Building a Lasting Legacy
Interview with Laura Roser, Founder and CEO of Paragon Road, on Building a Lasting Legacy for Generations to Come
[Editor’s Note: This past year I had the pleasure of being introduced to Laura Roser by a mutual friend and colleague, Bill Littlejohn, CEO of Sharp Hospital Foundation, both of whose work reflects the core values of the Global Girls Project. While many of the stories in this legacy series focus on the intergenerational aspect of legacy, particularly between grandmothers, mothers and daughters, in this interview, Laura offers a fresh perspective on how each of us, regardless of our familial history, traits or relationships, can take personal responsibility for building our own legacy of leadership through our daily choices and actions. It is this sense of personal accountability that is at the core of personal empowerment, enabling each of us to not only realize our own leadership potential, but to help pave a path of opportunity for future generations to come.]
(Sharon): What does the term legacy mean to you?
(Laura): To me, the term “legacy” means your impact on those you love and the world. It can be as thoughtful as expressing sincere compassion to all you meet, as noble as raising children who are grateful, creative and independent, or as grandiose as pledging to end poverty in America. Of course, there is also a dark side to legacy. Addictions can be passed on from one generation to the next. Selfish choices can ripple out hurting many. How you live your life, the decisions you make, the people you touch, and the trials you overcome affect future generations for the good or bad.
I don’t want to be too heavy about this—everyone fights a battle and has good and bad traits. It’s impossible, for example, for parents not to do something that will emotionally scar their children in a small way (or a big way). But, it is my belief that a continual path toward self improvement with a focus on how your presence is helping those around you is the greatest legacy anyone can leave behind.
(Sharon): Why is it important in leadership?
(Laura): There are two types of leaders: those who set out to become someone great and those who set out to do something great. The most effective legacy is one focused on doing something great. It is not about fame and aggrandizement. It is about leaving the world better than you found it, even if you’re the only one who knows.
I’ve interviewed many of the top business leaders, from CEOs of multi-billion-dollar companies to philanthropic giants to men and women who are transforming health care, and I can tell you that true leadership is focused on creating something greater than ourselves and empowering others to improve that mission.
An authentic leadership legacy has a quiet humility to it. A recognition that we are here to grow and learn together.
(Sharon): What role does character play in building our own personal legacy? How does this play out, both inter-generationally and in communities-at-large?
(Laura): Character is everything. The most important attributes to cultivate are responsibility, integrity and work ethic. Whether we’re talking about our families, friends, companies or communities, a strong character is what makes one person’s legacy much more powerful than the rest.
This isn’t to say that those who develop a great legacy don’t make mistakes or have setbacks. Sometimes they have very serious character flaws to overcome. But constantly practicing telling the truth, looking inward, taking responsibility and acting in alignment with your values will turn you from a mediocre feather who is blown by the wind of emotions and others’ agendas to a rock who can stand your ground when the wind blows and storms come.
As Seneca, one of the great Stoics, writes, it is important to have a model for high character. It’s also important to envision your end objective and always make sure your actions are in alignment with that. I’ve heard the argument that people are born with a conscience and can tell the difference between right and wrong. On a very rudimentary level, I believe that is true. But, this idea of following your conscience without a strong set of defined principles falls short when stress is introduced or short-term pleasure or manipulation or options that are contrary to how you want to direct your life.
For example, one of my favorite interviews was with Larry Mendelson, the CEO of Heico, which is a multi-billion-dollar manufacturer of airplane parts. Certainly Larry has been financially successful. He started from nothing and built the business with his two sons, but what impressed me most about him is his focus on family.
He told me that Sunday is family dinnertime—no matter what. His children, their wives and his grandchildren go to his home every Sunday and have dinner together. If there is another important event, business meeting, or invite from a prestigious friend or colleague, he always says no. That is family time. It’s sacred. Larry and his wife have worked hard their whole lives to make family their top priority and it’s paid off. Their family loves each other, goes on vacations together and works together. His grandchildren are doing well and following in the footsteps of their intelligent, hard-working, grateful, giving, loving parents.
Now, it would have been easy for Larry to let Sundays slip sometimes. It would have been easy to focus on business and tell himself that was more urgent than his family. Would that have been an immoral or bad choice? No. Not at all. But if he put the business over his family enough times, pretty soon the strong family that he and his wife had envisioned would break down or not be nearly as close as they are now.
When you think about your legacy, spend time really delving into the kind of life you want to live and what actions must be taken to ensure you end up where you want to be. Sure, many people will say they want a strong family and unbelievable financial resources, like Mr. Mendelson. The question, however, is are you willing to put in the work, make the choices and exercise the same kind of consistency the Mendelson family has?
Your spouse, children, friends and employees will pay attention to what you do. Not what you say.
(Sharon): It is tempting to think of legacy solely in terms of what we leave behind after we are gone, but I believe that we create our own legacies while we are living, through every choice and action we take. As an expert in legacy planning and founder of Legacy Arts Magazine, how do you distinguish between the two?
Living with your legacy in mind makes life more meaningful for you, your family and those you associate with.
It is through this lens that you can map out a family path or personal mission that begins with the end in mind (as Steven Covey was so fond of saying). That is why at my company we are focused on creating a forward-thinking legacy from constructing a family mission statement to planning family retreats and events to capturing stories to creating succession plans to crafting a philanthropic purpose.
