For many women, the most difficult part of leaving a company they’ve spent years at – no matter the reason for their departure (retirement, reinvention, or realignment) – is the fear of what will happen to the legacy they’re leaving behind. Whether special projects, women’s initiatives, or a groundbreaking career path, how do you protect the legacy you’ve built at a company as you prepare to leave?
Michelle Flowers Welch finds herself in this exact situation. After an illustrious 35-year career in public relations and after spending the past 21 years of her life building her award-winning multicultural communications firm Flowers Communications Group, she’s leaving it all behind not for retirement, but for a new venture.
Here are a few ways Flowers Welch advises women to protect what they’ve built, while still looking ahead.
Passing the Torch: Identify a Protégé
After working for the Chicago Urban League, Flowers Welch joined Chicago’s wildly successful communications firm GolinHarris, which would change the path of her career forever.
“I walked into GolinHarris in 1983 and I knew I was home,” Flowers Welch said. “I loved the agency side and I knew that one day, I would have my own agency. I began to develop an interest in ethnic marketing and I always knew that I would be an entrepreneur and that I would follow a path that I felt would allow me to control my destiny.”
Flowers Communications Group is considered a powerhouse in the industry – as is Flowers Welch, who’s been awarded the Hall of Fame Award from PR News and Northwestern University, the National Black Public Relations Society’s Founders Award, and the Public Club of Chicago’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Flowers Welch’s firm recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary and its matriarch has handed over the glass baton.
“The theme for our anniversary was 20 Years and Blooming, and I really feel good about the agency’s future and its next 20 years,” Flowers Welch said. “This company will be in great hands under our new president Rashada Whitehead, the first person other than me to carry that title.”
Whitehead joined the company fresh out of college in 1999, but left to work at a general market agency for a few years. Whitehead returned in 2008 sharper than ever, so Flowers Welch worked with her protégée to develop a succession plan designed to create a legacy of leadership and continue building the company.
Flowers Welch is now in the process of writing her next chapter with the creation of her new company Welch Enterprises. In many ways, she’s luckier than most women who are leaving companies that are not their own, which makes protecting their legacies all the more difficult.
“Rashada is an outstanding communications professional who shares my vision and passion for business and I sleep well at night knowing that with Rashada’s vision and leadership, this company will live on and thrive,” Flowers Welch said. “I understand what a blessing it is to have such a dynamic young leader who is doing an outstanding job of guiding Flowers Communications Group into the future with the same dedication and drive that I embraced 21 years ago.”
Flowers Welch has five tips for senior women who want to protect their legacy as they prepare to leave their companies and venture off into new territory.
1. Learn from your mistakes. Flowers Welch says that good leaders are risk takers who are not afraid to fail and that’s an important lesson to keep in mind when beginning your next chapter. “Success doesn’t come by not falling because you are going to fail – it comes with the territory,” Flowers Welch said. “During the course of our careers, we ‘seasoned leaders’ have used our innate ability, drive, and sheer resilience to pick ourselves up from a fall, learn from our mistakes, and keep going.”
2. Pay it forward. One of the best ways to ensure that your legacy never dies is to become a mentor. “Family traditions only stay alive when they are passed along from one generation to the next. The same goes for our expertise and key learnings. We’ve got to keep reaching out to the millenials of our respective industries by continuously making ourselves available as mentors and advisors,” Flowers Welch said.
3. Keep growing. Flowers Welch strongly recommends staying in the know about your industry once you leave your legacy behind. According to the public relations expert, closing the door on your long-term career doesn’t mean you can’t keep your ideas and perspectives fresh by staying in the know.
4. Get out of your comfort zone. Protecting your legacy can be overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that there are new legacies to be made. Flowers Welch says that when leaving your old company behind, it’s important to be open to new ventures that may take you out of your comfort zone. “You have spent the last few decades leading a financial institution, but your next opportunity may be in the health arena. Keep an open mind about where life may take you next,” Flowers Welch said.
5. Get reacquainted with yourself. The initiatives, programs, or projects you created at your old company are still very much a part of you, but as you begin your next chapter it’s time to re-evaluate what you want and figure out if you want to continue going in the same direction. “Take some time to reintroduce yourself to and get reacquainted with this new person: you,” Flowers Welch said.
“In climbing our career ladders, we often put everything and everyone in front of ourselves and weigh our success on how it’s benefited companies, departments, or families. But every day, week, or month, become bold enough to do something that shifts the entire focus or benefits on you.”