Legacy & Ego

I’ve been at the CIPD for just over a year and a half and I’ve reached that point (it happens to everyone on a certain bit of the org chart)  where people start talking to me about the word ‘legacy’. What do I want to leave as my ‘legacy’?

It’s a very leadery thing to talk about legacy. It’s supposed to be very motivational and get you thinking about longer term ambitions. It does, but it also panders horribly to ego.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’m very aware that talking about legacy is a dangerous trap. Not because you shouldn’t try to leave sustainable improvements, but because the nature of most of what we do is transient. My guess is that most of what we would hope is our legacy is torn up within 2-3 years or taken in a direction we wouldn’t envisage. The danger is that people try to force too much change associated with their own ego into too short a period. We need to appreciate that we get to write a chapter, we don’t get to finish the book. So that chapter has to be in keeping with what happens either side of it.

Indeed, I once had a month long handover period with my successor and she was, intelligently, tearing my planned legacy up in front of my eyes. I remember wanting to justify each and every decision I had taken to get us to this point – then realising that history had no value. I was just the past. So I helped her.
I think one of the most useful legacies to leave behind is a good team with good ambitions and good values. More capable than what was there before. I also think some ‘breakthrough’ changes are good to tick off too. Creating new norms that last for a while. You just need to realise that they will move on even further when you go. Your legacy is just doing a good job whilst you were in the hotseat – then handing things on to someone else to do a good job too. Legitimise a different way of working then move on.

So if you come into a job and want to change everything –  then appreciate you are tearing up someone’s ‘legacy’. And in turn that will be your work being torn up.

But the impact you have on people? That can endure and ripple far beyond the walls of one organisation. Maybe stop thinking about legacy and start thinking about the decisions you took for the organisation being remembered with respect in years to come. One of the most undervalued things in business remains restraint. It’s not about your legacy, it’s about the organisation’s future.

I had breakfast with Neil Morrison yesterday. These are some thoughts after that, but in no way tie Neil in to my stupidity nor exclude any accidentally smart points from being his. 



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8 thoughts on “Legacy & Ego

  1. Does legacy have to be limited to things? It seems to me if you can leave behind people who want to be better because of things you’ve helped them with, that’s a pretty good legacy.

  2. Nice post. It’s a bit like sand castles on the beach: they get washed away, but it is how we play that matters. That, and how it felt. One thing, though: an idea can live on through multiple hosts. But to host an idea bigger than oneself is hardly a legacy – more of a duty.

  3. Been mulling this over the last week as I felt there was something not quite right. A disservice perhaps. I think my unease comes down to the focus of where the legacy sits. You touch on it (“ripples”) but still the whole context of legacy feels like it’s overly organisation/role focussed – for you the CIPD.

    What about the people you’ve impacted (knowingly or unknowingly) outside the CIPD whilst you’ve been performing your role?

    I’m thinking everyone from your immediate family friends to the people you’ve interacted with (or have just read you) on Social Media. The people who listened to you at those conferences and the people who read your writing. The people you interact with to/from work. The chance encounters.

    Legacy relating to a work role feels like a very narrow and limiting perspective for humans with so much intended and unintended interaction beyond the workplace. Legacy sits in what people remember about you as well as the “artifacts” you leave behind.

    • That’s true and when I thinking I was thinking very much about organisational legacy. The boundaried area that we are in control of and accountable for. Those ripples do extend much further and our influence is broader and deeper than that. I agree. Thank you for thinking and aiding mine.

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