Sunday, March 11, 2012

What is Your Legacy?

On February 15 the world lost a great man. Warren Morrow, my friend and co-worker, unexpectedly passed away of heart failure. He was 34. And he left an incredible legacy.

Warren accomplished so much in his short life. He was the CEO of Coopera, a company devoted to helping credit unions reach the Hispanic marketplace. Out of college he co-founded the Latino Leadership Project that helped Latino high school students strive for and reach higher education. Beyond his roles or titles, he was a tireless champion of the double bottom line – doing well by doing good. His funeral lasted more than two hours, as there was a chance for people to come forward and talk about the impact Warren had on each of them and their life. It was an amazing experience for me to witness. Person after person came forward to talk about how his positive attitude, his encouragement and his persistence impacted their life. Certainly Warren impacted my life in many ways.

I became a board member of Coopera when the Iowa Credit Union League became an owner. I have helped the company with strategy and how to reach into the credit union marketplace. In turn, Warren taught me many things about the Hispanic marketplace and how truly multi-faceted it is. He also provided many great life lessons to me.

One of my favorites is how he reminded me that my world-view was not always complete. While I have a number of roles, primarily I work in the credit card business. When we engage with new credit card issuing partners they sometimes have expectations that as soon as they launch their new credit card program, there will be a flood of applications and their program will be a resounding success. While there are programs that have that level of immediate success, most often it is because of careful strategizing and hard work. My short hand for this viewpoint is a relatively sarcastic statement that, “No one comes home, sees a credit card offer on their kitchen table and says, ‘Wow, a credit card offer! I’ve never seen one of those before.’” The point is that in a saturated marketplace, each offer needs to be unique and tailored to that individual to gain action.  

Well, I repeated that at a board meeting Warren was at and he stopped me afterwards to note that in the Hispanic community there may be individuals who would see that envelope and truly say they had never seen a credit card offer targeted to them before. I was appropriately chastened – he was right, of course. I have tried to change my language since that day and we are looking at how we can broaden our offers to other populations.

His one comment completely changed my point of view around how I think about marketing credit cards. His legacy to me was to broaden my views as we run our businesses, realizing that my perspective is not universal. And I believe he left a legacy to almost everyone he interacted with.

Couple Warren’s passing with my upcoming birthday that ends in a zero, and I have been thinking about legacy a lot these days. Usually legacy is associated with someone as they near retirement or after they have passed away. But I believe legacy is, like leadership, the sum of hundreds of interactions each day. Each day we have a chance to leave a legacy on those we interact with.

Each day we impart a legacy on our children, spouse, colleagues, friends, neighbors and others. What is the legacy you leave each day? The comment you make in the hallway at the office, as you run out the door at your house, talking to your kids in the car – how is that impacting your legacy on them? If you were to die tomorrow, do you know what your legacy would be with those around you?

More importantly, are you waiting for “just the right time” to make the impact that you know you can?

Some days I tell myself that I just need to get through the day. We've all had those, right? Certainly those around me will understand. And, in fact, they usually do understand. But that day that I “got through” was one day that I squandered the gift given to each of us – to positively impact another person, a business, a community and the world. I see this reflection most often in my three children, who can remember with precision actions and comments that were offhanded at best.

When Steve Jobs was recruiting John Sculley from Pepsi to be the CEO of Apple in the 1980s he asked,
“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” 
While I thought (and still think) that was a bit of hyperbole for what was then a computer company, in fact Jobs did change the world. My belief is that his legacy was inspiring a generation of people that they could design new things that could change how we interact in our everyday life (as I sit here listening to music on iTunes, with my iPhone next to me).

Certainly we will not all have the opportunity to do what Jobs did on the scale he did it on. But I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Robert Kennedy, 
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Certainly my friend Warren Morrow sent forth many ripples of hope and even started to bend history itself. It is worth each of us thinking about our own legacy and the ripples we send every day. I hope each of our legacies can be as impactful as Warren’s.

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