History is written by the winners. This tidbit of wisdom usually refers to war and the accounts of nations, but it applies to business as well. There, history is written by the corporate survivors.
No matter how great your accomplishments, how minimal your shortcomings, or how glowing your reputation, they day you walk out your employers doors for the last time, you lose all control over how you are remembered.
Warning: Shameless plug -- to learn how you can control this while you're still at the company, see my book: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
How far your reputation falls after departing (in my experience, it is almost never enhanced) depends more on the needs and whims of your former bosses, peers, and subordinates than anything you did or can now do.
Blame it on the "Dead Guy"
One of my employers had a grand tradition of blaming every possible problem on recently departed employees (known as "the dead guy"). All possible current and future problems were linked back to former employees, even where everyone pretty much knew they most likely not really responsible.
In this process, former employees were usually reduced to a caricature of their real selves. The stories that survived about the employee were often absurdities or insulting anecdotes. Accomplishments were most often lost in the shuffle.
One former boss of mine, a man who launched an entirely new, successful business unit for the company, is today remembered as "an aggressive street fighter that didn't fit with the company's culture." The most commonly retold tales were a very unfitting tribute to his eight years of contributions to the company, and revolved around a few events where people thought he exhibited "extreme" personality traits.
What have you done for me lately?
Another employer was so obsessed with the next quarter's results that no matter what an employee's track record, they were automatically associated with the most recent failures. In this company, there was little chance to build a strong, positive reputation as most senior managers only lasted until they had a couple of poor performing quarters. When they left, those last few months of performance became their legacy when they were replaced by another faceless executive.
One senior executive I knew well ran a particular business unit for ten years before he retired early due to an illness. Within six months the many contributions of his ten year reign were basically forgotten.
Don't Look Back
The Chief Executive Officer at one of my employers seemed to be obsessed with wiping out the memories of his predecessors. Early in his time at the top, he relocated the corporate headquarters. Within five years he had replaced almost every key employee on his staff. Everything possible was done to separate from any remnants of the old culture -- this despite the fact that the company was considered quite successful by most industry observers.
In this company, no one ever talked about the founders or previous senior management teams. Past regimes, when mentioned at all, were thought of as a part of the "old, dark days." Whatever reputations former employees thought they had left was completely unrecognized by those that came after.
What do you leave?
All these examples suggest that worrying about your legacy -- your post employment reputation and record accomplishments -- is most likely a waste of time. If your focus on your legacy is pinned to the idea that people will know about and appreciate what you have achieved, it probably is just so much wheel spinning.
If your satisfaction, however, lies in knowing yourself what you have accomplished -- realizing full well that it may be warped, lost, or altered in the eyes of others -- then maybe it is worth thinking about.
Just remember that once you depart, your reputation takes on a life of its own, and is controlled by those remaining in the company. Protect your reputation while at work, and take the knowledge of what you've done and how you've done it with you when you leave. Odds are good what remains in the organization will bear only fleeting resemblance to your own memories. 23.1
Other Recent Posts:
- When it's Right for You, but Wrong for the Business
- Rushing into a Recruitment
- Managerial Flip-Flops and the Flavor of the Month
- On Being Sued
- Keeping Secrets
- Dragged Down By Seeking Revenge
- The Wisdom of Those Who Went Before You
If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing. Novels: LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, DELIVERABLES and HEIR APPARENT. Coming soon -- PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES
Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the right is the cover of the Audiobook version of LEVERAGE, which I narrated. The story revolves around an offbeat engineer working for Global Guidance Corporation who shows up one night at Mark Carson's house shot and bleeding out. Mark decides to investigate the crime himself, and plenty of complications ensue as he uncovers a wild conspiracy.
My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations. Most were inspired by real events.