Leaving a Legacy: What you Can Learn from the Successes and Challenges of Others

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Published 11/15/2014

We can’t speak about leadership legacy today without mentioning Steve Jobs. He was a genius when it came to product innovations and he created an environment at Apple that allowed his impact to be felt long after his death. However, it is important to separate Jobs’ innovation legacy from his actual leadership legacy. That is how Jobs impacted the people around him.

When it came to management style, Steve Jobs was not a boss for everyone.

There are hundreds of stories that illustrate just how difficult he was to work for and to work with. He was such a genius that his leadership style is often overlooked, but before comparing oneself to Steve Jobs, a leader should keep in mind the fact that his style of management wasn’t about people. If you aren’t changing the world with your products and services, what will your legacy be?  The answer? People. When leaving a legacy, you should think more about the people you leave behind, rather than the products and services you leave behind. After all, products and services come and go. It is the people that will keep the company moving forward toward its vision.

The Legend Of General Electric

Jack Welch is one of the most famous business leaders of all time.  Welch is as synonymous with General Electric as Steve Jobs is to Apple and Vince Lombardi is to the Green Bay Packers.  Welch is famous for a lot of things – not all of which are positive – but he did create a leadership legacy that has been able to survive long after his exit from GE.

When most companies find themselves looking for a new CEO, they often have to put together a search committee to draw candidates from other organizations. This is not true at General Electric. They are very clear about their mission and process for developing leaders from within. When Jeff Immelt, the current CEO of GE retires, there are most likely several candidates in line who have been groomed over the years to step into that role when called upon.

The same holds true for leadership positions down the line. GE puts a great deal of time, effort, and resources behind training and developing talent from within.

By promoting people inside the organization, GE leaders ensure that the culture they have created, the values that are important and the priorities they have set forth will continue on with each new generation of managers that moves up the ladder.

How A Leadership Change Can Impact Culture – and Success

Bernard Marcus and Arthur Blank founded Home Depot after being fired from the home improvement store chain Handy Dan by a man who famously referred to himself as “Ming the Merciless,” a noteworthy leadership legacy in itself. Blank and Marcus took the lessons they learned from that experience and used it to create a company that put the focus on employees. Instead of treating payroll as an expense, they viewed it as an investment, recruiting strong talent at all levels, paying those people what they were worth, and investing in their career growth and development.

Marcus and Blank were famous for practicing what they preached, spending a great deal of time on the floor in stores, and living up to their philosophy that people – customers and associates alike, drive the success of a business.

  When they eventually retired from Home Depot, they made an interesting choice. Rather than promoting from within, they looked outside of the organization for a successor. That is where they found Bob Nardelli, and ex-GE executive who had lost a bid to replace Jack Welch.

They had hoped they were leaving a legacy that would last well into the future. However, Nardelli’s leadership style could not have been more different than the style of Blank and Marcus. Nardelli was famous for a top-down, authoritative approach to management, and he tried to apply that style to an organization that had thrived from day one on empowering employees at all levels to make their own decisions.

Throughout Nardelli’s tenure, Home Depot lost a great deal of talent thanks to this extreme culture shift. Eventually Home Depot righted the ship, and they have returned their focus to developing talent from within and creating a culture that will allow the vision and mission of Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank to continue.

Leaving a Legacy is About More than Just You

When you consider what type of legacy you will leave behind, it is important to recognize that the culture of the company plays a key role in the process. If you do not cultivate an environment in which leaders and employees can carry on your vision, your legacy cannot live on. Leaving a legacy requires almost as much focus on culture as your personal style and achievements. GE has a culture that recognizable. GE people are known for working a certain way, managing a certain way, and tackling problems a certain way. Home Depot, which has a very different way of doing things, is also known for its culture, and it is that culture that helps ensure the vision of its founders will live on, despite a few hiccups along the way.

What will you do today to help create a culture that allows your legacy to continue long after you are gone?

Beth Armknecht Miller is a Certified Managerial Coach and CEO of Executive Velocity, a top talent and leadership development advisory firm. Her latest book, “Are You Talent Obsessed?: Unlocking the secrets to a workplace team of raving high-performers is available on Amazon.