Right now jobs are uncertain, career paths are upended, and hierarchies are fluid. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many future plans are on hold.
In some ways, the pandemic offers an opportunity to pause, reset, and reconsider our priorities and our purpose. Now more than ever, the question I’m hearing from people isn’t: How can I get a step ahead? Instead, it’s: How can I hold on to what I have—and make sure that my work matters? It’s not: What do I want to do? It’s: Who do I want to be?
“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.” ~ John Gardner
So often, it seems that legacy-building is a luxury that comes with time and seniority. But we’re each building a career legacy—or should be—every single day. Think about this: Each new role you take, person you mentor, project you lead, and process you improve builds a body of work that follows you throughout your career, evolving and strengthening, serving as your professional calling card. Reframing your legacy in this way allows you to craft a career not as a series of steps but as a meaningful, proactive contribution that reflects your values and builds your personal brand.
Why is legacy important to think about now? Well, if you’re not intentional about creating one from the outset that’s bigger than one job at a time, you risk feeling tethered to a professional identity over which you have no control. If jettisoned from a role before you feel ready, or if you haven’t mindfully created a legacy “in situ,” you may suffer an identity crisis, or wonder: What was it all for? You may feel known in your peer circles, but need to play catch-up with networking and aren’t quite sure how to talk about the contributions you’ve made so far. This feeling of being suddenly thrust into new identities and ways of working requires us all to re-write our professional stories and re-align our values, whether we’re currently employed or not.
This is something Millennial job-seekers grasp instinctively, as they search for mission-driven work that aligns with their values. Their job search is interwoven with their identity. But it’s an important concept for leaders and job seekers at every age and every stage.
The good news is, it’s never too late to consciously build a professional legacy, and this global pause is the perfect time to think about yours. What do you want to be known for, professionally and personally? What’s your calling card and your lasting contribution to your work and your community? What’s the next stage of your legacy-building and how can you add to it, brick by brick, over the next few years?
Here’s what a purposeful legacy looks like at every career stage:
As a Contributor
As someone whose work isn’t managerial, you’re still of service, every day. How you treat internal team members and external clients, and how you approach your craft, matters to the people around you. It also matters a great deal to the people who fill your shoes when you’ve moved on.
In this stage, your legacy is defined by what you’re willing to learn, to what degree you’re willing to improve yourself and your work, and your flexibility as you adjust to a potentially modified workflow and different expectations—as well as your capacity to push back when an ask doesn’t align with your values. If you’re currently employed, your legacy is defined by the courage, generosity, and tenacity you show in this crisis. If you’re unemployed, your future legacy has a chance to become so much deeper in the future based on what you have the courage and growth mindset to try, learn and explore right now, so you can bring new-found knowledge to the next chapter of your professional story.
As a First-Time Leader
When you become a leader, you sign on to the solemn responsibility to care for the careers of others. You begin to think beyond day-to-day tasks and toward the bigger picture. You could take a heads-down, manage-what’s-in-front-of-me approach, or you could work from a heads-up, how-do-I-build-for-the-next-team-to-come mindset.
For example, I’m working with a new account management leader at a startup who’s racing to set up new processes that will live well beyond his tenure. Even though he’s new to the managerial ranks, he’s pushing back on leadership to treat employees more respectfully and creating growth paths for members of his team. Despite internal politics, his team is loyal because they know he cares. He’s building an ethical, innovative reputation.
If you’re a leader and currently employed, employees will remember how you managed this moment in time for decades to come. If you’re unemployed, your most recent employees will still look to you for references, mentoring, and career wisdom. This ongoing support after you’ve been laid off will chart not just their career trajectory but yours. Someday in the future, your junior employees will rise in the ranks to become the decision-makers, and they’ll have the opportunity to return your loyalty.
As a Leader of Leaders
For those who’ve risen several layers into management, your legacy comes from crafting a vision and taking a stand. For example, I’m working with a healthcare executive who’s focused on leading an exceptional team into a digital-first setting, as fast as possible. To set the stage, he’s leaning on managers that he’s already groomed into leaders in their own right. He’s bringing in industry best practices and new metrics to set the pace for his group. He’s focusing on creating a clear, understandable group vision so that the entire business makes better decisions and collaborates effectively. He’s taking a stand on issues outside his purview and expanding his influence within the organization.
In addition to his internal legacy, he also has an opportunity to cement his reputation as a pioneer outside his organization. He’s reaching out to his peers – and even building alliances with some competitors – to learn, and share, what’s working and what’s not right now. He’s seeking out future speaking engagements and thought leadership opportunities to raise his profile and contribute to industry advancements. Should he find himself unemployed at this stage in his career, he could build his legacy by contributing to his profession through cross-pollinating information when networking, volunteering with like-minded organizations, and offering to support others in their career journeys.
Now’s the time to seize, and re-think, your professional legacy, whether it’s a resolution to manage your team more mindfully or to network more deliberately, thoughtfully, and generously to build a career that reflects your values. A legacy-driven life combines purpose with passion. Most of all, it ensures that you define your job when the winds of change shift — not the other way around. For better or worse, we’re all participating in a global rewriting of our collective story, and – whether you’re employed or unemployed – it’s the right time to think about building your future legacy, right now.
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