Crafting Your Leadership Legacy

I can still recall the feeling of satisfaction and anticipation that came with my promotion to Senior Product Manager and my first people leadership role. Reading the company announcement that named my new team, and our mission to define the next generation of products to fuel the company’s growth, I was determined that we were going to be the best, exceeding every expectation in the relentless pursuit of our goals. I was already envisioning a future that included a sterling leadership legacy.

Sam, the Director of Product Management, promoted me because he believed that I was a good product manager with leadership potential. Being young and ambitious, I thought that I was more than ready for the new role and already had visions of the next promotion. The reality turned out to be quite different. I took my seat in the team leader chair and quickly discovered that my strengths were turning into weaknesses with disastrous results. Within a few months, I had one team member in tears because she felt I didn’t trust her, while others told me that I was micromanaging and doing their jobs for them. People felt unsupported. Everyone was looking to move to a different team. It was a very humbling experience for someone who had only known success in their earlier roles.

Fortunately, Sam had the wisdom to let me struggle then stepped in and coached me in a few key areas. First, he made the powerful point that this job wasn’t about me, it was about my team and that the legacy of a leader starts on day one, not the day you move on to your next role. He then asked me to focus on three key areas of team leadership.

  • The first was understanding and embracing the purpose of my role. Sam helped me see my role as building an energized and productive team that delivered results —not for me to achieve results by using the people on my team.
  • Next, as uncomfortable as it was to step back from my product manager strengths, I needed to focus my attention on the goals of the team. I needed to develop competencies in each team member, enabling them to achieve those goals and find purpose and meaning in their roles.
  • Last, Sam encouraged me to regularly seek feedback on how the team felt about the support I was giving them to achieve their goals and to promptly address issues. While it took courage at first, identifying issues became more comfortable over time, and quickly addressing them enabled us to improve team relationships and performance.

Sam’s coaching helped me avoid disaster and provided a powerful learning experience. While I still feel a twinge of guilt when I think about my team’s experience under my ‘leadership’, implementing those three practices helped establish a basic trust that led us to be far more effective and gave us a greater sense of satisfaction. It also increased the well-being of those on my team—there were no further bouts of tears or blaming or micromanaging. It wasn’t great, but it was better.

How Not to Be Remembered

There is more than just a modicum of truth in the statement that, “people don’t quit their job, they quit their boss.” People may quit because the manager is genuinely toxic, or perhaps they are well-intended—and even successful in terms of performance versus goals—but they fail to create an environment in which people can thrive both professionally and personally. In the case of toxicity, people will leave as soon as a new opportunity is available. In the case of a poor environment, the disengagement is often more subtle as the relationship deteriorates, and people do just enough to keep their job. In either case, the manager fails to understand that healthy, trusting relationships are the lifeblood of the best teams—and the stuff of which lasting leadership legacies are made.

In the years since my first people-leader experience, I’ve heard similar stories from many new team leaders. The transition from individual contributor to people manager and team leader is a big step that requires new skills and, more significantly, looking at relationships differently. I’ve watched many new managers destroy the trust, goodwill, and well-being of the people on their team for the sake of achieving a short-term goal. Even when everyone ‘drinks the Kool-Aid’ and makes the sacrifices necessary to achieve a goal, I can’t recall a single instance when a leader was remembered for “that great second quarter in 2017”, or “delivering that new product on schedule back in 2015.” People rarely remember the financial or business results of the last quarter, let alone a few years back. Moreover, if you’re one of many managers whose team delivers average results, and if you haven’t invested in creating an environment in which people can thrive, then when you move on, your fade into obscurity is assured.

Relationships are the Foundation on Which Legacies are Built

As a team leader, you can have a tremendous effect on your team for good or ill. Extraordinary leaders prioritize people over results—especially short-term results—walk the talk of high integrity and solid values, and support people’s need to find meaning and purpose in their work. They are remembered most for the strength of their relationships and the positive influence they had on people’s personal and professional development. Reflecting on my first team leader experience, a few learnings remain relevant for new team leaders today:

  • Have the humility to know that you won’t fully understand the role until you sit in the chair. The reality of your first team leader experience will be different from what you expect.
  • Expect to make mistakes. Especially people mistakes. The real test of a new leader is how you handle them, so have the courage to address those issues head-on with integrity.
  • Extraordinary teams are built on the strength of human connections, and strong, trusting relationships sit at the heart of every extraordinary team.

As Sam reminded me time and again, the legacy of a leader starts on day one, not the day you move on. So, if you want to build an extraordinary team and be remembered as an exceptional leader, focus on developing relationships from the first time you sit in the chair.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.