One of the fastest growing hobbies today is genealogy—tracing your roots. It is fun to find out where you came from, how you got here, and what happened along the way. It can also help you determine your legacy.
I would submit that tracking your family tree is not just for families. It's also a good idea for businesses—how you got started, what accounted for your success, and where you are today. What is the root of your corporate culture? How did you become so successful from such humble beginnings? Or, on the other hand, when did the big happy family start to splinter?
If this sounds like an exercise in futility, consider this: Businesses come and go every single day. If businesses don't know why, or don't know how to adapt to changing requirements, the statistics will include them sooner rather than later.
Knowing the reason you are in business and what you plan to accomplish will help keep your doors open. Keeping an eye on long-term goals will help you build a solid foundation and stay in business when others are failing. Understanding your starting point, successes and failures helps prevent repeating mistakes. Remember the George Santayana quote: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
Start your history study at the beginning, from the day you (or the founder) invested the first dollar. Think about the reasons for starting the business, goals that were set, the sacrifices that were necessary to stay afloat, when loss changed to break-even and then to profit, and the people responsible for all the above.
When I took over a struggling envelope company, I had every intention of making it more successful than I could imagine. Toward that end, our mission statement since day one has been "To be in business forever." Anyone could make an envelope with the proper machinery, I figured, but some would upset their customers, some would sell out to other operations, and some would have management or quality issues. When I started, there were more than 400 envelope manufacturers in the country. Approximately 100 remain.
Why have we survived? Because we never forgot where we came from, and what brought us this far. I've watched this "company tree" branch out through a succession of presidents, sales managers and factory workers. All were committed to our mission.
We never forget that we've faced great times and downright miserable times. If we're thinking ahead, we realize that our past is our legacy. What kind of legacy will you leave?
Consider Earl Bakken, who invented the first battery-powered transistorized cardiac pacemaker in a garage with his brother-in-law after he realized the need for a business that could repair medical equipment. Bakken, who had been drawn to the idea of combining electricity and medicine since seeing the movie Frankenstein in high school, is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, a world leader in medical technology and pioneering therapies.
The company's website tells the story of Bakken meeting a doctor at the University of Minnesota whose infant patients needed help keeping their hearts beating after surgery. They had to rely on large pacemakers that were plugged in to an outlet, but following a sudden power outage that led to the death of a baby, the doctor asked Bakken to create a battery-powered version.
After four weeks of experimentation in his garage, Bakken produced the world's first small, self-contained, transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker, which could be taped to the patient's chest or bed free of any power cords or connections. The day after he delivered it to the doctor he was startled to see a little girl wearing the device at the hospital.
Aside from the life-saving technology his company has developed, Earl Bakken has left a legacy that is clear to every Medtronic employee. Medtronic, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, now employs 20,000 people in offices around the world. Bakken, who retired 15 years ago, still meets with new employees to explain the "Medtronic Mission."
Bakken's "high-tech, high-touch" mission, which emphasizes human welfare, as well as the latest in biomedical engineering, remains Medtronic's backbone. When asked to reconcile compassion with business success, Bakken says, "They're one and the same. If you're doing something that's positive for people, it's fair and reasonable that there's a good living in it."
Mackay's Moral: Give your legacy a leg to stand on.