When you’re just getting your head around your new CEO role, it might feel counterintuitive to start thinking about what your leadership legacy will be when you eventually move on to your next challenge.
Recent data suggests you’ll probably be in your role only three to five years—that’s now the average CEO tenure, according to the latest Korn Ferry research. Given that building a strong legacy takes years, if you don’t start working on it now, then you might find your CEO tenure ends, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.”
But with so many demands on your time as a new CEO, should you really add “legacy planning” to your vast to-do list?
Absolutely, says Elise O. Schroeter, Global Head Organization & Talent Strategy, Board & CEO Practice at Korn Ferry. She explains, “It’s critically important to start thinking about your legacy from the beginning. Otherwise, you’re like a rudderless ship. Legacy – fueled by your purpose – helps you steer.”
Protect your leadership reputation
Whether your tenure turns out to be three or 10 years, you probably have an eye on the impact you want to make and the roles you might want to undertake next. That might be in the C-suite of another organization, or as a Board member, interim or consultant for your current or other companies.
But if you don’t have a leadership legacy you’re proud of when you walk out the door, you might find many of the more desirable career paths less available to you. In fact, your legacy will probably be apparent even before you leave. Your leadership approach and values, your impact on employees and the industry, the direction you’ve taken the business in, and the path the business is on will be clear to anyone taking an interest in your career.
Conversely, if you have made lasting positive changes, you are likely to be recognized as the go-to choice for roles elsewhere within and outside of your industry. And if you’re passionate about any particular issues, and your legacy is linked to those, you’ll also have the reputation needed to help drive positive change around those issues.
Leadership legacy vs. purpose
As CEO, you didn’t just drift along and accidentally find yourself at the helm of an organization. To reach the position of CEO, you need to be ambitious and have goals in mind for your business, your industry—and yourself.
Some might call it ego, but it’s rarely about pure status. You probably have a strong belief that your experience and insight will help you leave a business better than it was when you arrived. But there can be confusion about the difference between legacy and purpose—and that’s because the two are closely connected.
Defining your purpose might show why you’re the right person to be leading this company. And legacy will show whether you have achieved that purpose. It’s a proof point of your success—or failure.
Intersecting legacy planning with your purpose puts parameters and expectations around how you show up. Crucially, it ensures you have a clear long-term strategy that will guide the numerous short-term targets and objectives you’ll need to tackle to achieve your legacy.
Planning early on for the legacy you want to build allows you to bring focus to your vision and purpose, making it tangible rather than lofty.
For example, if your purpose is to improve your organization’s sustainability while maintaining profitability, you can use your legacy planning to think about what that would look like in three to five years. This will give you measurable long-term sustainability results, which will form a key part of your legacy when you move on.