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January 25, 2024

What to consider when working on your legacy as a leader

By Paul Laughlin

For the second time in my career, I find myself thinking about my legacy. We may often have reflections on our mortality or what we want to leave with our loved ones, but I am talking about a legacy at work. Have you thought about or planned towards that too?

My first experience of this consideration was when I achieved the voluntary redundancy that I had been seeking after 25 years in senior leadership at a major UK bank. In part, I had been planning towards this for almost a decade before, when I started to get the itch of wanting to start up my own business. But when I achieved a viable financial settlement, I needed more concrete plans.

In this post, I’ll share with you both what I learned from what I did next and how my thinking has developed up to now. My latest experience is planning towards retirement later this year. After what will be a decade of running my own business, what do I want to leave behind? What mark do I want this time of service to have made on the world, my clients and associates? I hope my reflections also help other leaders facing those types of questions.

What do I mean by legacy and why does it matter?

This post is very personal and the question in that heading could be especially so. Each of us will have our own life experience, priorities and morals from which we answer. For me, a combination of my personality and my Christian faith certainly have a bearing on why this is important to me. Over my working life (and especially once in leadership positions) I came to view my work as a calling – a topic I shared in my book review of “Business as a Calling.

But, let me return first to a definition. Some potential confusion can be seen if we look up the meaning of this word in the Cambridge Dictionary, as it is manifold:

Legacy (noun):

  • money or property that you receive from someone after they die;
  • something that is a part of your history or that remains from an earlier time;
  • a situation that has developed as a result of past actions and decisions;
  • money or property that a person or organisation receives from someone who has died.”
Cambridge Dictionary (online, Jan 2024)

My intended use of this word combines the middle two meanings, although also has elements of a bequest as well. Put more simply, it is what you will leave behind for others after you have gone. Hopefully not after your death, rather after you leave that organisation, but it might hopefully last that long too. If your work matters to you, if your leadership role is more than just a means of achieving the income you want, then this has surely occurred to you too. What do you want to leave for others after leaving (for another role or retirement)?

What to consider when choosing a potential legacy

As I’ve pondered the questions above, I’ve realised they can help me prioritise what I do now. This is akin to the thought experiment that coaches will sometimes use with their clients. You might have experienced being asked to imagine your own funeral. Questions like “What do you want others to say about you?” or “How would you like others to feel or remember you?” can focus the mind.

In a similar vein, thinking now about the eventual legacy you want to leave as a leader can help you prioritise what is most important. What is essential to deliver during your time there? Such work should be prioritised and given more of our focus as a leader to ensure it is delivered and of good quality.

Based on a combination of my own experience and that shared with me by coaching clients, I have identified several potential legacies below. Please use the list below to help prompt your thinking. Which, if any, ‘speak to you’? How does it motivate you? Does it connect with your values? Each is a potentially viable legacy, depending on both the needs of the organisation and what matters most to you. Seek to consider both forces in selecting the focus that works best for you.

Potential legacies left by data leaders – which are you choosing?

Here then is my list of potential legacies. Each has value, but prioritising one at a time will help you keep a focus on both what matters most and how you want to be remembered. I hope they help…

(A) High-impact projects (commercial value)

Many data leaders seek to “make their mark” by delivering a measurable return on investment for their employer. This might take the form of a significant cost saving, a strong uplift in earnings or a more efficient conversion of income into profit. Such an approach can be highly visible, praised and remembered. Unfortunately, a focus just on outputs like this can mask neglecting the people, processes or infrastructure needed to repeat such a success. Considering both those potential pros and cons, it can be essential to have at least one such “hero project” during your reign.

(B) High-impact projects (process transformation)

To avoid having “one hit wonderdata projects, some data leaders will focus on improving ways of working and processes. I shared in my book review of “Revolutionizing Business Operations” (and in my podcast interview with coauthor Tony Saldanha) how impressed I was with this focus. I believe many data leaders who are currently driven by a vision of data products, could achieve more by focussing on process transformation. Enda Ridge is another author who demonstrated the power of this focus in his book “Guerrilla Analytics”. A potential pitfall is that such process change takes time and requires culture change, so it may not help if you need a quick win.

(C) Improving the foundations (data architecture)

Many a new data leader, once they have their feet under the table, bemoans the mess they have inherited. In saying this they are often referring to the hotchpotch of legacy systems, poor quality data and inconsistent design or architecture linking it together. Too many times, successive data leaders have invested in partial fixes to enable current projects – without ever achieving the investment needed to improve the whole. Cost is normally the challenge. Data leaders need to learn from the approach advocated in “Data means Business” to make the case for the investment needed. This is not easy and requires many people and commercial skills in the leader. However, when achieved, such a well-functioning data ecosystem can be a more lasting legacy than many others.

(D) People as your legacy (talent development)

This is where I chose to focus. It manifests in several actions. Having a high bar when recruiting and taking the time to do that well. The protecting time to mentor and develop your people. Providing the resources for them to develop both technical and softer skills. Plus, the use of tools like a Competency Framework enables them to see where they need to develop to achieve different career goals. This can be very rewarding. There is no feeling quite like seeing those you recruited as graduates develop into senior leaders themselves. For me, this is the most lasting legacy that you can leave and why all departing leaders should concern themselves with setting those people up for success. Offer to design the right structure and allocate people to the optimal roles for their abilities, to function without you. It can help you to leave with a full heart too.

What will be your legacy?

That’s enough from me for now. I hope my recollections have helped your own planning. I urge you to take the time to step back and think about your legacy. If you are always reactive as a leader, even your delivering what matters most to your senior leaders now will not deliver a lasting legacy.

A focus (like those I suggested above) requires intention and consistency. You will need to decide what legacy you wish to leave and then keep that in view each day. There will be other temporal priorities, but in every decision you make as a leader, you should have a weather eye on your chosen legacy. How does this choice improve our data infrastructure, processes or people?

You will know better than I which is right for you. But I recommend that you do not sleepwalk into the end of your tenure. Rather, build something you will be proud to leave for others.