Often when the term “legacy” is used by financial professionals or estate planners, they are referring to financial assets left behind for charities or heirs. Certainly this is an important part of any estate plan, but your legacy is so much more than that. There are also character assets—such as your relationships, values, principles, spirituality, heritage, and purpose—and intellectual assets—such as your skills, systems, alliances, ideas, traditions and wisdom. All three asset types—financial, character and intellectual—should be passed on to your loved ones. This process of creating a legacy is typically more potent while you’re alive, but a great deal can be passed on after your death as well. The sooner you start, the better.
(Sharon): How do you distinguish between the role and influence of intergenerational legacy versus the influence of non-familial role models and mentors?
(Laura): Edna Buchanan said, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Like friends, mentors and role models are those we choose to learn from. Depending on circumstances, a good mentor or role model can have more of an impact on someone’s life than his or her family. When discussing legacy with others, I find myself being very open minded as to who that involves because you never know someone’s life experience or who they are close to. Their literal family legacy may not be that important to them.
Some people never get married. Some choose not to have children. Some are closer to the neighbor kid than to their own kids. Some haven’t spoken with their father in ten years. Some would rather spend Thanksgiving with friends than their family. Blood-related family cannot always fulfill the roles we need at certain stages of our lives. The guidance from a role model or mentor could be what points us to a path of finding deeper meaning in a way our own “tribe” never could.
Earlier I wrote about the importance of modeling the right people to create a strong character. It is my belief that we should seek out those people—either through books or in person—in order to become the optimal versions of ourselves. Some of us are lucky enough to have these people as a part of our family, others have to search for the right people.
In a traditional sense, family has an inherent, biological motivation to care for each other. And, certainly at the beginning of life, family may be one’s only exposure to learning. This is why it is crucial to carefully consider how your past, viewpoints and actions are affecting those within your family. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children principles and values that lead to the kids becoming grateful, independent and loving. When children do not have the right role models in their lives, they seek it through other means or pick up on behaviors that can be damaging and continue for generations. The traits of our family are often embedded within us at such a fundamental level that it can be difficult to view ourselves objectively or pay attention to behaviors that are on autopilot.
Examining what you do and don’t like about your family or your own character traits can be a catalyst for creating a more purposeful personal and family legacy that could dramatically impact future generations.
(Sharon): What role have the women in your own family played in influencing your work and the leader you are today?
(Laura): I was named after my great-grandmother, who was an intelligent woman known for her speaking skills. My mother says she traveled all over speaking and attracted many crowds. Although I hardly ever think of the origin of my name, I am grateful to be surrounded by impressive individuals on both sides of my family.
I admire many things about the women in my family. My grandmother, for example, took great efforts to keep the family together and create family traditions that make up some of the most memorable experiences of my childhood. My mother is always giving to others and I hope I’ve gotten some of my cooking skills from her. She was also supportive of my creative endeavors and that was really wonderful growing up—my mother would drop me off at sewing classes and art classes and get me canvases to paint on, clay for jewelry I wanted to make and so on.
I’ve never been overly focused on gender and, quite honestly, I relate more to my father intellectually. Starting around the beginning of high school, my father and I would go on walks several nights a week and talk about philosophy, business, science and spiritual principles. He is an avid reader and taught me how to learn almost anything from a book. He also taught me a value of hard work and introduced me to some pretty amazing opportunities at a young age. Because of him, I began editing technical manuals for an engineering firm at 16 and designed websites (back when it actually took some skill and programming knowledge) for several companies before I graduated from high school.
My parents never paid for my college education. I worked hard to pay for it on my own and didn’t accrue any debt in the process. I also bought my first car and paid for rent on my first place. Knowing that I could take care of myself at such a young age was empowering.
Families are interesting. You can intensely love each other while being frustrated by each others’ shortcomings at the same time. Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned have been from this dichotomy. The things that frustrate me about my family and myself often lead to the greatest learning experiences and opportunities to work on my own less-than-admirable traits.
(Sharon): What advice would you give your younger self and/or the next generation of young women leaders?
(Laura): To my younger self, I would say, “Hold on tight! There’s gonna be some bumps!” Just kidding. I would tell my younger self to trust myself and not place too much emphasis on others’ opinions—especially if they are not experts in the thing you’re evaluating. If you’ve thought it through, researched it and really believe in something, go for it. And if you think there’s a red flag, but can’t quite put your finger on it, run the other way. You don’t need anyone’s approval or a logical explanation.
The next thing I would tell myself is to be curious and detached from the outcomes. Sure, planning is important, but be open to serendipity. When things don’t work out, focus on the positive side. Trust that events are happening for your good—either to learn something or become someone better. The more comfortable you can become with adapting to change, the better off you will be.
And next, the invisible world is much more important than the tangible world. The more you study and analyze your own behaviors and motivations and improve your abilities to meditate, love others, show compassion, be happy with your situation no matter your surroundings, cultivate faith and improve your character, the happier your life will be.
The final thing I’d tell myself is that you are tough. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have blind spots. Tough stuff will pop up, but you can get through it. You are resilient. Face issues head on. Don’t avoid them. Ask for help when you need it. Surround yourself with a network loving, kind, supportive people. Don’t hide out of shame or embarrassment. If you address challenging issues from a place of compassion for yourself and others, you will be okay.
The bonus thing I’d tell myself is to have fun! Right now. Don’t wait for something to happen: a certain amount of money, a relationship, a milestone. All we have is right now. Enjoy as much of it as you possibly can.