What will your legacy be?

Specifically in the context of your career, even your current role, have you considered what kind of mark you want to make? This is a question I find that very few people consider. We’re all well trained to look upward (the organizational hierarchy) for direction, priorities and goals. If your firm is well run it will ensure it gets what it needs out of you, and it is your job to ensure you get what you need out of your role and experience. This is the perfect time to be thinking about this as many of you are setting your goals for the new year (both in your firm’s performance management system and in your personal life). 
Here’s what usually happens - After accepting a new role (new company, promotion or transfer) very quickly we get lost in a sea of information overload. There are company, function, department and team strategies, priorities, goals, etc. We have the job description that is likely some lame expression of what someone in HR thought you might do. Then there are the weekly and daily tasks given to you by your manager (no matter what your level). Just trying to discern between all of these competing priorities for your time can be exhausting. I find this to be a bit like those crazy zero inbox people who try to get to every email. Seldom are we left with energy, bandwidth or even headspace to consider what our own priorities are. So we spread our time across a myriad of special projects, committees, and assignments, slowly moving each along in a slog. Add to that a deluge of emails, text messages, phone calls, social media notifications to make us feel further underwater. Some call this “Reactionary Workflow.” Then months, quarters and years pass by. When we finally stop to update our resume or speak to a recruiter we get hit with a question like “What did you accomplish in your last role?” Or “What are you most proud of accomplishing?” At this point often we just recite our job duties and responsibilities as we have few if any true, interesting, owned accomplishments we can point to. 

Activities vs. Accomplishments -Ever heard that one liner about not confusing effort with progress? Well if your resume reads like a job description and your answers to questions do as well you are likely discussing activity. Protip: activity is basic and boring. You’ll sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher and everyone will likely tune you out. What’s exciting? Accomplishments. In fact I can tell by someone’s body language, expression, posture and tone of voice when they start to speak about an accomplishment. When they get excited about what they are sharing, so do I. It makes them stand out, shows they are thoughtful and can get things done, and leaves me with distinct memories about them that become part of their personal brand.
A better way to do it - You must, of course, work towards the priories of your manager, and align with the overall goals and strategy of your organization. You’ll also need to do most or all of those activities outlined in your job description. For instance, there will still be things like compliance audits, or some reporting fire drill, a customer service crisis, or slides to make for the board. None of these examples will make a legacy but they are required elements of being a professional and team player. What you need to do, is in the context of what your organization is up to and trying to achieve, decide where you want to place a bet and move something forward.

How? I suggest picking 1-3 items (fewer is better) that you are committed to accomplishing during your tenure. While you likely don’t know when you will get a new job or leave the company, you can set an artificial date in your head and work like you have a limited amount of time. This can be very motivating. One example that stuck with me is learning that Mike Bloomberg displayed a clock on the wall of his Mayoral bull pen with the number of days remaining in his tenure - a reminder to get going in making things happen. These need to be things bigger than yourself as well (e.g. getting a training certification or doing something that only you see or appreciate isn’t what we are talking about). Perhaps you are in a medical office and there are big issues with billing accuracy. Or you are a sales manager and client retention is slipping. Or you work at a startup as an engineer and know your 30 person company will be 100 in a year and there isn’t a plan. Look for the opportunities where you could see yourself digging into either a problem or better yet seizing an opportunity. If you are just getting started with this approach problems are often easier to address, get management support, resources, etc. vs. something more forward-thinking, risky, and new. Yet the latter is often ushered with bigger rewards for capturing upside opportunities. It doesn’t have to be a change the world sort of thing either, but something meaty enough that you can see the impact and likely something that might not get done unless you take a stand and lead.
Once you’ve picked those items you must consistently work towards fulfilling on them. You will be awash with all of the other things everyone in your company wants you to do, and some of this you may need to ignore or right-size how much effort you put into those items. Don’t lose sight of the prize and relentlessly pursue it.
Why this matters 

  • First, it will accelerate your career. When you are actually accomplishing things, things that otherwise might have never gotten done, you will attract attention from colleagues and higher ups. Your skills will expand. Your career narrative becomes very interesting and compelling. You may even get external recognition like speaking at a conference, winning an award, or media coverage. 
  • Second, you will be a better employee for your firm. Taking on a more long-term and accomplishment oriented view is an expression of firm citizenship, shows how leadership can happen at any level and is really a choice. You will create value for your firm by making it more efficient or more competitive. 
  • Third, you will feel good about yourself. This is the one that really matters the most. If you sit down and ask yourself what you are proud of, having solid accomplishments you can point to is very fulfilling. Said differently, knowing you make a difference is incredible. 

My story - When I left my management consulting job the head of HR gave me a compliment that I’ll never forget. She said “Ben you’ve left an indelible mark on this firm and it is forever changed. You were a relatively junior employee but you have had more impact here than most partners ever will.” Wow. I had co-founded an employee resource group for LGBT colleagues. Our firm didn’t have one (in fact there were NO employee resource groups of any kind!). With the support of management, including the CEO, we made huge strides. We launched a LGBT recruiting program at the Ivy League schools, we brought together a network of colleagues that spanned the globe and business units, we pushed to change firm policies, and worked to change the culture through mentoring straight executives on the LGBT experience. We had done all of this with no dedicated staff, very meager budget, and a very intense day job. I would use my 6 AM Monday flights to work on the group and late evenings in hotels while on the road. It was extra work that wasn’t in my job description but it was work that I loved, work that made a big difference, and work that created my legacy. It was a key part of what opened up my next career opportunity (including substantially more income). After leaving the firm the group only got stronger, in size and impact, taking on bigger goals, and even secured gross-up of domestic partner benefits, which was something I never thought would happen! When I look back at all that I learned and did while working there (it was a fantastic experience) this is what I point to as my real accomplishment and what still gives me a tremendous sense of pride. 
What will your legacy be?

If you are looking for more on this subject check out “How Will You Measure Your Life?” written by a Harvard Business School professor that includes content on career legacy and impact. 

How Will You Measure Your Life?
By Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon

Photo credit: vidalia_11 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/56832361@N00/) from Creative Commons