Mark Miller of The Legacy Lab: “Take leadership personally”

Take leadership personally. While short-term thinkers buy into systems and processes with the goal of following market trends, legacy makers invest in individuals seeking to make a meaningful contribution. Often, this begins with investing in their own long-term and personal ambitions. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, […]

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Take leadership personally. While short-term thinkers buy into systems and processes with the goal of following market trends, legacy makers invest in individuals seeking to make a meaningful contribution. Often, this begins with investing in their own long-term and personal ambitions.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Miller.

Mark is the founder of The Legacy Lab, a research and consulting practice, chief strategy officer at Team One, and coauthor of Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand Out in a Short-Term World — winner of several book awards, including the 2020 Berry Book Award from the American Marketing Association (AMA) Foundation.

Named a Trendsetter and Agency Innovator by The Internationalist, Mark’s work helping global brands like Lexus and The Ritz-Carlton create lasting change has earned recognition from the Advertising Research Foundation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and Effie Worldwide.

Mark is a graduate of the Schulich School of Business at York University. Originally from Toronto, Canada, he lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Sally, and their daughter, Hailey.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Mark! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Education was always important to me. When it came time to select what I would study at University, I was torn between a creative pursuit, such as film studies, or a more business-oriented path. Not wanting to make a “bad choice,” I consulted with two of my role models, my parents, who encouraged me to follow my passion, as long as my passion was to go to business school and get a more stable job.

I ended up graduating from the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, Canada. I combined my skills in marketing with my passion for creativity to pursue a career in advertising. I was fortunate to earn the opportunity to ply my craft and continue to learn from some very important mentors in Los Angeles, California.

After I got married and had a daughter, I started thinking more intentionally — not just about my next workplace contribution, but about my social and cultural contributions at large. I started actively thinking about the legacy I was building more so than the resume I was writing.

With the support of Team One, the advertising agency I have worked at for 20 years and counting, I launched The Legacy Lab — an agency practice that researches, consults with, and invests in leaders and brands making lasting contributions through their work — and the related non-profit, The Legacy Lab Foundation.

So, yes, I have my parents to thank (or to blame) for my career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Through my work with The Legacy Lab, I have been fortunate to speak with and learn from some remarkable people — from Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, to Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, to Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why, and more.

The story I want to share here comes from a conversation with Brent Bushnell. He is the founder of Two Bit Circus, a brand that combines high tech with high fun to bring STEAM learning to life. When I queried Brent about how he found his long-term focus, he shared a Japanese philosophy, ikigai, that can help to distill one’s “reason for being.” To find your ikigai, reflect on what you love to do, what you are good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. Then, look to see where your responses overlap.

Brent noted that too often parents are apt to tell their kids, “just do what you love.” And added that if you only did what you loved but weren’t good at it or couldn’t make money at it, that it was likely not a sustainable career choice. I was struck by the necessity of filling the world with something it needs — to not just focus on succeeding like others, but instead to succeed by contributing something abundantly that is, otherwise, in rare supply.

There are entire books written on the topic of ikigai. I even dedicated part of my book, Legacy in the Making, to the idea and have applied the philosophy in my own work. In a business world filled with those looking to make a fast buck, The Legacy Lab champions those who play by a different set of rules: the long-term thinkers in a short-term world.

These days, as leaders are (re)evaluating their priorities during the era of Covid-19, I often get asked to remark on ikigai. I’m inspired to know that this philosophy continues to resonate with more and more people.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Years ago, when I first began profiling brands and leaders for my work on legacy-making, I imagined that I would disproportionately learn the most from those with the longest tenures. At the time, this seemed like common sense: those who had endured the longest could speak with experience about why longevity mattered, but I was wrong.

Through the process of interviewing leaders of various generations, I learned there was often an inverse relationship. Young leaders and brands, it turned out, often had a higher regard for building sustainable solutions. Two leaders who helped to reshape my view were Naomi Wadler and Carter Anderson — student activists renowned for their significant contributions to the #neveragain movement.

In 2018, following the Parkland shootings, Naomi and Carter proposed a walkout at their elementary school in support for victims. Initially, their principal was not supportive. Feeling the issue of gun control was too mature for kids, he suggested doing something at recess, provided they could get adult supervision. How did “the kids,” then age 11, respond?

“[We said] we wouldn’t need parental supervision to be shot in our classrooms. We weren’t asking for his permission. We were asking for his support.” Because Naomi and Carter showed courage to stand up for what they believed to be right, their principal relented and gave them his full support.

Now, in reflecting on that lesson learned, I laugh at myself for once asking Naomi and Carter about being future leaders. Naomi’s response: “I don’t like the term future leader. I like to think that both Carter and I are current leaders and that we don’t need an age certificate to be identified as such.”

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Legacy Lab creates lasting impact by open-sourcing insights, making investments in student leaders, and building infrastructure for leaders and brands working to make their own enduring contributions.

From the outset, the goal was not to hoard information, but instead to share our insight and learning to inspire others who aspired to use business as a force for good — those aiming to create positive, long-term change. So, we first published interviews on our company site,, and then shared the corresponding analysis in Legacy in the Making.

