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He was a top executive at a multinational food company, and his coach was pursing a challenging line of enquiry. She wanted to know, “What will your legacy be?”
It’s a conversation Dr. Cherre Torok, an executive coach with a global clientele, has with the CEOS and presidents she works with – “about 90% of the time,” she tells me.
And while these high-level executives are able to alter company-wide DNA, it’s a question any of us at any level can ask ourselves, no matter the size of our sphere of influence.
As the Dalai Lama told me while I was writing A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for our World, the litany of tragedies we hear about in our daily news feed more often than not come down to “a lack of ethics.” And when it comes to our personal legacy, it’s our sense of meaning and purpose that shape not just what we value and how we behave now, but also what we will leave behind.
If your 6 year-old asks you what you do, your answer would be simple, but authentic. “That genuineness is what we look for at any level,” says Torok.
To get in touch with your guiding principles, she suggests asking yourself a series of questions. You might start with an honest answer to: Are you saying what you believe, are you acting from your values?
Another way to think about it: What do you do that goes beyond the job description that demonstrates these values? A personal legacy means measuring our impact beyond money, role, or authority.
For a more systematic inner dialogue, consider these questions:
Why? What’s the sense of purpose, values, or meaning that moves you?
What? Given your role and resources, how could you implement them?
How? Do you have the emotional intelligence chops to be effective? Are you aware of how your words and nonverbal, like tone of voice, impact people?
Who? What key stakeholders or allies can you convince or mobilize?
That last question often comes up with CEOs concerned about their own legacy – and how to keep it going after they leave. The higher you go in the organization, the bigger the legacy issue. One reason: your influence footprint is bigger. As Dr. Torok finds, with CEOs the discussion very often becomes just about the company, but about what they can contribute to the world at large.
As for that exec at the global food corporation, his legacy enquiry led to the company investing in some R&D to make their foods healthier. And also another contribution to the company’s DNA: despite cost-cutting, he found ways other than laying people off to make up the deficit.