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Creating a leadership legacy

29 July 2021 at 4:03 pm
Doug Taylor
As Doug Taylor finishes up at the helm of Uniting NSW and ACT and takes on a new job as the CEO of The Smith Family, he reflects on the best ways for leaders to invest their time to have a lasting impact.

Doug Taylor | 29 July 2021 at 4:03 pm


Creating a leadership legacy
29 July 2021 at 4:03 pm

As Doug Taylor finishes up at the helm of Uniting NSW and ACT and takes on a new job as the CEO of The Smith Family, he reflects on the best ways for leaders to invest their time to have a lasting impact.

Leaving a for-purpose organisation and starting with a new one is an insanely busy time.

I know because I’m leaving Uniting NSW and ACT after six and a half years – a team of people I have felt privileged to lead and support – to start a new role as the CEO of The Smith Family. 

In this busy time, it’s easy to be consumed by finishing projects, handing over responsibilities and using any time I can find to start prepping for my new role.

The great danger of this is that in the busyness of the transition we miss out on the benefits of some of the most important times of learning in our career.

Let’s face it, over the course of our working life we will probably work for six to eight organisations which means the stopping and starting of a new role is a unique experience.

It’s a rare opportunity beyond the everyday and a chance for reflection and growth.

It’s in these rare times that we can hit the pause button, create some “in between space” and work out what we have learnt from the role we are leaving and think hard about what we want to leave behind as well as the things we want to take with us.   

I’ve been trying to create some thinking time during this in-between space and have found myself thinking a lot about the value of time and the legacy that we do or don’t create.

It’s when you are leaving an organisation that you remember how finite time is. You realise that your time is up, there’s no opportunity to roll over that action to another day or think “I’ll get back to that” because the door has all but closed now.

I think that my key insight about time is that it’s not like a bucket that you fill up to overflowing with busyness and activity. Instead, it’s more like a bank account with your last $100, so you need to spend it wisely and invest it in the things that matter. 

Perhaps, I really should have learnt this over my 25-year career but maybe the important lessons just take that little bit longer to learn.

The things we choose to spend our time on can create a legacy and leave behind something that will make a difference to people. A legacy is too often confused with memorialising the person but the best types of legacies have more to do with the benefit created for the people that will follow. 

Nelson Henderson captured it well when he wrote “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

This has got me thinking about how I will “invest” my time in the future, the things I want to do more of.

I want to spend more time on the “hard stuff”. Yes, I know it is counterintuitive for a leader in our sector but stay with me…

In organisational leadership roles, it’s so easy to get insanely busy and not spend enough time on the things that will make the difference to your team, the people you serve and communities.

I could easily do 12-14 hours of work a day and still have more to do, it’s never ending. The easy thing to do is fill the day with the immediate and urgent tasks of meetings, emails and phone calls. 

In a way this is very satisfying, it feels like we are making progress. The inbox is reduced momentarily and the diary is full so we must be making progress. 

It’s like eating fast food, it meets a short term need but too much of it can have a long term adverse impact on you and your work.

My sense is that we can too often be absorbed by this and miss the other important work which is where the real “tree planting” happens.

The “hard” work is the best place to invest one’s time and it’s in three movements – going within, going where there’s heat and going closer to the horizon.

Firstly, going within. It probably seems a bit odd to be thinking about this in this context until you realise that the impact of a person’s leadership is significantly determined by the quality of their inner world. In other words, if you’re not paying attention to yourself, you’ll probably adversely impact the people you’re supposed to lead and support, and in turn the quality of your work.

I can think of times when I’ve not been in the best place within myself and it’s affected my judgement and engagement with others. The sheer scope of the work of social change can exacerbate this.

Recently I’ve been putting more time into reflecting by journaling to try and process the many things floating around in my head. Of course, there are many other things that others find helpful. These are hard things to practise but are so important for sustaining leadership. 

Secondly, going where there’s heat. Ronald Heifetz in his work on Adaptive Leadership challenges leaders to not just focus on the technical work but also the work that will help their people transition to the new challenges they need to address which are fundamentally different to what they have encountered in the past.

This is hard work and is often best identified by where you see signs of tension and conflict in your teams as people grapple with ambiguity and difficult trade-offs. 

Often in leadership it’s tempting to avoid this work because it’s time consuming and who likes conflict anyway, but if you don’t work with teams to find new ways of working together your people won’t adapt to the new realities that need to be addressed. And in so many not-for-profit organisations it’s sometimes tempting to avoid these harder conversations for the sake of keeping everyone together. 

Finally, investing time in initiatives that get you beyond maintaining what you have today. It is so easy to be consumed by what’s immediately in front of you but it’s a failure of leadership to not cast your mind beyond this to think about the challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Recently with some colleagues we plotted our current strategic initiatives and realised they were almost all focused on addressing our immediate realities. We reworked this list to ensure we also had initiatives that were exploring new adjacency opportunities as well as longer term disruptive ones.

This transition time has helped me think about where I want to invest more of my time in the future, to “plant trees” by doing the hard work of going within, going where there’s heat and going closer to the horizon.

Doug Taylor  |  @ProBonoNews

Doug Taylor is CEO of The Smith Family. He was previously deputy executive director at Uniting NSW and ACT.

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