The question wasn’t posed to imply that my role would be coming to an end anytime soon. The question was intended for anyone in a role, new or otherwise. It’s a simple, yet elegant question that allows you to think about the lasting impact of the role you play in an organization, and it can help you shape your everyday responsibilities.
Asking about your legacy is not about the strategy you’re going to develop, but the business implications for what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you trying to create a more innovative organization — or one that’s significantly larger in terms of revenue? Are you trying to create an organization that scales larger and activates faster? What legacy are you trying to leave? How long do you think it will take to get there? What steps do you need to take in order to achieve that goal? What will differentiate your tenure from that of other people who have been in the role?
Think of the answer in analogous ways. What are the differences between professional sports coaches? What are the legacies left by innovators? What legacies do these folks leave on their teams, their companies and their professions?
When Phil Jackson first became a head coach, do you think he intended his legacy to be having developed the triangle offense and a road map for dealing with overinflated, highly paid, highly egotistical players in a productive way? Do you think Mike Krzyzewski of Duke basketball laid out a plan for forever changing the way teams deal with chemistry and role-playing in an age of "one-and-done" players? What about Steve Jobs and his plans for having changed the way businesses think about innovation and the way they service customers: not by listening to what they want, but rather by anticipating it and delivering new, fresh ideas to them ahead of their very own awareness?
These are examples of people who probably did have some level of anticipatory planning to think through what their lasting impact would be as a result of their respective careers. They probably thought through these things in terms of a longtime career, as well as in terms of each role. For Jobs, it started with Apple, then applied to Pixar, and once again to Apple in his second coming. The same goes for Jackson, who had multiple stops along his coaching path. I'd almost guarantee that before the Bulls and before the Lakers, he sat down and asked himself these kinds of questions.
Being aware of where you fit into things is important; awareness of your overall goals is invaluable. It can shape the roles you decide to take on and the ways you interact with everyone, from your team, to your peers, to your boss(es).
Having a vision and a plan not only applies to the work you do, but also to you, yourself. This kind of self-awareness is what will help you make good decisions and can guide you to be better than you already are (no matter how good you might actually be).
Have you thought through your legacy? Do you know how you want people to look back on your tenure, both in your current role as well as in your career?