The Golden Newsletter /  SEPTEMBER 2011
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Are Leaders Born or Can They Be Made?

A Brief Look at Leadership Training Powerhouse, Wilson Learning


“Leaders are born, not made.” – Anonymous

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” --Vince Lombardi


Well, which is it? The United States Army has certainly believed the latter at least since the establishment of the military academy at West Point at West Point in 1802 (cadets had been trained there beginning in 1794) and the subsequent establishment of the other service academies. More recently, leadership training has become a rapidly-growing global business. We took a look at one, Wilson Learning (Edina, MN), to find out who’s teaching whom and whether their outcomes support Coach Lombardi’s statement.

Wilson, founded in 1965 over founder Larry Wilson’s garage, initially focused on teaching sales effectiveness based on Wilson’s book, The One Minute Salesperson, and has grown from that humble beginning to a worldwide leadership training powerhouse, catering to Global 2000 corporations. The company now has a presence in 45 countries, teaches its courses in over 25 languages and has over 800 corporate customers. While the privately-held company does not disclose specific figures, a spokesperson told us that ‘tens of thousands’ of individuals participate in its programs each year.

From its original product offering, the company’s increasingly sophisticated programs have expanded into Leadership Effectiveness (with progressive courses in Performance Leadership, Growth Leadership, and Strategic Leadership); Sales Effectiveness (including Consultative Sales, Strategic Sales, and Sales Management/Leadership); and Individual Effectiveness (including Purposeful Communication, Inspired Thinking, and Fulfilled Self). Many corporations utilize all three programs for individuals being groomed for leadership positions . Wilson not only trains, but also helps companies establish their own training programs such as Hewlett-Packard’s “Sales University”.  The company has some excellent Thought Pieces and White Papers on their approach posted on their website here: http://wilsonlearning.com/research_insights/position_papers/

The overall approach is one of integrating a number of factors driving performance and effectiveness illustrated best by the diagram below:

So does it work? Well, one bit of evidence that someone thinks it does is that over 800 Global 2000 corporations have signed on for Wilson’s programs, many on an ongoing basis. And while objective measurement of Leadership improvements are tricky (and while the Company, again, does not disclose its or its clients measurement methods or results) a couple of case studies provided by Wilson suggest significant improvements.


For Novell (a provider of infrastructure and enterprise software), Wilson worked with Senior Management to improve the Novell’s sales and service support centers’ performance. Novell products require close working relationships between salespeople and customer support to ensure satisfied customers and this had not always been the case. Wilson surveyed Novell’s support engineers and found significant knowledge and leadership skill gaps which were hindering the support function’s capabilities. A custom program — which included all of Wilson Learning’s Signature Service content and selected models from The Consultative Process — was developed for the field support engineers. After intensive training Novell’s service business reported not only a 20% increase in service revenue but also that customer satisfaction in the entire service and support organization rose from 74.39 percent to 82.60 percent during the period of January 2001 to January 2002. What’s more, the gap score (the difference between what customers expect and what they get) improved dramatically. In January 2001 it was .83; by November it was only .41.

In another case, this time working for a global financial services firm, Wilson was charged with improving leadership skills, with an emphasis on people and communication skills) in the Asia Pacific division. The staff seemed to have very little appreciation for others’ communication and work styles. For example, underwriters  found it difficult to work with business development teams because they did not share the same protocol. As a result, work tension among senior staff members was high. Wilson held intensive “Social Styles” workshops including senior, middle and junior management members and, in the process, created a common work language to describe both tasks and people. Participants in the program were then required to carry the language (and the skills they’d learned) back to their businesses and train their respective teams. Management reports a healthy increase in productivity, more forceful and effective leaders, and reduced workforce tension and attributes these directly to Wilson’s work.

Do anecdotes equal hard data in measuring success? Of course not. Did Washington, Lincoln, Churchill (or Lombardi) get their leadership skills from a program? Unlikely. But can programs such as Wilson’s produce positive results and train managers to at least think in leadership mode? Undoubtedly. So while some leaders are certainly born, there’s room for all of us to develop whatever leadership skills that came in the original package.
—Don Linn
(with thanks to Nancy Brenny at Wilson Learning for providing information)

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Wilson, founded in 1965 over founder Larry Wilson’s garage, initially focused on teaching sales effectiveness ... and has grown from that humble beginning to a worldwide leadership training powerhouse, catering
to Global 2000 corporations.