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SERIES: 2016 is the tenth anniversary of Bill Jensen’s seminal book, What Is Your Life’s Work?, composed of legacy letters — letters from leaders and managers to their loved ones. Each letter describes a life’s work legacy they wish to leave behind. Each letter is published and attributed as it was ten years ago, with 2016 updates as postscript.   

Dave Ulrich

Work: Helping leaders lead from their heart, as well as their bottom line

Dave Ulrich is on leave as Professor of Business at the University of Michigan to serve with his wife as mission president for the Montreal, Canada Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They chase, help, inspire, serve, and teach 200 19-25-year-old missionaries for three years. It keeps them young, but makes them feel old.


In 1832, at age 16, you left Scotland to live with your uncle in Nova Scotia. You lived between Montreal and Toronto where, in 1836, you met a young man named Parley Pratt, converted to his faith, then subsequently moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, then Utah. The decisions you made in your life affect our lives 175 years later.

This letter is my chance to return and report to you how I have upheld the legacy you began.

Today, my wife Wendy and I lead the missionary efforts in Quebec and Ottawa for the church you joined so long ago. In doing this work, we have drawn on lessons learned from 20 years of writing, teaching, and consulting.

Focus on what matters most. We cannot be all things to all people. Organizations, leaders, and missionaries need to learn what matters most, then dedicate resources of time, energy, and passion to accomplish those things. We must define for ourselves what matters, not let someone else do it for us. Most of what matters comes from our deepest values, and folds a long-term vision into short-term actions.

Wendy and I have learned through this missionary assignment what matters most to us. When we were asked by church leaders to serve a three-year full-time mission, we were honored and surprised. It was both a hard and an easy decision. It was hard to walk away from a successful career and leave behind both financial success and professional acclaim. It was harder to consider being away from family and friends for three years. But it was easy because we have covenanted that we would consecrate our time and talents to serving God and others, and we see this assignment as a means for doing so. Our decision to accept this calling was made in a day, but formed over generations. I can now begin to imagine how, 175 years ago, you found it both hard and easy to move because of your religious convictions.

Give back. There is both an obligation and opportunity for the privileged to give back. Giving back focuses attention on those who receive by figuring out what they want and need. Companies give back in ways that add value to employees, customers, and shareholders; people give back in service that provides meaning to others. The best leaders I know give back through both private and public charities.

We have been enormously blessed financially and professionally. Wendy and I have always looked for ways to give back through our family (time with kids and parents), profession (editing journals and being responsive to colleagues), and church service (this and other assignments). We find that giving back is one of those things that is difficult to schedule and do at times, but after we have done it, we feel better about ourselves.

This assignment is seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We are on call to serve the missionaries we supervise. I am learning — begrudgingly at times — that to give back means to give up some sense of autonomy and control of my time and energy. When I am in the middle of writing or thinking about something, I inevitably get a phone call which, in my old world, would have been a distraction, but in this world is my raison d’être.

Find peace from the inside/out. Our present world is filled with conflicts between nations, competition between companies, and challenges in relationships. We cannot control the world, but we can control our reaction to it. To find enduring peace in the midst of contention, we should focus on what we do more than what we do not do; build on, and leverage our strengths; and constantly improve by learning both from what works and what does not. Through regular self-assessment, we define and develop an inner source of peace that gives us confidence in uncertain futures.

In taking our current assignment, we have come to peace with clients and ourselves. Almost all of our friends and clients expressed enormous support, captured by one saying: “In the war for talent, God wins.” Coming to peace with ourselves meant redefining our scorecard of success. Making money, writing articles and books, teaching classes, and impacting businesses were easy scorecards to monitor. Now, we measure success in less tangible ways as we try to influence about 500 missionaries who will serve with us over three years as we try to establish a church in this area.

We are constantly doing self-assessments to learn how to improve what we do, and while making mistakes along the way, we are getting better at doing it. For example, I have never been very gracious with service incompetence (e.g., in airlines, car rentals, restaurants, bureaucracy, etc.). In this present assignment, I wear a name badge with my name and the church I represent. So, when I become agitated, the person in front of me can simply look at my name badge and I feel shame for badly representing my church. I have not yet overcome my insolent tendencies, but I am working on them a little at a time.

Change small and simple things. As we try to improve, we are drawn to the large, dramatic, and splashy programs for change, but we are impacted more by the small and simple changes in our daily routines. We don’t change the world through epiphanies, but by doing lots of little things that add up to sustained transformation. Simple things are not always easy to change, but by improving one thing at a time, we make progress toward great things.

Wendy and I seek daily little things that we can tweak to make our lives better. In this assignment, the simple things include grooming (1,000+ days in white shirt and tie and clean-shaven — a record for my lifetime!), reading (replace novels with scriptures), thinking and writing (more about topics like hope, faith, commitment, peace, and charity rather than market value, customer commitment, and strategic human resources), attention (spending time dealing with people more than organizations), and behavior (working to be sensitive to the needs of others and follow the principles we preach). While far from perfect, we are making personal progress to learn how to do this new assignment.

This is my report. The legacy you began endures. I hope that Carrie, Monika, and Michael will continue and build on the legacy you began and we have nurtured.

Until we meet, Dave

2006: Dave Ulrich has written a dozen books on leadership and management, serves on the Board of Directors of Herman Miller Inc., and was ranked by Business Week magazine in 2001 as the Number One business educator.

2016: Dave is Co-Founder and Partner at The RBL Group, and organizational management consulting firm, and Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

Want to Write Your Own Legacy Letter? Go here for step-by-step instructions.

About Bill Jensen

Bill Jensen makes it easier to do great work.

He helps companies and teams double their productivity and pursue their passions.

He has spent the past 25 years studying how work gets done. (Much of what he’s found horrifies him.)

Bill is an internationally-acclaimed thought leader who is known for extremely useful content, with a passion for making it easier for everyone to work smarter, not harder.

His first book, Simplicity, was the Number 5 Leadership/ Management book on Amazon in 2000.

His last books — Disrupt! Think Epic, Be Epic and The Courage Within Us — reveal the secrets of success through bold ideas and by unleashing your own greatness. His new book, Future Strong, was published October 2015.

Bill holds degrees in Communication Design and Organizational Development.

He is CEO of The Jensen Group. Among his clients are Bank of America, Merck, Pfizer, GE, L’Oréal Italia, Genentech, NASA, The World Bank, BBC, Philips Lighting, the US Navy SEALS, the government of Ontario, Singapore Institute of Management, Guangzhou China Development District, and the Swedish Post Office.

Bill’s personal life fantasy is to bicycle around the globe via breweries.

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