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Leaving a Legacy

February 27, 2013
by Tim Tolan
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Setting memorable goals for yourself as a CIO leader will help you leave a positive legacy after you move on with your career
Tim Tolan

As Barack Obama begins his second term as President of the United States, he also has the next 18-24 months to leave his mark on the presidency; to firm up his legacy. Let’s see how he does.

In 1982, forty-nine historians and political scientists were asked by the Chicago Tribune to rate all the Presidents through Jimmy Carter in five categories: leadership qualities, accomplishments/crisis management, political skills, appointments, and character/integrity. Guess who finished first? Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was followed by Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. None exceeded Lincoln in any category they measured. Roosevelt fell into second place because he did not exceed Lincoln in character. Washington, close behind, ranked third because of he lacked in his political skills. In the end, when the final tally was done, it wasn’t even close. Many Americans today agree with the historians that Abraham Lincoln was our nation’s greatest President. I tend to agree! It will be interesting to see a more modern version of how we rate Presidents. My money is still on Lincoln.

Leaving a legacy is a common goal shared by many political and business leaders, but it’s also something each us should think about as well. Once you have made the mental decision to leave your organization, it’s quite normal to think about how you will be perceived as a former CIO down the line.

I would want to be able to honestly answer the following questions:

Did I leave this place better off than when I arrived? This one is hard to self-ascertain, but you should have a sense of what you inherited on that very first day of your arrival. Was it the major conversion to a new clinical system that was spearheaded by you and your team, or perhaps increased service levels to all of the internal customers you serve and other stakeholders in your organization? If asked today—what are the accomplishments you’ve made so far?

How did you mold the culture in the IT department? The culture you built will likely survive your departure for at least for some period of time. If the new leader is smart and you’ve built a world-class organization, they will likely want to pick up from the DNA you left behind as they begin to put their own mark on the organization, including the structure and culture you shaped and created. Do people genuinely enjoy working for you? Why? Do they look forward to coming to work each day?

How did you grow and shape careers? This is an area that really matters. Mentoring a person during the early part of their career may not be a part of your legacy with a specific organization, but you will always be remembered as a person who made a huge impact on someone’s life, and to me—that is the mark of a great leader and manager. Do you stay in touch with your direct reports after they’ve departed? Have you ever asked your team in one-on-one meetings or evaluations what they like and dislike about you, your style and leadership? You will be surprised when you do!

It may not be the perfect time to leave, but think about how you’ve moved the needle in your organization during your tour of duty. Continue to set more lofty and memorable goals while you are still around. That will certainly help shape and mold your legacy. Leaving a positive legacy is something that we should work towards, be consciously aware of and proud of long after our departure.  ◆

Tim Tolan is senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT practice. He can be reached at or (843) 579-3077 ext. 301. His blog can be found at