A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
Last week, as Bill Gates watched the company he founded come to the end of a clumsy, inarticulate search for a new CEO, he stepped back in to the front line wagering that his personal presence can help revive its momentum – sagging at best, but hopelessly lost, more likely.
This isn’t an uncommon pattern. In 2000, Howard Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks, only, pointedly, to return in 2008 with a mandate to rescue the company’s plummeting stock price and insistently bad press.
Michael Dell has been through the same process, as has Ted Waitt at Gateway and Jerry Yang with Yahoo – none of them with any lasting success.
The desire of founders to leave a legacy is both understandable and widespread. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, almost the first words out of Jobs’s mouth are that he wanted to ‘…create a company that…would outlive [him].’ We are – right now – watching in real time to see if that will happen.
So how come founders (mostly) have a lousy record when it comes to building a lasting legacy? Why is it that when Schultz, Dell, Waitt and Jobs (the first time he left Apple) departed, the vision left with them?
Well, the reason is just that – in each case, their company’s vision was personified in them. When they left, the vision went too.
Which is a little strange, when you think about it. No CEO worth their salt (or founder, for that matter) would leave the day-to-day operations of their company vulnerable to such a loss of key personnel. The CIO doesn’t get to walk off with the company’s IT infrastructure when they leave. The business’s accounting processes don’t disappear when the CFO retires. Warehouses, product and trucks don’t evaporate the same day the EVP of Logistics goes to work elsewhere.
And yet, again and again, we see exactly that happen with the organization’s vision: the core beliefs that sparked the organization into existence, and carried it to great success, walk out the door when the founder steps down.
So the question is this: If you want to leave a legacy, what are you waiting for?
The time to start is now. ‘Later’ is too late. Take a look at your calendar – what’s on it that involves you consciously, overtly, avowedly institutionalizing, de-personalizing, your vision?
If the answer is ‘nothing’, then what you’re building isn’t a legacy. What you’re building is the complete opposite: you’re building a culture of dependency. Dependency on you.
Yes, it’s great to be wanted. It’s comforting to be needed. But neither will build a legacy.