Almost everyone who enjoys their work wants to leave some sort of a “legacy,” that is, to be remembered for something meaningful to themselves and others. In my work on succession planning and knowledge transfer within firms that have partners looking ahead to retirement or encore careers, I’ve been hearing from Baby Boomers and some older Gen Xers about the desire to leave a legacy at work. Most people would like to feel they have made a difference in their professional life.
Many Boomers started their careers in optimistic times with this desire. Now some struggle to identify and articulate what their legacy at work can be and how to make it happen. This is frequently true even among leaders. And many people feel “incomplete” without it.
Creating a “work legacy” can be about highlighting such useful career tools as process improvements, mentoring, knowledge transfer, innovating, training new talent, and bringing something unique to the table. It’s what one person passes on to the next generation and having achieved something that lives on, that conveys your purpose, that is bigger than what you are doing at the moment. Ideally, people should be thinking about their legacy at work by age 50. Sadly, many busy people tend not to think about legacy until late in their careers when they must try to make up for lost time. And they often don’t know where to begin.
Working on a law firm client project that included the challenges of transitioning planning for partners and executives in their early 60s, I developed a series of work legacy exercises. A founder was resisting “letting go”, passing power to a successor leader and accepting a new role. In their homework for a partner retreat, we had him and a few of the most senior partners begin to design their desired legacy so that their contributions would be clear and they had something to look forward to in their new roles. Through a planned process, the transitions came to pass — peacefully — and several years later the founder has an altered but highly respected role. Since then we have used the process for Boomer partner and executive advance transitioning planning.
Here are some questions you might start thinking about as an individual or with colleagues as a team.
- What do you want to be remembered for by colleagues? By clients/customers and external stakeholders? In the context of your roles in the organization?
- What would you like to pass on to the next generations?
- What can you start to do now or change now to be able to achieve that legacy?
- How might your role change?
- How would the firm benefit? And grow its revenues (if relevant)?
- What systems that don’t exist now might there be?
- What would it take — what changes — to achieve the above? What must be kept as is?
- How will you know you are succeeding in fulfilling your legacy?
- What will it mean to you if your legacy remains unfulfilled?
- Outline a model for your eventual transition from your current roles.
If you know you are likely to be facing a transition where you currently work within the next five years, plan to take control as much as possible by initiating or designing the change. Don’t think you have to be in senior management to make it happen.
7 Ideas to Start Building a Legacy at Work
If you have not already determined your legacy:
- Identify what you always wish you had done, and explore ways to make that possible now or in the near future. Many older Boomers (the early Peace Corps generation) started their careers with an idealistic outlook for social change and found themselves detoured given economic or personal circumstances. I have seen Boomers helping to run corporate social responsibility projects that the Millennials at the firm are demanding to participate in. That boosts a firm’s attraction as a best place to work.
- As you move forward toward traditional retirement age, you may have to make a role shift to secure your legacy. View it as a welcome challenge, not a loss of status.
- Take on long-term projects and involve younger colleagues to collaborate with, mentor, coach and transfer knowledge to.
- Convey to younger colleagues stories that help to maintain important cultural glue and pride for the organization. You can perpetuate the narratives about leaders who made major contributions to the field and/or community and about innovations in processes and products.
- Cultivate colleagues of all ages with shared concerns and objectives at work.
- Figure out how to maintain your passion — and keep showing it. Solving similar problems over and over can get old. Find a way to avoid “the thrill is gone” feeling.
- Think of up to five ways you can continue to be most relevant, adapting to external forces with your purpose in mind. Seek assistance from someone who can help you through the journey if needed.
Building a legacy at work can be one of the most fulfilling things you can do in your life. And not only that, it outlives you and keeps you relevant and present when you are no longer there. Get started now!