Why modern businesses should do away with legacy thinking


by gigCMO MD Mark F. Magnacca

We are pre-programmed to love a good legacy; the Kennedys, Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs – from politics to humanitarianism, industry to showbiz, a legacy can be so many things, but above all else, it leaves a lasting contribution.

In its less flattering iteration however, a legacy is an outdated way of doing things. Think of the kind a software engineer might refer to when their time is being monopolised by old code; legacy code. It works, but it’s not meeting current expectations, and it is this kind of legacy thinking that is finding itself called into question in contemporary business, by a new, more dynamic order.

“flexible work options take the cake for increasing employee engagement”

While business leaders of today may read the scintillating biographies of tycoons of the past, the fact of the matter is that the world has changed since their heyday. In a recent interview, Kylie Wright-Ford, CEO of Reputation Institute and author of The Leadership Mind Switch, discussed the need for modern businesses to move away from legacy thinking in order to fit in with the new world of business.

Wright-Ford explained her belief in challenging the status quo, and for businesses to address their style of leadership in favour of collaborative team working, ensuring that team members feel valued and heard, showcasing accountability on behalf of senior members of staff, and embracing a more democratic work space.

Drivers of change

Key to this changing environment are three things; what we want, how we work and where we work.

Digitisation has dramatically changed the ‘how’, allowing for remote and flexible working to flourish, a far greater number of people moving towards self-employment (4.7 million self-employed workers in the UK and counting), and less need for centralised office spaces with an excess of full time staff. A team is likely to be made up of both full time and part time members of staff, contractors, gig workers and freelancers, allowing the most in-tune of businesses not only to access skills on demand, but also to tap into a global ecosystem of skillsets as those from outside the core team learn from a myriad of organisations and projects at record pace.

Then we come to the ‘where’. Everything happens at a far faster pace than ever before, and yet your team doesn’t even need to be on the same continent, let alone in the same room, to communicate with one another. Effective communication tools are more important than ever, but the need for large and expensive office spaces in the most sought after city locations has gone down dramatically, allowing businesses to move out to less expensive areas, downsize and take advantage of shared workspaces… and that’s for the meetings that need more face time than a Google hangout.

“champions help articulate, refine, and buttress a shared vision”

Finally, but importantly, what we want as individuals has shifted in the wake of the freedom that digitisation has permitted us. The demand for a work/life balance over the need for a big title and a bigger corner office has Millennials forcing change in the recruitment market now that they have matriculated from being savvy graduates to responsible home owners and new parents. As for the rest of us, we are living longer, we know we will be unlikely to afford the luxury of retirement at 60, but we are offsetting that with a greater awareness about our health and wellbeing and a desire to pick our kids up from school. In short, we all want greater flexibility. In a Deloitte’s survey of more than 8000 millennials, flexible work options “take the cake”, according to Marcel Schwantes Principal and founder of Leadership From the Coreho, who reported it on inc.com, for “increasing employee engagement. It continues to be a feature of most Millennials’ working lives and is linked to improved organisational performance, personal benefit, and loyalty.”

The traditional value propositions of HR departments have seen a dramatic need to change. Employees might not want the big title, but they do want to feel valued in their roles, they do want to feel that their opinion counts – not because they have been in the industry for 30 years, but because, irrespective of how long they have been in a company, they feel they have something valuable to add, and the chances are that they do. If your recruitment processes have done their job correctly, then it is as likely the 22 year old tech wizard has as much to bring to the table, albeit in a different way, as members of the management team who have worked towards their positions their whole lives. So, where does that leave management?

The changing face of leadership

A new type of employee with a revised set of values means that management itself needs to change its approach. Should the 22 year old tech wizard be in charge therefore? Probably not – although there’s always an exception to the rule. Moving away from legacy thinking isn’t about throwing out experience in favour of innovation, it is about seeing the structure of working as a democratic web rather than a linear hierarchy, and the best way to do that is under the kind of leadership that works to get the best out of the talent that is assembled rather than simply issuing instructions.

For one, this is an approach that we know employees value – the same Deloitte’s Millennial Survey mentioned above showed that highly prized employee values at work were cited as a preference for plain talk, inclusiveness, and directness in their bosses – again instrumental in both loyalty and workplace satisfaction.

Studies also show that a more collaborative way of working is proven to drive workplace performance and productivity. In a Stanford study reported in Forbes, it showed that creating a sense of a collaborative working culture supercharged task performance: “participants in the research who were primed to act collaboratively stuck at their task 64% longer than their solitary peers, whilst also reporting higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and a higher success rate. What’s more, this impact persisted for several weeks.”

“Moving away from legacy thinking isn’t about throwing out experience in favour of innovation, it is about seeing the structure of working as a democratic web”

Key to making collaboration work however was providing the team with a sense of purpose, coming back to the essential belief that legacy thinking as a leadership model of working needs to change in order to support team members in feeling valued, creating a space for innovation, inspiration and a tangible sense of contribution.

By the same token, where legacy thinking has proven to not only be less effective than a more collaborative way of working, it can also prove damaging to a business, resulting in less productivity compared to competitors, and a greater chance of losing top team members to more appealing organisations. Researchers who studied 55 of the largest and most successful teams in the world from Pixar to Marriott found that key to their success was that they all had leaders that champion collaboration. In the article on inc.com, Psychology professor Debra Mashek is quoted saying that: “champions help articulate, refine, and buttress a shared vision. Without a straightforward vision it’s difficult to put together an effective plan enabling you to assemble necessary resources and skills, and to generate incentives for your stakeholders.” Other essential ingredients included a sense of community at work and an ongoing, informal sense of education and learning.

Trust and the fractional leadership solution

Marrying this new way of working with business objectives therefore raises real questions and time for reflection for businesses. We are historically so used to the concept of the supreme authority of senior management, the formality of traditional career trajectories, and the associated that with a need for hands on management, that the solutions have not always been clear. Perhaps the requirement is not more people but better management of them, where greater collaboration, empowerment and enablement of team members at all levels presents largely untapped scope for flipping traditional models of leadership on their heads.

We can talk about moving away from legacy thinking, but what does that mean in practical terms? We can make our teams feel listened to, of course, but how do we do more than pay lip service to that idea, and crucially, how can businesses put it into action to create a more productive team and make a significant impact to the bottom line?

With so much time and energy put into recruitment, there is often a wealth of exceptional talent within a team made up of intelligent individuals who are extremely good at their roles. As a result, leadership can afford to do just that – lead instead of manage, a role that is judged by the effectiveness of its strategy, not the number of hours it is contracted to. This is where the fractional CMO has the capacity to add significant value; pulling a talented team together and offering targeted direction and motivation at key junctures in a company’s development. After all, it’s not just what you’ve got, it’s how you use it that counts.