The primary intent of the book was to spark a movement, to speak to a different kind of business leader who looked beyond the moment. And alongside the book we launched a not-for-profit to advance the values we wrote about. Powered by The Giving Back Fund, The Legacy Lab Foundation awarded six student scholarships in 2020. Gianna White earned our foundation’s highest honor. She is a Sustainable Urban Environments undergraduate at New York University, and the co-director of the Urban Food Lab. Gianna is working toward building more sustainable cities, making sure no one is left behind in the process.

When The Legacy Lab applies its knowledge to consulting work, our focus is on collaborating with those who have a purpose beyond just making a profit. These tend to be leaders and brands who are seeking guidance for turning their idealism into realism. While they have the will, they are often seeking a way. For them, we help to build brand infrastructure and architecture. And while we’re often approached by leaders of more established brands wanting to revitalize their legacy, we are also motivated by the rise in young entrepreneurs reaching out wanting to build more sustainable businesses right from the start.

Through the totality of our work, The Legacy Lab is working to cultivate a generation of leaders more focused on contribution than extraction.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of my favorites is a story about a social entrepreneur working to support healthy bee populations.

Mikaila Ulmer is the 16-year-old CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade. She founded her business at the age of four. Her inspiration? After she was stung by two bees in the same week, Mikaila’s parents helped her do research to overcome her fears. Through the process, Mikaila learned that bees are good — that they are vital for the global food supply chain. She went from being afraid of bees to being their advocate. She began making lemonade, sweetened with honey, and gave a portion of proceeds to organizations that, like hers, sought to protect the bees.

In 2015, the young entrepreneur from Austin, Texas, showcased her brand and told her story on Shark Tank and ended up garnering support from veteran shark, Daymond John. Since then, Mikaila’s contributions grew, along with her hive of supporters — from regional distribution at Whole Foods Market to national attention by the Obama White House and beyond. But as her brand grew, she faced challenges — the biggest being a name change for her company to avoid trademark infringement.

With the help of her bee-lievers, including The Legacy Lab, Mikaila came to a solution here that was as unconventional as her and her leadership journey. She didn’t focus on the product being sold, she focused on the story being told — the story of Mikaila and the bees. While competitors could try to take away her brand name, they couldn’t take away her story. Now, through Me & the Bees Lemonade, and its related Healthy Hive Foundation, Mikaila’s brand and legacy continues to grow.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Government, businesses, and the media can all play a valuable role in advancing how leaders and brands make a more durable difference.

Government can support the cause by more vigorously and continuously offering financial incentives to leaders and businesses that are focused on creating long-term, positive good in the world. This includes businesses that are integrating more sustainable practices into their work.

Businesses can support by holding themselves to a higher standard — by focusing more on performance over a long-term horizon. In 2018, Warren Buffett (Berkshire-Hathaway) and Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan) penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with the headline, “Short-Termism is Harming the Economy.” They advised weaning off short-term performance goals in order to “strengthen the U.S. economy, benefit America’s workers, shareholders and investors, and leave a generational legacy we can be proud of.” Given the decline of business this past year during the global pandemic, their words seem prescient.

Media can support by no longer lionizing those leaders who succeed solely on financial gain, and by instead celebrating those who succeed financially because they, first, made a higher order social impact. For example, leaders such as Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug — at Taylor Guitars — have made a habit of making choices by first considering if their business will be better off 10 years from now as a consequence of their actions. So, they succeed today by always creating with tomorrow in mind.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For years, businesses thrived by prioritizing their short-term performance, personal and/or corporate reputation, monetary gains, predictability, and caution. In turn, many established leaders were short-sighted, self-interested, finance-driven, closes-minded, and slow-moving. They held fast to old-school philosophies even in the face of a world that required some new-school thinking.

Based on my ongoing examination, particularly of younger legacy makers, I learned that there are a few common traits held by leaders who are making a lasting impact: creativity, courage, compassion, curiosity, and conviction.

  • Older institutions often become so focused on today’s performance that they do not imagine beyond the moment until a disaster requires it — which is often too late. Their leaders tend to be shortsighted. Today’s young leaders are creative enough to see possibilities, pursuing a better today, tomorrow, and always.
  • Older institutions often place managers masquerading as leaders at the top — ones more focused on controlling personal and corporate reputations than making real impact. Their leaders tend to be more self-interested. Today’s young leaders are courageous enough to do what is right — desiring respect over fleeting popularity.
  • Older institutions often prioritize monetary gains, maximizing shareholder value versus living up to their higher values each day, which can often create distrust among their core constituents. Their leaders tend to be financially driven. Today’s young leaders are compassionate enough to always put caring before commerce — in good times and bad
  • Older institutions often become so stuck in their routine — repeating what they know — that they miss important shifts in culture, categories, and consumers. Their leaders tend to be closed-minded. Today’s young leaders are curious enough to make continuous learning a lifelong necessity and not a nuisance.
  • Older institutions often avoid taking risks, proceeding with caution to the point that competitors — driven by their beliefs and moving with speed and confidence — pass them by. Their leaders tend to lack conviction. Today’s young leaders have conviction enough to try and fail, without delay, to achieve their highest ambitions

