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A long climb to the top

WS talks to top executive Winston R. Wallin

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Career Management,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Workplace Communication

Winston Wallin, age 72, began his career in Pillsbury’s grain department in 1948. By 1977 he was president of the Pillsbury Company. And his greatest years lay ahead of him.

Wallin joined Medtronic, Inc., a highly successful medical-products manufacturer, in 1985 as CEO. In his 11 years as CEO and chairman of the board, he led the company to become the world’s leader in pacemakers. In 1997 its worldwide sales were $2.6 billion.

WS: After graduating college in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, you started at the bottom at Pillsbury. And you eventually climbed to the top. Was that your plan all along?

Wallin: No. I just worked hard and applied myself. My observation is that people who become too preoccupied with their career advancement screw up their relationships with others. They’re often so ambitious that they make enemies. In fact, I’ve seen managers deal with overly ambitious employees by cutting them down indirectly. Remember: If someone doesn’t like you, they’ll try to stop you from getting that promotion or getting the credit that’s coming to you.

WS: So the secret to getting ahead is to hide your career drive?

Wallin: You don’t have to hide it as much as direct it into producing bottom-line results that stand on their own merits. Treat people right along the way. And continually use your brain. Don’t rely on computers to do your work. Use them merely as a tool. A computer can miss things on the emotional side—the shadings of facts that help you assess how to proceed.

WS: You have a reputation for managing technicians well. What advice would you give managers who oversee lots of technical experts?

Wallin: Find out their goals. Don’t assume anything about their career aspirations. Some will want to advance, others won’t. If they are really inventors, for example, they may prefer to stay put and invent things. But if they want to move up and they lack people skills, you should help them achieve those skills.

WS: Can you give an example of how you helped a technician develop better people skills?

Wallin: In one case, I spotted a promising young man on board. But he just wasn’t polished in dealing with people. So I put him in the job of executive vice president—a big promotion for him— and I helped him succeed. It was trial by fire for him, but I was there to offer occasional guidance. If he was having trouble getting through to his staff, I’d ask him if he listened to them first. My reminding him of simple stuff like that made him a better manager over time.

WS: What kind of traps do poor managers fall into that jeopardize their careers?

Wallin: I’ll tell you one of the biggest dangers: Getting buried in information overload. If you don’t watch out with email, your life can get bogged down in details. You don’t want to spend eight hours a day chatting electronically with people on less important matters. You’ll feel like you’re communicating, but in fact you won’t be getting anything important accomplished. You must prioritize how you spend your time.

WS: Your title is chairman emeritus of Medtronic (since August 1996). Its stock is soaring as the company rolls out exciting new products, such as one for tremor control therapy. Do you find it hard to pull back from daily management issues and retire?

Wallin: Now I’m devoting much of my time to my charitable foundation. The way I see it, I’ve made my money. I’m finding it quite a challenge figuring out ways to give it away.

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