The Succession Saga – Part Six
By Dick Haney
Anyone on the slippery side of 50 has I’m sure asked themselves the question, “What do I want my legacy to be and how will my time be remembered?” This is one of the most important life questions that one will ever attempt to answer and I submit that in order to have a successful succession plan, you must first answer the question what you want your legacy to be. The succession plan is the operational road map and the resulting legacy is the destination.
The concept of legacy is not as simple as who you leave your “stuff” to. It is far more complicated than that. I believe that in its simplest form, legacy is divided into six different combinations and permutations: positive, negative, internal, external and hard and soft legacy. Depending on which of these “drivers” motivates you to go down a particular path will in great part determine what shape your succession plan will take. Let me define these concepts for you. Positive legacies are those that you bequeath because you want to and feel good about doing so, Negative on the other hand are things that you do when you are driven by “dog in the manger motivations.” In other words you do something, or bequeath something because you don’t want another individual or group to benefit. Internal legacies are the things that you bequeath to your family and your business. External legacies are those things that you leave to society at large. Hard legacies are the physical assets and wealth and soft legacies are the examples, thoughts ideas and values that you leave as an impression on other people and will thereby influence how they will conduct themselves during their lifetimes. The interesting thing for me is how individuals can use a totally different decision model for making legacy gifts in each one of these six sectors and just as importantly how these legacy gifts are received. The motivation for making a gift of cash or property to an educational institution may be the result of totally different driving forces than leaving a legacy of farmland to a son or daughter. One may be driven by benevolence and the other by selfish pride. An honest examination of what forces drive your legacy ambitions will tell you much about the succession plan you desire. Only you decide which fits your situation.
How many times have we heard people in high places say that the historians of the future will ultimately decided whether or not the right decision was made with regard to a particular issue and whether or not the legacy of a given decision resulted in good or bad outcomes. I think that there is a lot of truth to this statement. Decisions that are made in the heat of battle of at the height of emotion are ultimately ruled upon when 20-20 hindsight is the order of the day.
Let’s look at some historical examples where the legacy that was promised didn’t turn out even close to what was expected.
World War One was touted as the “War to end all Wars, and we have successfully proven unfortunately that this world seems unable to rise above this most basic of human rituals and young men and women continue to die for causes that ultimately are inconsequential or long forgotten. The legacy here is what we were told and what we got are two very different things and the brutal carnage continues.
Three U.S. Presidents continued the battle in Viet Nam, unable to extricate themselves from this conflict. The French who had been battling in Indo China for years told President Kennedy that to enter that zone militarily was a recipe for disaster but he went anyway. A war that cost billions of dollars and many thousands of lives, and now this country is an “in vogue vacation spot for the very people that supported the conflict because of the Communistic domino effect that losing that war was supposed to enable. All of South East Asia was to fall into Communist hands and the Cancer of this ideology was to spread near and far. This turned out to be most far from the truth. President Lyndon Johnson was desperate to get out of the conflict. This was a no win situation, and in fact the U.S. couldn’t afford to stay politically or economically. One of his advisors told President Johnson that the solution was simple: Call a press conference, declare victory and bring the boys home. He didn’t, the U.S. stayed and the involvement ultimately cost Johnson his chance for a second term in the White House.
John Wayne would have been proud of the way that George W. Bush sent the troops into Iraq for the second conflict in that country in a decade. This action personified and epitomized the Cavalry coming to save the day. John Wayne wouldn’t have been proud that this conflict was predicated on fabricated and false information. Isn’t it strange that we don’t hear hardly anything about that country and its problems now? The media spotlight was turned out as the last combat troops left that country. That is a long far cry from the reports that we received on a minute-by-minute basis from imbedded media when the conflict first started. The legacy of the Iraq War is still an unknown as there has not been enough time to come to any conclusions on what the far reaching effects of this conflict will be. But unfortunately there are families contending with dead and injured loved ones as we speak.
Many individuals spend much time in their later years attempting to ensure that they will be fondly remembered for their time spent on this planet and that their words, deeds and actions will be looked upon favorably:
Former President Jimmy Carter has untiringly spent his last years attempting to enshrine the perception that his Presidency and his life will have a luminescent after glow. Brian Mulroney that much maligned former prime minister does much the same thing with seeming little success. How many of us are aware of individuals that untiringly unashamedly and in some cases pathetically strive to receive awards in their respective disciplines, industries and organizations in the form of honorary doctorates, or Orders of Canada for example in a vain attempt to validate their careers and the life choices they have made? These individuals believe rather shallowly that a plaque on the wall or a citation in a book is the ticket to a favorable soft legacy.
