Just about any leader can make an organization look good for a moment—by launching a flashy new program or product, drawing crowds to a big event, or slashing the budget to boost the bottom line. But leaders who leave a legacy take a different approach. They lead with tomorrow as well as today in mind. Over time, your ability as a leader will be judged by how well your people, and your organization, do after you are gone. Your lasting value will be measured by succession.
To create a legacy, you need to be strategic and intentional. The following guidelines can help you get started:
1. Cultivate the right mindset for legacy and succession. Leadership is about influence. Influence is the ability to have a sustainable positive impact on peoples’ decisions and actions. If you have influence, you think about the future and help move the organization forward. You build a legacy by shifting the way you think about people, talent, and culture. When you work to create a legacy, you must focus on developing the right mindset. It becomes less about overseeing the activities of others. Instead, you need to identify the right people who can step into roles of increased scale, scope, and responsibility. You can only do this successfully by taking time to plan for the future.
2. Decide ahead of time the sacrifices you are willing to make. Being a strong leader comes with great responsibility. Being a leader who leaves a legacy has an even greater price. When you work to create legacy, your thinking and decision-making becomes less about your personal or career priorities, and more about what you develop in others. That’s why it’s so important to know what you are willing to give up, so that others can go up. How much of your time are you willing to invest in your successors? What trade-offs are you willing to make for the long-term growth of the organization? What changes does the business have to make when it comes to your products and service offerings? What improvements need to occur to best position the company for future success?
3. Take the initiative to start the process. If you want to create a legacy, you have to initiate the process – and there will be times when you have to fight for it. Many of your people will have different agendas and motivations. There will be external forces and internal barriers to achieving some of your goals and objectives. Great leaders are proactive in planning their succession. They are strategic in how they think about the future and are not afraid to take on challenges that surface around preparing the organization for key transitions. You have to think about the long-term impact you want to leave on your people and the organization. To do this successfully, you must make learning a lifelong pursuit for others. Take time to invest in the personal and professional relationships that matter most – the ones that are needed to build a strong bench for the future.
4. Know your goals with each leader on your team. The process of creating a legacy relies primarily on people. It requires the selection of the right people and the right development processes for each individual. You have to carefully choose your legacy carriers. Who are the members of your team who live out the values and beliefs of the organization in all that they do? Who are the strongest players on the team? Who have the tenacity and stamina to take the business to its next level? Put together development plans for your key leaders so they have a path to succeed. Being thoughtful about how you are building peoples’ capabilities will ultimately determine how the organization will thrive when you’re gone.
5. Prepare to pass the baton well. Once you have prepared your people, you need to prepare for the transition. There’s a real art to preparing a successor, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. You have to give yourself enough time to plan effectively. Research conducted by our firm has found that 18 to 24 months is the right time frame. This enables you to work side-by-side with your successor to transfer knowledge, information, and power effectively. As you prepare to hand off to a successor, do everything you can to make for a seamless transition. And even then, plan to offer additional assistance without getting in the way. This has to be a top priority if you want to have a last impacting on the future sustainability of the organization.
When working on CEO succession, I will typically take my clients through a simple exercise to begin the process of mapping out their legacy plans. The I.D.E.A. exercise has the leader focus on the following components:
1. Instruction: Provide the vision for the organization and get people aligned on the top priorities. What’s the organization’s three to five-year strategic plan? What products and services do you want to provide to your customers in the future? Where do you, and your team, see the market and external landscape shifting? What technologies and innovations will play a role in the next few years?
2. Demonstration: You have to walk the talk when it comes to legacy. If you want people to follow your lead, model the right behaviors for them. It boils down to three ideas: a) come and see me – invite people to observe; b) come and follow me – ask for a great level of commitment; and c) come and be with me – encourage your leaders to partner and promote teamwork.
3. Experience: Take the journey together. Work side-by-side with your people to make the vision for the business a reality. Give people opportunities to learn, develop, and grow. Do things as team. Legacy is about what you can get done through others. You can only do this by doing things together.
4. Assessment: Consistently take time to evaluate peoples’ progress. This is important as it helps people get a deep understanding of their strengths and leadership opportunities. You can’t build a legacy if your people have blind spots and derailers. It’s just as important to get strong development plans in place to help people grow. Providing feedback, mentoring and coaching along the way makes it all the more impactful.
If you want to leave a legacy, you must look to people to carry it out. Find the right leaders, and use the right preparation processes for each of them. Only as you pour yourself into your key talent will they be able to pour out themselves for others. No one can give what they do not have. The things you plan for today will determine the success of your people and organization in the future. Think strategically, plan accordingly, and take massive action. If you do this with thoughtful planning and intentionality, you will be well on your way to creating a legacy that will stand the test of time.