What endures from a manager’s career

As managers, we all get caught up in the daily exigencies of the job. Subordinates constantly ask for or need direction. Bosses demand status updates and results. Clients and users want us to make their work easier or even possible. When your days seem like a blizzard of interruptions, are you ever able to do anything that might make a long-term difference?

Here’s one way to think about what might have lasting value: Try to look back from the future. Take a little time to imagine that you are at the end of your career, about to hand off your job to someone else. It’s a time for reflection, to ponder what will remain after you have moved on.

To do this is to realize that a manager’s job is rather limited. The tools at our command are surprisingly circumscribed. The things that we actually influence are rather ephemeral. And the least ephemeral of those are probably not the ones you expect.

Policies, for example, are a primary tool that managers use to try to influence the future of their groups. But policies are really just proclamations that are easily ignored, contradicted or reversed. They have no real force over time. They are only as enduring as the processes they become embedded in.

Processes are a bit more enduring, but not by much. In many ways, processes are policies in action. But they do become a bit harder to change. They become embedded within technical systems as assumptions about what work will be done and how it will be done. Once automated, they become hard to undo. As we all know, people resist change, and a great deal of IT work is actually changing outdated policies and replacing them with new ones through systems.

People, though, are more enduring than either processes or policies. The people a manager brings into an organization or chooses for key roles may be her most enduring legacy. Of course, that’s partly because the people a manager brings in may be part of the group for a very long time. But it’s also because those people reinforce or undermine cultural assumptions. And this is what truly remains behind.

The most enduring legacy of a manager is the culture she helps to create. As an organizational consultant, I often visit groups and see both blessings and scars left behind by managers long gone. The culture that a departed manager had imparted lives on, be it in the fear instilled in a group or the freedom it feels to make honest mistakes.

More subtly, processes are imprinted with the culture of an organization. Embedded within policies and processes are unstated assumptions about the group’s purpose, identity and values. They answer questions about how we will treat one another, whether we trust one another, how we organize ourselves, how and when we share information, what we will produce, and whose opinions matter.

In the end, it is the culture that remains longest after managers move on. But how do you go about influencing the culture that you will leave behind? You need to give that some thought, but that’s the easy part. The trick is to effectively implement it. It doesn’t happen by proclamation. It is absorbed by your staff to a large degree through their experience of how you treat others, how you perform under pressure and how you communicate.

In other words, in a very real sense, your legacy is being formed not despite the daily maelstrom around you, but based on how you handle it. Every time you treat a request with respect, interact with a user with good humor and genuine helpfulness, or articulate to senior management what IT can do for the enterprise, you are telegraphing to your staff how you expect them to conduct themselves as they go through their own kaleidoscopically busy days.

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* Hip-hip-hooray for the passionless

In large measure, your legacy is the result of what happens when you’re too busy to think about your legacy.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership

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