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8 Great Ways To Build A Business Leader’s Legacy


Leaving an organisational legacy is the lasting test for those hoping to succeed at senior corporate level. Yet the ‘L’ word is rarely used in South African business circles and is typically omitted from a leader’s job specification, even when fundamental change and moving the organisation in new directions are mission-critical.

What’s more, a new appointee rarely uses the word. At the outset, any reference to a legacy seems premature. Later it seems pompous and may suggest an incumbent leader is coming to the end of his (or her) tenure when this is not the case.

The word may go unspoken, but any leader will have been working on a legacy since entering the corporate world, whether consciously or unconsciously.

A new executive has to establish a reputation for hard work, intelligence, honesty and integrity. This personal foundation is a prerequisite for any leader hoping to leave a corporate or industry-wide legacy.

Thoughts about legacy-building may not surface for decades, yet form the unwritten subtext of an executive CV as career successes pile up. That subtext reads: ‘I always exceeded expectations and never messed up’.

When the life-defining top job comes, it becomes possible to attempt a legacy because no impropriety attaches to the leader. People already respect the person and personal performance. It is not unreasonable therefore to expect respect for the achievements that will crown the executive’s career – achievements that may become a lasting legacy or may not, depending on the legacy-builder’s approach.

What, then, are the key steps that ensure an enduring legacy?

After working with senior figures in government and the private sector and checking international experience, I believe at least eight elements are essential. Here’s the Great Eight …

  • The vision thing: Often this entails futuristic thinking and a dramatic break with past practice. An important example is the adoption of business sustainability strategies that look beyond today’s bottom line. Environmental sensitivity, energy efficiency and concern for the wider community are often the critical strategic drivers.
  • Values and morality: A moral sense is not like fashion sense. It never goes out of style. Embody the values you endorse. Live a good life, not the good life. For you, Scandal has to be something you watch on TV, not something touching you or your business.
  • Emotional intelligence is key: Learn to deal with your emotions. Top executives can’t manage a transition unless they can manage their own feelings. You may feel threatened or slighted as you begin to make way. This may cause you to delay or under-estimate the need for robust legacy planning. Work through your emotions. This enables effective legacy formulation.
  • Great leaders should leave great successors: But often don’t. Preparing for the next incumbent goes beyond formal succession processes. Developing potential is an essential attribute of great leaders. Create the space – head room – for subordinates to grow. Develop them as decision-makers, not decision-endorsers.
  • ‘My way’ is rarely the only way: You’re a leader, not a dictator. Canvass an array of opinions – from the board and other executives, from professionals and other stakeholders. Demand action but encourage discussion. This climate enables you, little by little, to fashion your legacy.
  • Continuity culture: Don’t take all the knowledge with you. Share ideas and information. Don’t exclude other executives. But remember, providing information to today’s subordinates is not enough. Engage in plane-crash planning. Make sure all the information needed for effective organisational leadership will be at the fingertips of your successor – even if you die tomorrow in some disaster and an outsider takes over. This approach often characterises strong family businesses in which ‘the life of the business’ has been key for generations. Some listed companies have still to entrench this continuity culture.
  • Personal loyalty, sure, but wider loyalty is crucial: Leaders prize personal loyalty. But executives have to commit to something bigger than the Big Chief in the CE’s chair. Build a sense of wider mission. You can’t create a legacy if key contributors feel rudderless and quit soon after you leave. They have to stay to carry on the work.
  • The mission is never accomplished: Don’t focus solely on the completion of the current mission. It is important to work on new developments, even though you won’t be able to see them through to closure. Successors may reap the benefit five or 10 years later. This does not lessen your obligation to ensure these initiatives get off to a good start.

Above all, legacy-leavers know how to behave. Your conduct, public and private, will be closely scrutinised as you reach new career heights.

You are not only remembered for what you did, but how.

Integrity, hard work and unfailing courtesy leave a lasting impression. Legacy-builders behave accordingly … from the first day in the corporate world until the last day in the CE’s chair.

* Mosima Selekisho is a director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.


Business Leader’s Legacy

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