It Takes a Leader

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2004

Disgruntlement is a contagious workplace disease. Once the bug spreads through the staff, it can often take years to quarantine.

"It's kind of typical to see the everybody-shows-up-for-work-and-walks-through-the-day kind of jobs happening, where there is no passion, no excitement," says Boca Grande resident Larry Wilson, one of the leading entrepreneurial thinkers in the country. "I coach people on how to change these kinds of things. I try to help them master critical core life competencies that will help them work more efficiently and more joyfully."

As founder of Wilson Learning Corporation, the second largest training company in the country during the '80s, Wilson created programs to help Fortune 500 companies achieve higher performance levels. After selling that business, he founded Pecos River Leadership Development Center in 1985, then sold it 12 years later to pursue a solo career in public speaking and private training. Among his clients are Citibank, DuPont, Merrill Lynch, Miller Brewing and British Airways. Now 74, Wilson became the youngest lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table at age 29. He has five best-selling books, including 1998's Play to Win! Choosing Growth over Fear in Work and Life.

Simmons Mattress Company is a prime example of a business that moved from depression to success after shifting its priorities. The 135-year-old company had been spiraling downward, with employees focusing more on serving the boss rather than the customer. As Wilson explains, the client is the "litmus test for sustainability" within a company. Wilson helped improve communications among the company's 18 branches; stopped sloppy ordering and lackadaisical selling with his "Zero Waste Program," saving Simmons $21 million the first year; and improved employees' schedules to maximize their daytime work. In 2003, Simmons became one of coveted Top 100 Best Places to Work in America list in 2003.

"Organizations require people to be more risk-taking, but the culture in the workplace is risk-aversive," he explains. "Leaders are there to bring about change. We have to get out there, be creative and try new things."

Members of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce can hear Wilson speak Jan. 13 at the first annual Chamber University seminar on leadership at the Hyatt Sarasota Ballroom.

Wilson's morale boosters:

1. Create a high level of trust. Especially with the accelerating rate of change in technology, when employees are heading into unfamiliar business territories, they must be able to rely on their leader to guide them. Leaders should be able to be both authoritative and vulnerable at the same time, keeping a down-to-earth attitude while still maintaining a hierarchically superior role. "The times we're in, where people have been treated, with layoffs and downsizing, people have become leery of leadership," Wilson says. "The phenomenon of leadership is someone following someone else because they want to, and not because they have to."

2. Dispel fears by maintaining an honest environment that allows employees to admit their mistakes. Covering up mishaps can cost the organization dramatically. "If I said to a group of leaders, 'What do people in your organization do with mistakes?' Most people say they hide them or blame them on somebody else," Wilson says. "Mistakes are OK as long as three things are occurring: 1. You made it on purpose. The purpose could be to create loyal customers. 2. You learned from the mistake. 3. You shared what you learned with the rest of the organization."

Empower rather than control. Encourage staff to foster their creativity and unique capabilities. Reassuring employees that they are appreciated and honored is key. "Leaders have to trust that their employees have a brain, and understand they're going to make some mistakes," Wilson says.

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