How seeing Hamilton puts “What’s Your Legacy?” month into perspective

Did you know that August was “What Will Be Your Legacy Month?” Me neither. But wow. It’s a good thing that it’s “What Will Be Your Legacy Month” and not “Day” because, dang, that’s a big question.

My husband and I saw the Broadway sensation Hamilton last week. The show, an amazing work of historical fiction and true theatre art, is about our founding fathers — men driven by ego and propelled by beliefs, their need for impact, and leaving a legacy. Alexander Hamilton proclaims, “I’m not going to throw away my shot.” George Washington counsels him, “History has its eyes on you.”

Legacy, by definition, is something that is passed on to the next generation. Whether tangible or intangible, sometimes, it’s a gift. Other times, it may be a curse. It is bilateral. That is, legacy requires an actor and an audience or a witness, somebody who was impacted by the acts or gifts of another.

Hamilton, like all of us, left a multitude of legacies. There was the legacy to our country, to his colleagues, to his family, and to himself. Each one provides a clear view of the person and his or her values, ethics, passions, and priorities. History indeed has its eyes on us, whether we recognize it or not. The question is what do we want it to see or reflect?

It strikes me that legacy is a concept that many business leaders and owners put off thinking about. When you start the business, you’re absorbed in the entrepreneurial rush. While you may daydream about what the business could become, legacy is not usually top of mind. Revenues and profitability are.

As we settle into a phase of business maturity, the continued growth of the company and navigating the daily complexities of operating a larger enterprise consume the bandwidth. Again, the notion of concentrating on one’s legacy remains foreign.

It’s only when the real need for succession planning pops up in earnest that the concept of legacy gains traction. Suddenly, this legacy stuff is getting real! Unfortunately, by then the company and owner’s legacy are already well established, even if you don’t realize it. Decisions made over the years accumulate to make the company what it is at the time of succession. There may be limited time to meaningfully change course to achieve a more desirable legacy.

Consider what forms a legacy can come in:

Specific: Assets, an operating business, equity, roles, or positions of power, and/or abilities.

Qualitative: Physical/mental health and happiness, perseverance, reputation and status, spiritual leadership, culture, drive to achieve, encouragement to take and accept risks, principles, rituals, and/or traditions.

In a company, this translates into the development of the brand, customer base, product/service offerings, and infrastructure. Culture, policies and procedures, and development of skills and knowledge establish the basis for the organization to continue its mission and vision long after the founder have gone. Or not.

Most companies never sell or transition ownership. The business dies when the founding owner hangs up their spurs. How history remembers the company becomes a function of how it made its customers feel when they interacted with them or enjoyed their product and services, but that memory is likely fleeting. Similarly, former employees will think back on the company and their experiences as an employee, whether warm and welcoming or cold and toxic. With the company shuttered, the memories will fade, and the legacy will be limited.

Contrast this with those companies that are intentional about creating a business that is sustainable. It will continue to strive and thrive and grow long after the founder moves on. That, by itself, is legacy. The work, culture, product benefits, etc. developed over time have a continuing impact on those interacting with the company. When those aspects grow and become stronger, the positive impact spreads and is passed down to the next generation of customers, employees, and owners as well.

Essentially, there is a direct link between legacy and business valuation. Businesses that focus on building diverse customer and supplier bases, strong, scalable systems, and leadership teams to evolve beyond the first generation attract higher business valuations. Companies that invest in their people and culture to ensure that it abides by its values, principles, and commitments are more attractive.

This occurs because the owners and leaders have thought about what their legacy, relative to the business, will be early in the company life cycle. By thinking about this earlier, they can be mindful of the long-term legacy. They factor legacy and value implications into their everyday decisions, balancing short-term gains for long-term rewards. They live the legacy today so it can continue tomorrow.

Here are some thought-provoking questions you might consider when thinking about your own company’s legacy:

  • What impact are we having on our customers in fulfilling their needs? Is it aligned with our values? For example, if the product is known to have negative consequences for the customer, such as cigarettes, are you OK with that?
  • What is our vision of the business and its social, economic, and environmental impact in our industry and community? What are the values we hold tight to in order to ensure integrity and alignment with our vision? Are our actions consistent with these values?
  • What impact do we want to have on our employees? How vested are we in their growth and development in order to build our and their strengths? Will they speak fondly of us after they move on?
  • As an owner or leader, can you walk away with little adverse impact on the business?
  • If a family-owned business, how do we want the family to be viewed within the community? Within the employee and customer bases? What are we known for and what is our reputation? Is it aligned with our values? How are we preparing the next generation for leadership, ownership, and/or employment consistent with our family values and vision?
  • Have we established effective frameworks of governance and routine decision-making to ensure that we are considering the long-term implications on legacy and value?
  • Where have we strayed from our values and ideals for our legacy (and value)? What do we need to do to bring ourselves back into alignment?

Alexander Hamilton did not “throw away his shot,” and neither should you or your company. Even though August just wrapped up, double down and think about your legacy and what you want it to be. Dive into those seven questions so after “What Will Be Your Legacy Month?” you can get to work and create it.

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