Despite what some of us might look like, or how long we've been in the business, CEOs are not permanent fixtures. In fact, just a year ago, the New York Times reported the highest number of chief execs vacating their positions since 2008. Since then, we've seen executives from Tinder, Twitter, Reddit, and Toshiba--just to name a few--step down, some under not entirely pleasant circumstances. But no matter the reason for their departures, I think nearly all CEOs share a common desire: They want their time with a company to be meaningful. They want to know that their work, and the time they've spent working, has been worth all the time, stress and sacrifices. So is there a secret to building a positive executive legacy--especially in an era of shorter tenures?
I think so. The trick is to remember that a CEO's job is multi-faceted. Your goals, and your success in meeting those goals, will always be determined by multiple audiences. With that in mind, here are four questions CEOs can ask themselves when they're looking to create a more meaningful legacy.
1. Do I tend to the short term?
Often, we see executives focusing on short-term wins. Too often, in my view, they're ramping up sales quotas, beefing up product roadmaps, scurrying to score the right numbers. But are they always doing the best thing for the company? Often, they're trying to please investors--and certainly, that's necessary, especially for a public company. No business can thrive without a good return for the investor. But while you focus on meeting your quarterly objectives, always bear in mind that true legacies--those enduring stories of executives who shape the future of a company--are about much more than the quick gain.
2. Do I satisfy customers?
Satisfying customers is about achieving loyalty--and loyalty, by its very nature, needs time. The problem is that time is a luxury, especially when what matters to customers is at odds with what matters to investors. CEOs, therefore, need to weigh their decisions and ensure that the company always includes a focus on growing customers' businesses over the long run, on simplifying their jobs, and on making them more successful. You'll know you're doing it right when a customer comes back to you down the road and says that thanks to your products or services, they got a promotion or solved a huge challenge. It never happens overnight, but trust me, it happens.
3. Do I fulfill my employees?
I'm going to be honest with you. Employees are my most important stakeholder when it comes to building a legacy. What they think about how I've done my job, how I've created opportunities for them, how I've managed this place where they've chosen to spend their time and invest their effort--it's enormously meaningful to me. A CEO who wants to build a positive legacy cannot succeed without the validation of his workforce. When an employee touches base with you after a decade away and tells you, "The best experience in my career was working in your company," that says it all. I've had it happen, and I swear, that's the best personal fulfillment for me.
4. Have I impacted my industry positively?
We can't forget that work is work. When a CEO invests years of time with an organization--whether that be 2 years or 20 years--you need to know that you've made waves. You should be mindful of whether you've followed trends or created them. Have you caused analysts to shift perspective? Did you shape the way people think about your company's capabilities--and about your industry in general? This, again, requires a focus on the longer term, and I get that long-term perspective isn't easy these days. But a good CEO won't take her eyes off the horizon, even as she steers her ship.
5. Am I a better person for the time I've spent here?
When executives spend countless hours juggling complex responsibilities, they usually do so with the intent of answering the previous four questions positively. They're judging themselves by the judgments of other stakeholders--investors, customers, employees, and even society at large. But at the end of the day, this fifth question matters. Decent human beings need to feel good about what they do with their time. Ask yourself: Are you a better person for what you've done at work? After all, your legacy doesn't belong to other people. You're the one who lives with it.
When I applied to business school, I had to write an essay about my career goals, and I remember that I wrote about wanting to work in an industry that makes life better for the overall population. I know that sounds generic, but I feel the people I have worked with have followed through on it. The teams I have worked with have spent the last 15+ years working with recruiting and hiring technology, helping people find their next great jobs and helping companies build their strongest workforces. I sincerely wish that every CEO finds that balance between short-term and long-term goals. I know the temptation can be great at times to turn all your attention in one direction, and overlook all the other stakeholders--including yourself. But unless you look at your job from every angle, mark my words: You won't succeed at having a lasting impact.