How to Leave Behind a Legacy

It’s amazing how many professional insights we can gain just from a presidential transition. Last week, we discussed measuring the drapes before getting to the office and the importance of planning management and administration tactics ahead of time. This time, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the people lined up to take our place in the office. What are we leaving behind for these newcomers? Are we setting them up for success? Why should we even bother? And how does the presidential transition inform this process for us?

In a recent interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, addressed these questions and highlighted the connections between running a presidential office and running a business in the private sector.

“If you look at private sector organizations as an analogy, they’ll spend one to three years identifying successors, grooming them, and then finally picking the next CEO. It’s not too early for agencies to be thinking about this transition process,” Fox said. “You really want to start lining up those people and think about the preparation required to take over what is far more complex.”

For the presidential transition, this requires thinking about the members of the incoming administration. The outgoing President will have to think about:

  • How can we improve knowledge sharing with the incoming administration?
  • What more needs to be done to prepare political appointees?
  • How can we help new members come into this office and hit the ground running?

In similar situations, all of these questions have been asked when private sector leaders choose the next CEO. Such questions provide highly useful insights for those of us in government careers. Ultimately, you want to consider what kind of legacy you’re leaving behind.

Leaving a “Lasting Legacy”- A lesson from the private sector
You’ve probably read, or at least heard of, Jim Collin’s revolutionary leadership and management book, Good to Great. One concept that helps to emphasize the importance of good leadership during transition is “Leaving a Lasting Legacy.” Collins includes this definition as part of Level 5 Leadership. What Collins means is that a CEO is a better leader when she focuses just as much effort into the future of the company as the present, even beyond her term of leadership. The CEO is invested in building a company that will only improve after she is gone. If this is a defining characteristic of a great leader in the private sector, how important could this legacy concept be for government employees, and even the president, who serve the public interest?

“The peaceful transfer or power is often considered one of the hallmarks of democracy,” said Fox. “But if you look at how it actually occurs, it’s far too often left up to chance.”

While most federal employees and (govies in general) understand the transition of power, it is often difficult to determine what is most important for incoming administrations or employees to know. “There’s no guidebook that currently exists that builds on the lessons learned from the past. It’s often times left to large briefing books filled with policy memos that are just too ‘think’ for anyone to read,” said Fox.

He described what the Partnership for Public Service is focusing on to improve the presidential transition process: “We went back and looked at previous transitions to identify those best practices, those lessons learned. The second thing we’re doing is figuring out how to help those new appointees come into their roles and lead effectively, the moment they’re taking office,” he said. “So we’re trying to figure out how we can accelerate their learning curve so that they can be as effective as possible on day one.”

I think it’s safe to say that all of us want our successors to succeed, or else what’s the point of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the work, right? Helping our successors is not just to their benefit, but also to our own.

Some Key Takeaways
When thinking about great leadership and “building a lasting legacy,” Fox provided some excellent tips that, as outgoing POTUS, CEO, manager, employee, or even intern, can ensure a smooth transition process and success for those to come.

Start early– It’s better to do a little over a long period of time than a lot over a short period of time. A President starts thinking about his legacy halfway through the presidential term. Similarly, start thinking about how you want your current position or role to be defined and what you can leave behind to help someone better fulfill and even exceed in that role. Start lining up the right people to take over in that leadership capacity. The earlier, the better.

Put together a digestible guide- Don’t leave behind enormous books of policy memos that no one is going to get through. Be creative! Make sure that the information is short, sweet, and digestible. But be honest and include the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with the position. You want to prepare the incoming employees for what’s to come.

Build relationships with incoming employees– Remember, they’re not your enemies. As Fox mentioned, there’s a learning curve to adjust to, and in order to help new government employees, it’s important to build relationships with them. Help them understand your values, those of the organization, and the duties essential to the position. Build trust and confidence in newcomers and help encourage them so they feel ready to hit the ground running on day one.

For further reading on the presidential transition, check out the Washington Post’s editorial, Smooth Presidential Transition Can’t be Done in Just a Few Weeks, an op-ed by Max Stier, Can you Govern?, and a Fiscal Times article, Campaign Issues Dominate, But Who’s Ready to Govern?

Ensuring a smooth transition is critical to the office of the President, to companies, and to your government organization. It’s also critical to the citizens you ultimately serve. When striving to be a Level 5 Leader, or even President, it’s never too early to ask yourself: “What legacy will you leave behind?”

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Andy Willis

A true leader understands that his most important role is based in continuity. In organizations that select the next CEO (type position), that leader’s most important role is to identify the individual who will fill that seat next. While sitting in that seat (the entire time – if possible), that leader should be allowing potential replacements to see her/his development in that role and the processes, methods and practices used to lead the organization.

By allowing up and coming “potentials” to observe at close range the organizational leader demonstrates a sense of confidence that will hopefully get be passed along to these up and comers in an organic way. This sense of confidence is demonstrated by allowing them to see the successes and failures that take place as a result of those processes, methods and practices (as carried out and directed by the existing leader). A leader that allows others up close and personal visibility of his/her mistakes and how they deal with them prepares the new leader to understand that it’s about leading the organization in a positive manner as opposed to making sure that the “king is always seen in a good light”.

Leading is all about supporting the mission. Leading is making sure that the organization and the folks that carry out that mission have what they need when they need it and understand how to use it. A great leader loves the people in their organization. That love automatically drives that leader to put the best interest of the organization and it’s people ahead of their own interests.

An example of a GREAT leader is General Jerry Boykin – he LOVED his men. They knew he loved them and because of that – they wanted to accomplish the mission.