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How to Leave a Legacy Where You Work

Take these steps so you'll leave something valuable after you're gone


Almost everyone wants to leave some sort of a legacy — to be remembered for something meaningful.

In my work with organizations that have employees looking toward retirement or encore careers, lately I’ve been hearing from boomers (and some older Gen Xers) about their desire to leave a legacy at work.

Most people would like to feel they’ve made a difference in their careers and many idealistic boomers began their working lives with this desire . Now, though, some of them struggle to identify and articulate what their legacy at work could be and how to create one.

You can actually do it in a variety of ways.

Ideally, people should be thinking about their legacy at work by age 50. Many don’t. And once they're ready, they don't know where to begin.

Creating a Legacy Leadership Program

Here’s one example: My friend 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 decided he wanted to transition toward an encore career where he’d help foundations, he was determined to first leave a non-financial legacy at the company he helped grow over 20 years. He did it through a leadership program training employees how to provide high-level client service. After implementing it, he left the firm feeling proud and fulfilled.

“Work legacy” can be about such things as creating new work processes, mentoring and transferring knowledge to younger employees and training new talent. It’s what you pass on to the next generations and your peers in as broad a sense as you would like.

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 a work legacy could be part of that.

When to Start Thinking About Your Work Legacy

Ideally, people should be thinking about their legacy at work by age 50. Sadly, many don’t. And when they start pondering one in their early 60s, just before retiring, they’re often scrambling, not knowing where to begin.

Working on a client project for partners and executives in their early 60s, I developed a series of work legacy exercises. In this case, the founder was resisting letting go — passing power to a successor and accepting a new, smaller role. So he and a few senior partners were asked to write about and begin designing their desired legacies so their contributions would be clear and they had something to look forward to in their new roles.

They did and through a planned process, the transitions came to pass — peacefully.

Questions to Consider

You can do some advance transitioning planning, too, either alone or with work colleagues, by thinking about these questions:

  • What do you want to be remembered for by your colleagues?
  • What do you want to be remembered for by your clients, customers and external stakeholders?
  • What would you like to pass on to the next generations at work?
  • What can you start to do now or change now to be able to achieve that legacy?
  • How might your role change as you transition to leave your legacy?
  • What systems would need to be put in place and what would it take to achieve that?
  • How will you know you are succeeding in fulfilling your legacy?
  • What would a model for your eventual transition look like?

How to Get Started

Plan to take control of your legacy as much as possible by initiating or designing the change. If you have not already determined your legacy, identify what you always wish you had done, and explore ways to make that possible now or in the near future.

Perhaps your original intent to help bring about social change didn’t happen because you were detoured by economic or personal circumstances. This could be the time to run the kind of corporate social responsibility projects that your Millennial colleagues crave and that would boost your employer as a great place to work.

As you move closer to traditional retirement age, in order to secure your legacy, you may have to make a role shift. View this as a welcome challenge, not a loss of status.

Take on long-term projects and involve younger colleagues so you can collaborate, mentor, coach and transfer knowledge to them

Tell the younger staffers stories about your earlier days working there that will help maintain an important cultural glue and pride for the organization. You can perpetuate narratives about the previous leaders who made major contributions to the field or to the community and about the employers’ previous innovations in processes and products.

Building a legacy at work can be one of the most fulfilling things you can do in your life. Not only that, it will outlive you and keep you relevant when you are no longer there. Get started now!

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2015

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