The Great Eight 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 …

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. ‘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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

Build a Better Candidate for that Top Job… YOU!

No one is born into senior management. Top performers are invariably built, not born. But here’s the thing … they build themselves. They are DIY experts at equipping themselves with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that take them up to the corporate suite and then into the boardroom.

Yet many successful executives at career-end confide that it took a setback to get them started on the self-build to success.

One catalyst is assessment feedback – the report on traits, strengths and gaps in your knowledge or experience you receive after failing to get a better job or getting one. You might be handed a similar appraisal during a performance management process or after psychometric tests.

Research on talent development, specialist literature and personal interaction with self-made achievers spotlight common themes that may help some other high potential candidates make even faster progress.

Here are 12 …

  1. Don’t stew, review: Assessment feedback highlights areas of strength, but also identifies weaknesses and gaps. You might feel uncomfortable about some comments, but calmly review what the report has to say. Take time to reflect. The information could give you career-building insights and help you grow as a person.
  1. Clarify the vision: Write down your own Vision & Mission Statement. Clarify what you want to achieve in life and in your career. Stick to the big picture.
  1. Set goals: Use feedback to map areas for improvement. Set goals and attach timelines – short, medium and long. Targets should be doable, relevant, measurable and tough enough to stretch you. Don’t focus solely on career issues. Include health, relationships, family and personal interests. You still encounter monomaniac corporate achievers, but most are multi-faceted, broadminded and have a life beyond the boardroom.
  1. Create a how-to list: Goals go on your to-do list. You also need a how-to list that tells you how to achieve targets. Cut down TV time and do more reading; books, journals and articles. You could find yourself following certain blogs or carrying out Net research to expand your knowledge. Building wider personal or career networks will probably go on the list along with gathering new experience and obtaining a mentor or coach. Further training and education usually feature high on the list as do lifestyle changes to promote fitness and wellbeing.
  1. Role-modelling: Formal executive coaching and mentoring can be a big help, but you don’t need to wait for the organisation to put you on a programme. Quietly ‘co-opt’ your own mentor or several. Who are your role models – at work and in everyday life? You might admire the people skills of one senior colleague and the time efficiency of another. Try to spend time with these models. Copy and adapt some of their techniques.  You can also identify a negative role model, somebody who displays behaviour you purposefully reject and don’t want to copy.  Become a keen observer.
  1. Start a learning journal: Carry an old-fashioned notebook or the digital equivalent. Jot down learnings or pieces of useful information. As you start to network more, read more and interact with role models import insights come your way. Record the data, reflect on it and put it to work.
  1. Active listening: Make a conscious effort to listen more. Develop the habit of asking questions, noting the answers and encouraging discussion. You learn by listening not by talking.
  1. Learning by doing: The way to develop new skills is to try them out. Apply your new knowledge. Look for opportunities to expand your experience. Volunteer for assignments that take you out your routine. Job enhancement stretches you and makes you more valuable to your organisation. Training courses are important, but learning on the job ensures skills are bedded in.
  1. Optimise errors: Put mistakes to work by learning from them. What went wrong? Why? What would you do differently next time around? Ensure you cover issues like this in your learning journal. They ensure better outcomes down the line.
  1. Unlearn: Things change. New knowledge creates new insights. You may have to unlearn some ways of doing things to apply fresh concepts. Alternatively, fresh ideas may turn out to have a short shelf-life. Unlearning keeps you open to new input.
  1. Give and take: Don’t simply absorb information from others and learn from your role models; share information. Help others. Become a ‘sage’, a source of trusted information and encouragement. Give back.
  1.  Reward yourself: Self-development is not a chore. You should enjoy the progress you make in life and at work. Ensure you stay the course (it lasts a lifetime) by giving you and your family some rewards as you reach goals and move on.

These techniques are common to many top corporate performers. Another characteristic is worth noting. They never feel sorry for themselves.

Achievers don’t say, “Oh, I never got the chance. The firm never developed me.” That’s because they develop themselves – and make an exceptional job of it.

Michelle Moss is Head of Assessment at Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.


If You Think Getting a Job is Tough, Try Keeping One!

You’re young, ambitious and have just started your first job. You nailed the interview. Your educational qualifications seemed to help and you were smart enough to make yourself presentable and prepare for obvious questions from your employer. Now what?

This is where the hard work begins. If you thought getting a job was tough, try keeping it and using the position as a springboard to promotion and meaningful career development.

Before going to work on your first day, look in the mirror. Check that your head is on right because your attitude and way of thinking will determine whether you grow your career or blow your career.

Learn one employment statistic off by heart before you even start. This one: by the end of 2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis our economy had shed more than ONE MILLION jobs.

There were graduates among those casualties. Many of the newly unemployed had qualifications as good as yours, sometimes better. They all had more on-the-job experience than you do right now.

Market volatility may return. Your challenge, through the ups and downs, is to identify yourself as an asset to be retained and further developed.

There are no guarantees, but some behaviour is helpful while other behaviour is not.

Here are some tips to help you ‘behave yourself’ all the way to the top (based on feedback from successful executives who have shared information on their own development):

You’re there to learn as well as earn … Don’t think that because you’ve finished university or high school you’ve finished learning. To earn big you learn big. Start in learning mode from Day One. Ask questions and indicate to colleagues and your superiors that you are eager to learn. Show you are fascinated by the workings of your company and department (even if you secretly see it merely as a stepping stone to other things).

Train more and you gain more … check on training and development opportunities. Find out the criteria are for programme inclusion. Your immediate superior or HR department may provide information like this in your first few days. But things change. New modules may be introduced. Make sure you stay in the know.

Lifelong learning vital for those yearning for success … in addition to formal training and participation in development courses it is advisable to absorb further knowledge. Read widely. Also read about your industry, new trends and technology.

Mentors are great helpers … many companies have formal mentoring processes to ensure knowledge is passed from experienced personnel to newcomers. Participation can fast-track you to greater responsibility or speed your rotation into other parts of the business. If no formal mentoring programme exists you can sometimes identify your own informal mentor – a knowledgeable individual who gets things done. Try to learn from skilled practitioners like this. Polite questions now and again will encourage this role model to share how-to information.

Humility highlights your suitability … arrogance is career-limiting. You may be a graduate. You may have won prizes at school. Your family and friends may look up to you. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this qualifies you for advancement. Practising humility is a better way of demonstrating your suitability for greater responsibility. Listen to peers and superiors. Don’t be in a hurry to give your opinion. Express an opinion when it is requested or necessary, but don’t speak at length. You then deny others a chance to contribute. Conduct yourself in a respectful manner at all times.

Do more to stand out more … going the extra mile is essential if you wish to quietly impress those in a position to help you. Volunteer for some assignments, and not just the ones that bestow prestige. Try to widen your experience by working in other areas of the business when you can. Volunteering for a task outside your immediate area of responsibility is a good way of doing this.

Qualifications hardly qualify you … lifelong learning, development programmes, further degrees and post-graduate diplomas are wonderful, but experience is still king. Build a track record little by little and year after year. You can’t buy experience. You live it. Don’t imagine you will reach a senior position in a few months. It takes years. Commit to the long haul.

You’re only best by test … you may think your experience and qualifications are good. You may even be earmarked for promotion, but you don’t have a divine right to advancement. Many companies measure an insider’s suitability for promotion by pitting him or her against an external candidate. The insider has to be at least as good as the outsider.

So remember, there are lots of good people out there. Make sure you are best by test against the rest. One way of doing this is by applying all of the above.

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