Many individuals who have been very successful in amassing fortunes give their wealth away at the end of their lives. This apparently is Oprah Winfrey’s intention. I suggest that at in least some of these situations it is to ensure a favorable hard legacy. Perhaps it is a light bulb moment where people become introspective and realize that the goals and objectives that they have fought tooth and nail to fulfill are really empty accomplishments after all.
Legacy is a concept that is directly proportional to where one is in the life cycle timeline. How is legacy measured and whose yardstick do we use? I guess I should say meter stick as I am obviously dating myself. And with that statement, I have just identified Pierre Trudeau’s legacy: the Metric System of Measurement that we have all come to love and cherish.
I would like to give a glowing example of both a soft and hard legacy of the highest best proportions. My wife and I are to attend a memorial service for an old friend and personal mentor shortly. This gentleman’s name is Les Talbot who was President of the Lethbridge Community College some twenty years ago. I had the privilege to be Chairman of the Board of Governors during Les’s tenure. He taught me much about governance, professional conduct, ethics, values, what things were important what things weren’t. He was a complex combination of compassion, intelligence, ethics, values, bluntness, and organization. He never moved uptown. What you saw is what you got. I continued my association with Les long after he and I had both left our official roles at the institution. Les continued to exhibit those qualities that had made him so successful as President. He was passionate about life and to the end was vitally concerned about not only his former workplace, but about his life long partner Gert and his children and grand children, his friends, his city, and his country. His passing has made me think a great deal about the concept of legacy and how he and all of the rest of us will be remembered about how we have used our lives and who has benefited. The really exceptional thing about Les was that the private and the public Les were the same people. The working Les and the retired Les were the same. He handled both hard and soft legacy assets in the same positive manner. I have chatted with many people who knew this man since he passed on December 22nd and the feelings and admiration that are demonstrated are pretty much uniform. Veryl Todd, who taught Communication Arts at the College during Les’s tenure summed it up so well on his radio offering when he said simply and I paraphrase now that “Les exemplifies and personifies what we all strive for as human beings, and how we all want to be remembered.” At the end of his soliloquy Veryl simply said, “Good job and thanks a lot Les.”
My grandmother Noble, although not a woman of significant financial means left a stellar legacy. She still brings smiles to the faces of those who remember her infectious laugh, her unbridled interest in her grand children, her role as coordinator and disseminator of information (yes, she loved to gossip), her unconditional love of her family and her home made buns. What a great gift she left to all who know her.
For those of you who are struggling with the Succession issue in your businesses and families, how do you want to be remembered by those inside and outside the business and the family? What do you want your legacy to be? I submit that unfortunately many times the public and the private person are two different individuals. This is where the Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde split personality rears its ugly head. The man that families have to contend with privately can be much different than the public person that is regarded with respect and admiration or vice versa and the corresponding legacies left are vastly different.
To the senior members of the business that are struggling with how to handle not only hard legacy assets, but also the soft legacies of what is important in their private lives: I do believe that this whole question is made easier when one truthfully and honestly answers the question of what one wants their legacy to be. As this question is answered it will also be easier for the junior participants in the business and the family to understand what the perceived role is and what in fact the future may hold for them in both the short and long term. Remember that actions speak far louder than words, and too many times those that have the grandiose thoughts and ideas are in fact seeking public validation where in fact their heart of hearts is telling them something different and they correspondingly act differently in a private setting. Unfortunately in some situations it is sadistically hoped that the business will fail under the succeeding generation’s management and this tragically shows a warped sense of vindication in that “Only I was capable of running this business.” This scenario is discussed in great detail in Jim Collins’ Book “Good to Great.” How the senior partner is able to deal with these contradictions will many times define not only their own personal legacy, but just as importantly will define the success or failure of both the family and the business as it moves forward into the future. But, at the end of the day, your legacy is in your hands; treat it with great care because unlike your own life, your legacy lasts forever. Choose your path carefully and deliberately and make sure that your journey ends where you want it to.