“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” This wonderful quotation is apparently Mark Twain’s response to seeing his own obituary published in error at a time when it was actually his cousin who was close to death. It leaves us with a smile and yet another example of the author’s pithy wit.
Another famous man who read his own premature obituary was Dr Alfred Nobel and he took no pleasure in learning how he might have been remembered.
Do you know what Dr Nobel was most famous for in his lifetime?
Alfred Nobel was a chemist. He was also a very successful businessman and during his lifetime filed 350 patents. Probably the most famous of these was for dynamite as he was a very successful manufacturer of explosives and armaments establishing 90 factories around the world.
Yet when in 1888 his brother Ludvig died in Cannes, a French newspaper published “The merchant of death is dead. Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
This rather sobering message wasn’t how Alfred had imagined he would be remembered and , after this chance awakening, he decided to leave a rather different legacy. He assigned the bulk of his estate – 94% of his total assets – to be assigned to fund five Nobel prizes after his death in 1896. The rest, as they say, is history.
While we can debate the good or ill arising from the peaceful or aggressive uses of explosives, there is no doubt that an early encounter with his own obituary has created a different legacy and one which publicly hails the work and achievements of great individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Mother Teresa, even Jean-Paul Sartre and Barak Obama.
There is no doubt that Alfred Nobel was committed to leaving a more positive legacy…
But what about you?
What would you like to be remembered for at home or in work?
Personally I’m not even remotely interested in being remembered and lauded long after I’ve died, but I would like to think that people I’ve touched along the way will remember me as open, honest, generous and welcoming. Professionally I’d like to be known as knowledgeable, approachable and creative.
And you know what, if that’s how I want to be remembered I do need to make sure that in my dealings with people on a daily basis I am visibly open, honest, generous and welcoming.
Similarly, If I wanted to be seen as successful, ambitious and proactive I’d need to express and consistently demonstrate those qualities to the people that matter.
So, as you read this and go about your day, maybe take a moment to notice who are you to other people and ask what will you be remembered for?
For many it’s as subtle as the difference between: “hard-working and diligent” or “quiet and gets on with the job”. Which would you prefer?
I was working with a manager recently. She had been brought in on a four year contract to meet a series of challenging organisational targets – and she was committed to getting the job done. In the process it was clear she wasn’t building effective relationships with her team, in fact, it sounded as if there was little or no relationship apart from “When I say jump you ask how high!”.
Now I’m the first to admit that the purpose of a manager isn’t to be liked or loved and at some time, most managers will have to make decisions that are unpopular. However, a team that respects their manager will be a more productive team and respect is one product of relationship.
In this case, particularly with the manager in question being a woman, when her four year contract is finished, she might find that simply meeting the organisational targets isn’t enough to get a glowing reference from her employer. If her team is unhappy, senior management will notice and as, stereotypically, women are supposed to be good at building relationships, a woman who runs an unhappy team is likely to be perceived as committing a significant gender violation. This is more likely to count against her and the impression she creates despite the fact that she met the targets.
Whether you like it or not, an awareness of the impression you create is a vital skill to develop. Being remembered as a manager who demanded hard work and high standards but was considerate and fair is different from being remembered as an uncaring tyrant. Being a researcher who was proactive and keen to get on feels very different to someone who just got on with the job and was never noticed much…
This is about more than being liked by your colleagues, it’s about professionalism and respect – and sometimes in the workplace, the rules for women are different from the rules for men in a similar position. A woman often has to use a different strategy to achieve the same result. That may not not be easy to accept and is often not fair.
So take a moment to reflect today – what impression are you making at work?
If that impression isn’t what you’d like to be remembered for, how can you make changes to put the balance back?