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Heritage Management: The Art of Leadership

December 20, 2017 • History Factory

Heritage management is a vital and pervasive yet hard-to-pin-down approach to getting the best out or your business. Corporate executives trying to define the issue are often in the same bind—at least conceptually—as former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In a landmark case about pornography, he said, “I know it when I see it.”

In our experience, there is not a great dictionary-worthy description of heritage management. With that in mind, this white paper explains the concept, highlights its prevalence, and makes a case for its broader and more intentional use: an essential tool for twenty-first century leadership.

HERITAGE HOME RUNS

Before we take a crack at defining heritage management ourselves, let’s learn from the pros and look at some premier examples of heritage management in action. Nothing better illustrates the use of heritage today than the way sports organizations effectively leverage it to sustain and increase their popularity.

Heritage management can be found everywhere in the sports world. Halls of Fame, classic stadiums and arenas, throwback uniforms, old timers’ games, and most importantly, the preservation and constant recycling of images of great players and plays. This showcase is an example of how leaders in sports use heritage management to sustain brand loyalty.

And yet some of the best heritage management applications in sports are far more subtle. The Chicago Cubs, for example, have one of the richest histories in Major League Baseball. Until recently, the Cubs had been through the longest title drought in sports history, and yet the franchise had managed to retain a loyal fan base and a culture like no other. Indeed, the organization had managed to turn its longstanding weak performance into a strength of sorts, as the Cubs became known over time as the “lovable losers.”

The Cubs’ rituals and traditions—keeping part of the fence open at Wrigley Field during games, throwing opponents’ home-run balls back onto the field, having guests lead the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—define a culture that is like no other.

Then, on November 3, 2016, white flags with blue Ws hung high as the Cubs won Game Seven and their first World Series since 1908, ending more than a century of frustration. Historically, the white victory flags were used to signal a Cubs victory to those who missed the big game. Today, the flag is an example of the resilience of Cubs fans and a testament that the drought has only made the franchise heritage stronger and prouder than ever.

Heritage Management and the Art of Leadership

If we head north, we find another proud sports empire using its heritage to create unique a customer experience. For decades, the New York Yankees have epitomized the best—or at least the winningest—in baseball. The pinstriped magic still moves America, as anyone who witnessed the repeat standing ovations for Derek Jeter during the 2014 All-Star Game can attest. Different player, different circumstances, different times, but the echo of the great goodbye from baseball legend Lou Gehrig resonated around the stadium and around the world on video screens large and small. The past was present, and it was a marvel to behold.

HERITAGE MANAGEMENT AND THE ART OF LEADERSHIP

While sports offer a visceral example, heritage management is similarly applied by leaders across all business sectors. One such example is Apple. The company has woven heritage into its products with a naming strategy that denotes generations. “Apple names its products each generation by either a flagship feature or design change,” according to an article on the daily news site Cult of Mac. “When a certain product establishes itself, naming conventions are usually dropped altogether.”

In its still relatively early post-founder era, Apple is pivoting to sustaining the strengths of Steve Jobs. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Tim Cook discussed how Apple relies on Steve Jobs’ legacy to guide the company’s principles. He said:

““In essence, these principles that Steve learned over many years are the basis for Apple. It doesn’t mean the company hasn’t changed. The company’s going to change . . . . But our ‘Constitution’ shouldn’t change. It should remain the same. I think of it as a North Star. It’s always important to have that in mind as you make decisions. It actually makes decision making much simpler.”

HERITAGE MANAGEMENT DEFINED

Heritage management is the practice of taking the collective memory of an organization and systematically telling a story that is compelling, authentic and relevant, to ensure the past remains a vital element in the collective identity of the organization’s future.

History is a comprehensive record of what happened, how it happened and who was involved. While history theoretically includes everything, heritage is selective. It is what we choose to remember, what we tell, and what we reinforce. Some expressions of heritage are visible and conscious, such as rituals and traditions, founding stories, and oft-cited examples of innovation and success. Other elements of heritage often lie below the surface: think values and basic assumptions—the long forgotten reasons “we always do it this way.”

Heritage Management and the Art of Leadership

As processes, procedures and tools achieve, or appear to achieve, success, they gather meaning and can take on iconic status. Powerful leaders are also often enshrined in an organization’s collective memory, and with them, their personal beliefs and methods. Products—and their advertising and
marketing campaigns—can help define generations and become part of the broader lifestyle and cultural fabric of their times. Heritage can be used to create brands that motivate consumers and employees, making it easier to sell products and get work done. Strong leaders sometimes instinctively and often consciously use heritage to drive their strategies knowing that words, stories, processes and events can trigger collective memories—both real and mythic. But leaders ultimately must learn how to leverage heritage in a world where social and economic influences, technology advancements and new competitors require change. When time, new technologies and new competitors demand change, a former pathway to success will not always remain so, and a proud heritage may someday become an obstacle to progress.

“In an organization the hardware (strategy and structure) is inert without the software (beliefs and behavior).”

– Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Two leading management authorities—Larry Bossidy, renowned former CEO of Allied Signal and Honeywell, and Ram Charan, a consultant to senior management—collaborated on the highly praised 2002 book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Bossidy and Charan argue that leaders seeking change are right to focus on the so-called “soft” stuff—beliefs and behavior—because they are “at least as important as hard stuff . . . if not more so.” They explain that “in an organization the hardware (strategy and structure) is inert without the software (beliefs and behavior).”

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