Terry runs an IT support firm and saw two of his best technical team leaders leave. A friend made one of the team leaders a great job offer that couldn’t be matched. The other person who left, in his exit interview, shared something very important. Here’s the short version of his key complaint: He was mad at the way people in the company made decisions.
Tom said that in the three years he was with the company, he felt like he rarely had a chance to take on new responsibilities or develop new skills. “What he said that really struck me,” Terry noted, “and what made him more upset than anything else, was that he didn’t feel like what he said was really being heard by us [senior management].”
In our consultation, I deconstructed this situation with Terry and heard several examples of how Tom was treated poorly – though unintentionally so – by his managers. “Do you realize that as you’ve described in three of these examples we just discussed, primarily because of company seniority, another person in the company got an opportunity that Tom said he was eager to take on? Is that really true?”
“Of course,” Terry shot back. “How else can you recognize loyalty and deeper understanding of things that go on in the business?”
I’ve heard this argument many times before in other companies and across industries. Reward seniority, show that loyalty matters. Give the person who has been here the longest the first chance at new opportunities or to fulfill prized team positions. That’s the positive side. The negative side is that while your position in an organization may be secure, sometimes your upward mobility has the buoyancy of a lead balloon.
Education is one industry where this problem is grappled with constantly but hardly ever seems to change. Legacy, or its crazy cousin tenure in higher ed, allows a few – certainly not most teachers – to put outdated acetates on overhead projectors and monologue to a darkened room of a few dozen students and be rewarded for this low-engagement, low-impact behavior. Contrast that with the reach and impact of an initiative like M.I.T.’s Anant Agarwal online course, in which over 150,000 people are enrolled. The first time he ran this open-enrollment course, he said the greatest rush or feeling of excitement was being able to impact thousands of students in a measurable, positive way.
In business, this practice is not just outdated, but often counterproductive in today’s environment, as Terry’s example illustrates. The loyalty agreement that held in generations past no longer goes two ways. What far too few bosses realize is that high recognition and high opportunity factors often matter more to employees than other job rewards, especially in meaningful knowledge worker positions. You can make an impact by giving a Kmart clerk a gift certificate for cleaning the spill in aisle four, but take your senior project leader out to lunch with her team to recognize their success in overcoming that tricky problem. Let accomplishment, skillsets, and desire to advance or contribute be the driving factors, not time “holding down a desk.”
You’re seeing the negative impact of the Legacy Effect when:
- You as a manager feel a bias or pull to pick someone you know or someone who’s been in the company for a long time over someone who has demonstrated that they are better equipped to do a particular job (even if you may not have known them as long or like them as much).
- You as an employee find that you are being “stuck in a box” or “shut out of an inner circle” and are unable to move laterally or up in an company. It’s a form of invisible discrimination, and one that harms a company’s growth potential.
Legacy is still a positive concept when applied to gifts handed down from one generation to the next. But In our hyperconnected, tech-enriched business world, everything seems to be compressed. Don’t let time pressures force you to make Legacy Effect mistakes for either your team or your own career. It takes more thoughtfulness as a leader to pull this off consistently, but the company culture that results is well worth the effort and creates a workplace where people are eager to show up each day and contribute.
Your Steps to Success
- As a newer employee being left out of new opportunities, you have to raise awareness through a question like, “It seems to me that I was a better qualified candidate for that project assignment. Can you explain how Pat was chosen, instead, so I can learn from this experience?”
- As a longer-term employee being confined to a narrower range of responsibilities or opportunities than you’d like, you have two steps to take. First, you need to talk with your manager about what areas of responsibility you’d like to expand. If the conversation opens the doors that you want in a reasonable timeframe, great. Otherwise, it’s time to take step two and update and circulate your resume. Rather than fight the Legacy Effect, you’d be surprised at how much more you’ll be appreciated and how much more you’ll be fulfilled in an environment that can see your contributions and be open to your ambitions.
- As a manager, one way to overcome the Legacy Effect is to create selection criteria that can be administered objectively by a third party. Think of the behind-screen auditions that some of the most select orchestra companies now use to choose new members based solely on sound produced, and eliminating any personality, style, or instrument bias. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this approach beautifully in The Tipping Point, and about how it led to openings for women at the top levels of leading orchestras around the world.
Be aware of the Legacy Effect and make sure it’s not limiting your career path or business growth trajectory.