How to Start Building a Workplace Legacy

Almost everyone who enjoys their work wants to leave some sort of legacy—that is, to be remembered for something meaningful to themselves and others. In my work on succession planning and knowledge transfer within organizations that have employees looking ahead to retirement or encore careers, I’ve heard from 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 organizations or within their industries. 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. And many people feel incomplete without it.

But this is not just an idea for people contemplating the end of their major career. The time to start thinking about work legacy is by age 40 or so. That leaves sufficient time to plan and pursue a purposeful journey and develop the resources and connections to make it happen.

As an example, a man I know, Dennis, had built a successful career as an executive at a financial software company. Along the way, he discovered a passion for supporting philanthropy. When he determined he wanted to plan toward a transition to helping foundations as his encore career, he consciously thought about leaving a nonfinancial legacy at the company that for over 20 years he had helped to grow significantly. The result was a leadership program for training employees on how to provide high-level client service. He left after implementing it, feeling proud and fulfilled and established himself as an executive helping foundations.

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.

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Work legacy can be about such things as work processes, mentoring, knowledge transfer, innovating, training new talent and bringing something unique to the table. It’s what one passes on to the next generations and peers in as broad a sense as you would like to think about it. It’s having achieved something that lives on, that conveys your purpose, that is bigger than what you are doing at the moment. It’s not a charitable legacy, though that could be part of it.

Working on a 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. The founder was resistant to 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 write about and 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 altered, but highly respected roles and is still a presence. Since then, we have used the process for boomer and Gen X employee advance transitioning planning.

Ideally, people should be thinking about their legacy at work by age 50 at the latest. 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. Now with a disruptive pandemic forcing wide change, it’s a perfect time for work legacy planning.

Here are some questions you might start thinking about as an individual or with colleagues as a team or in a mastermind group with a structured process and peer support:

  • What do you want to be remembered for wherever you are working now by colleagues, by clients/customers and external stakeholders, and 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?
  • What systems don’t exist now that might later?
  • What would it take to achieve the above? 
  • How will you know you are succeeding in fulfilling your legacy?

Outline a model for your eventual transition or role shift 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. With a solid plan, you can get needed support.

Ideas for Building Your Legacy at Work

If you have not already determined your desired legacy, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. 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 related to the company’s resources and skills that millennials are demanding to participate in and that boost a firm’s attraction as a best place to work.
  2. As you move forward toward traditional retirement age (as Gen Xers and older millennials), you may have to make a role shift to secure your legacy. View it as a welcome challenge, not a loss of status.
  3. Take on long-term projects and involve younger colleagues to collaborate with, mentor, coach and transfer knowledge to.
  4. 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.

Building a legacy can be one of the most fulfilling things you do in your life. And not only that, it sustains an organization, outlives you and keeps you relevant now as well as present when you are no longer there. Get started now!

Contact me to learn about our Legacy-Makers@Work podcast and Mastermind groups, and to receive a free list of tips for building a legacy at work. 

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©  Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2020. An earlier version of this article appeared on Forbes.

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Phyllis Weiss Haserot

Phyllis Weiss Haserot, president of Practice Development Counsel and a passionate champion of cross-generational conversation, helps organizations and individuals solve intergenerational challenges among work colleagues and with clients to achieve enviable productivity, knowledge transfer, engagement, retention, succession planning and business development results. Reach her at pwhaserot@pdcounsel.com and youcantgoogleit.com.

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