review, Adjunct Professors of Strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, posit that, “Many CEOs put legacy [building] on hold, and concentrate instead on making their quarterly growth targets.”

According to Leinwand and Mainardi, this creates a dangerously myopic trap wherein an executive can lose sight of the ‘forest for the trees,’ thereby creating a legacy that was not necessarily of their choosing.

“The surest way to build a company whose leadership will outlast your own is to focus your attention on the few essential things that [you] can do better than anyone else.” –Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi

Given the widely disparate leadership styles and charters held by global executives, legacy-building is certainly not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, but there are key conditions leaders can use to hone their focus and strategy.

Create the Conditions

In terms of strongly-cemented legacies, Jack Welch, the legendary former chairman and CEO of General Electric, continues to serve as a high-water mark, three-years after his passing and over 20 years since relinquishing the controls at GE.

By the New York Times own assessment of his legacy, during “Welch’s two decades in power—from 1981 to 2001—he turned GE into the most valuable company in the world, groomed a flock of protégés who went on to run major companies of their own, and set the standard by which other CEOs were measured.”

Although much has been written of Welch’s ability to enhance productivity by eliminating poorly performing divisions—and managers—from GE’s balance sheet, according to Welch’s own account, “My main job was developing talent…I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people.”

If Welch’s legacy was dependent on unleashing the magic of talent, then a certain set of conditions—ground rules for managing processes, people and technologies—would need to exist. This ensured leaders within GE not only could achieve their own professional goals, but also elevate the organization’s performance concurrently. And, for Welch, his conditions were based on communication and transparency.

“The biggest cowards are managers who don’t let people know where they stand,” Welch once famously quipped, underscoring the need for senior leaders to outline clear expectations for their lieutenants. This can be equally as important as ensuring strong alignment between a manager and the role they fill, as well as the resources and support needed to perform their jobs effectively.

If, like Welch, developing talent is foundational to your legacy, then begin to consider key variables such as:

  • Focus on Things That Matter – What things are we being counted on?
  • Examine Workload– What is your team’s purpose?
  • Do I Lead by Example? Do your actions undermine or enhance your leadership?

Welch was also keen to provide others with immediate feedback in order to ensure unresolved questions did not fester and setbacks could be triaged quickly, which the Harvard Business Review says is, “Most useful when it is frequent, fair, and quickly follows the task or occasion you’re curious about.”

Furthermore, in a piece on leadership strategy, Forbes says, “Immediate feedback can bridge the gap between employee competence and job demand, thus saving time, effort, and cost in the long run. Leaders who not only aspire for more but also do more create legacies that people remember and espouse. They transfer their knowledge, expertise, and lessons learned onto newcomers so they can pass on the spiral—and send it spinning into midair.”

Utilize Your [Human] Resources

Beyond merely transferring knowledge and expertise, legacies can often be a deeply personal reflection of a leader’s values. Yet, achieving one’s legacy vision need not be a solo endeavor.

Executives who leverage strong relationships with internal partners can help maintain a longterm  focus on the horizon and bring their legacy to life, without becoming overly myopic on day-to-day, operational needs of the business.

In this capacity, a chief human resources officer or chief of staff, for instance, can be highly effective partners in helping executives achieve the goals that will define their legacy.

“The number of CHROs on FTSE 100 boards is steadily rising with over 70% of them now having a seat at the table,” says global recruiting firm Rethink, whose client list includes Shell Oil, Warner Music Group, and Vodafone.

Rethink says that many top CEOs understand that working with human resources is imperative to securing their legacy.

“It’s not enough to have a brilliant strategic vision…your employees must understand why you are heading in [a given] direction. Working with HR means that your people consistently [know] where the business is going, and what they need to do to get there.”

This is an especially critical component for freshly-minted executives, says former CEO and author Dan Ciampa, who argues that, “Many new CEOs default to the system they’ve inherited, even if it is poorly suited to their style or to the operational changes they must make.”

Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, Ciampa says, “In addition to disrupting a company, failure can derail a promising executive career—especially if a CEO took over to guide the company in a new direction.

In this scenario, time is truly of the essence. The average tenure of a S&P500 CEO is down to just 4.9 years, according to data through 2022, as compiled by Bloomberg.

“That’s down from 5.5 years at the end of 2019 and about six years as of five years ago in mid-2017,” says Bloomberg, who notes this is the highest year-to-date turnover rate since research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. started tracking the data in 2002.

In such an accelerated environment, “business-as-usual” can easily derail a new executive’s effectiveness and success—elevating the risk of a lasting career blemish instead of a critical strategic breakthrough.

By leaning on a skilled chief of staff, Ciampa says, one that acts with the “implicit imprimatur of the CEO—something that calls for humility, maturity, and situational sensitivity.” Executives can maintain focus on their long-term impacts in a holistic, talent-centric environment, which is an area, Ciampa says, “a chief of staff can play an essential role.”

Know When to Fold

Kenneth Freeman, former president and CEO of Corning Clinical Laboratories—the predecessor company to Quest Diagnostics—says when to cement your legacy is equally as important as to what your executive legacy will be.

“There’s a lot to be said for leaving at the top of your game,” says Freeman in a Harvard Business Review op-ed. “I often think of Sandy Koufax, the former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher [who was] unlike many other all-star players who stayed on long past their primes.”

Freeman, who retired at 53, says, his decision arose from a fear that, “When I turned 65, the board would have extended my contract for another three years and, as so often happens with a CEO, I’d have become a predictable part of the furniture.”

This is not to say that there are no second acts in an executive’s life, which has certainly been the case for Freeman.

“Even if your skills are no longer ideal for a particular company, they are still highly valuable,” says Freeman, who currently serves as the chairman of Laureate Education—which for the past 20 years has provided accessible, high-quality undergraduate, graduate, and specialized degree programs internationally—as well as Dean of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Regardless of what you intend to be your legacy, if done thoughtfully with intent and internal support from colleagues who share your vision and seek to bring it to life, the higher the probability that your legacy will stand the test of time, regardless of the curveballs that all come our way.

“Koufax left baseball when he was still the best pitcher in either league,” says Freeman. “I like to think that I, too, stepped down at the right time.”

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