What do we talk about when we talk about legacy?
The great steel hulk moored in Tobacco Dock in the East End of London is a legacy from a different age. A tangible leftover of the past.
And to most people that’s what a legacy is — a leftover. It seems simple and obvious.
To them a legacy is a bequest to some recipient — a portion of money, property or some other material possession.
Many family business consultants and most of the wealth management firms see legacy in this light. They simply want to preserve the wealth of the family for future generations. Who wouldn’t.
A new kind of legacy
But inside the timbered framework of the Tobacco Dock Conference Centre itself there’s talk of a new kind of legacy. Or legacies.
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, grabs a piece of fruit from a side table and turns to Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico. ‘Which session are you going to?’
At Tobacco Dock this weekend, 150 CEOs, philanthropists and entrepreneurs are discussing legacy. But not legacy in any simplistic way. They are discussing nothing less than changing the world.
Outside each of the large open spaces in the Dock are posters bearing thought-provoking questions, including these:
What would the world be like in 20–30 years if energy was abundant, cheap and clean?
What would the world be like in 20–30 years if there was universal access to meaningful employment?
And what would the world be like in 20–30 years if the genders were truly equal?
Let’s talk about legacy
The questions certainly make you think. And if the philanthropists and entrepreneurs here can really move these issues up the world’s agenda then we really could achieve something. But it isn’t going to be easy.
I’m sitting with Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University — here known more for his Indo-Tibetan studies than being Uma Thurman’s father.
‘I guess the first thing you have to do when you talk about legacy is face the fact that you’re not going to be around. You have to face your own mortality.’
So to think proactively about your legacy is really to plan for the long-term?
Yes, he says. And to plan for a world without you.
Which reinforces my view that you need to build succession and sustainability into your legacy from the start. Because a legacy isn’t about concrete. A building with your name on it should be furthest from your mind.
Next to Thurman is Sam Pitroda, one of the founding fathers of the Indian telecoms revolution, and he’s sanguine.
‘This is a very inspiring agenda,’ he says. ‘But what will happen when we go home?’
I know Sam as passionate about implementation and getting things done. And although he appreciates the weekend as a welcome window on the issue of legacy he seems frustrated.
Reimagining your legacy
‘Entrepreneurs, CEOs, philanthropy professionals — whoever they may be — need to come together to plan and do, not just talk,’ he says.
For Sam, for instance, it’s not enough to give money, no matter how much money you have to give.
And it’s not enough to talk about what you could do.
It’s time to take practical action.
To hire the architect who’s going to help you build your legacy, if you can’t do it yourself.
And to build it.
So let’s stop talking about legacy and let’s change the world.
If not now, he says, then when?