Whether your organization is established or emerging, there is something to be taken away from these young leaders who are creative enough to imagine a better future, courageous enough to stand up for what is right, compassionate enough to put caring ahead of commerce, curious enough to never stop learning, and have conviction enough to make a lasting contribution starting now.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Take leadership personally. While short-term thinkers buy into systems and processes with the goal of following market trends, legacy makers invest in individuals seeking to make a meaningful contribution. Often, this begins with investing in their own long-term and personal ambitions. For example, Reshma Saujani left a lucrative job in the financial services industry and set out to solve a seemingly intractable problem: narrowing the gender gap in computer science. Now, she’s realizing her personal ambition via the company she founded, Girls Who Code, which is on track to reach gender parity in the field by 2027.

Behave your beliefs. Short-term thinkers picture their brands from the outside in, believing attitude — what they say and how they posture — matters most. In contrast, the legacy makers I talked to work from the inside out, allowing a few core beliefs to guide countless unique behaviors. At The Honest Company, cofounders Jessica Alba and Christopher Gavigan have shown that their brand’s beliefs can eclipse the products the company makes. Even as items like diapers, soap, and make-up evolve year to year, the company’s founding values live on through the people who bring the brand to life each day.

Let outsiders in. Seeking category dominance and sales superiority, short-term thinkers tend to hoard information and try to tell customers what to do. Legacy makers do the opposite — growing their social influence by inviting customers to help tell their story and letting sales follow saliency. For the ones at the It Gets Better Project, the nonprofit dedicated to empowering isolated LGBTQ+ youth, this means inspiring tens of thousands of supporters to spread the brand’s uplifting message by sharing their own personal videos — building enduring social influence by enrolling them as coauthors of the brand.

Invent your own game. Short-term thinkers maintain the status quo by mastering rules (e.g., business is about making profits) and taking conventional wisdom for granted (e.g., there are no profits in altruism). Legacy makers break rules and reconcile paradoxes (e.g., business can make money and be a force for good) in order to forge extraordinary and lasting change. Distinguishing itself by taste in a category that previously aspired to be tasteless, Grey Goose vodka has flaunted longstanding category norms since its debut. Not only was it the world’s first “super premium” vodka, it was the first crafted in France.

Never stop making legacy. Too many short-term thinkers either grow stale by repeating the past or lose their identity by renouncing it. To cultivate enduring significance, legacy makers find ways to perpetually bring the past forward. Again, I love the example set by Taylor Guitars, where the founders chose one of their own, a master craftsman, to succeed them after they retire. The choice allows them to collaborate and share knowledge in real time, before they retire, and ensures that their passion for building innovative guitars that people love to play will transcend generations.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m still very invested in working to reshape the leadership agenda for business — to inspire a generation of leaders to think beyond building their resume and start to think about creating a legacy that will have a positive impact for generations to come.

In 2012, when Team One supported me in launching The Legacy Lab, the role models that businesses turned to for inspiration were the usual ones: those who made the most profit and celebrated for that fact. But over the years things have shifted. Now, those aiming to make a difference and a profit are grabbing headlines too. And young leaders are getting attention alongside established leaders and brands. It has become more acceptable, if not essential, to think long-term in a short-term world. And yet the job to reform business for the long-term still has a long way to go.

Based on past behavior, it’s possible that leaders and brands will revert to old habits, to short-termism, if and when consumers return to their old ways post-pandemic. While being good and doing good has become a hobby, we need to continue to work at it to become a habit. We need to move beyond saying that sustainability is important, for example, to proving it through action.

When One Percent for the Planet and B Corporation Certification move from niceties to necessities, it will feel more like this movement has taken root.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In 2017, I sat down with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, to discuss his brand’s legacy in the making. Like many, I was a fan not only of what Patagonia makes, but also of what it believes.

What stands out most in my memory is his response to what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs who were hoping to build something to last. His answer: “Grow a garden.” Why? Because he was pessimistic about the fate of the planet, given how too many leaders setting the agenda for business were acting self-interested and short-sighted.

Yvon warned about the dangers of not being more conscious of public interest and long-term benefits. Capitalism, he felt, was at risk because of the overconsumption it was encouraging and the waste it was creating. His advice was not to follow the lead of those adding to the crisis, but instead to set the example by growing something much more sustainable, like a garden.

Today, I’m working on growing more gardens.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The first time I heard Amanda Gorman speak was during the United States Presidential Inauguration.

As our government’s next leader was being sworn in, this 22-year-old poet, a leader in her own right, commanded the stage to recite a poem, The Hill We Climb. In the wake of some of our elder leaders setting an unfortunate example, she spoke beautifully about “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” She added, “that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose.” She spoke with real courage, compassion and conviction, leadership qualities that I respect and admire.

As a professional studying the topic of legacy building — and as a parent searching for more positive role models for my 8-year-old daughter — it would be meaningful to me to be able to interview and learn from Amanda Gorman.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can keep up with the ongoing work of Team One on Twitter @TeamOneUSA, the research at The Legacy Lab @thelegacylab, and me and my pursuits @MarkMillerLA.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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