Executive Leadership’s Dual Role

Evolving the Future + Honoring the Past: An interview with Tom Roth, COO, Wilson Learning Worldwide

By Tom Roth

You have over 40 years in the field of leadership development and are well into your second decade as an executive leader responsible for strategic direction and business performance of a global training organization. What insight for success can you share with the emerging generation of C-suite leaders?

Gain clarity. Understand what your role is. All levels of leaders, and especially executive leaders, are expected to promote change and continually renew the organization. And, they are equally expected to protect and hold onto the constants—those enduring tenets like organizational values, mission, and culture that do not change. It’s a balancing act, recognizing the dynamic tension of evolving the future and honoring the past.

It may seem contradictory, because change by its very nature looks to a future direction while constancy digs its roots in the past. But, in fact, both “Pathfinding” (blazing new trails and taking people where they would not go without being led) and “Stewardship” (never forgetting and protecting who the organization is and why it exists) must coexist.

Successful leaders balance both the Pathfinder and Steward roles.

All levels of leaders, and especially executive leaders, are expected to promote change and continually renew the organization.

A few years ago, Wilson Learning celebrated 50 years as an industry leader. You quoted Thomas Jefferson from the early 1800s: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” How does that translate for today’s executive leadership?

Leading organizations that are trying to create and sustain strategic advantage in today’s rapidly changing environment require executive leaders to constantly make decisions about what to grow, what to innovate, and what new technologies and possibilities to act on—matters of style.

For example, matters of “style” for Wilson Learning are new applications for delivering training or adjusting how we interface with a customer organization’s LMS.

In matters of principle, we’ve always been unwavering in our humanistic stand to deliver performance with fulfillment. Our value of “win-win problem-solving” is at our core and must be evident in every customer relationship and among employee daily interactions. As COO, I stand firm on matters of principle—matters of substance that define and differentiate us.

So, while it’s critical to understand the conditions in the marketplace or with customers that demand decisions to swim with the current, we stand like a rock on the foundation of organizational DNA—values, mission, vision, and culture.

Every organization has a culture. It either has a culture by design or a culture by default.

You’ve mentioned culture a couple of times. What do executive leaders have to do with culture? Aren’t they too busy with other high-level affairs of the organization?

The good news is that at the executive level, C-suite leaders typically have a strong team of leaders responsible for managing people on a day-to-day basis. Executive leadership is needed to ensure there are systems, processes, and a culture in place to sustain the organization’s performance over time.

As I travel around the world, I collect anecdotal “research” on culture—personal research, not the formal kind Wilson Learning researches and publishes. Do you ever notice how people behave in elevators, all around the world? A colleague and I were walking up to an elevator, laughing and talking like we always do. The elevator doors open and reveal a few people already on the elevator. What do we immediately do? We step inside, turn to the front, and stop talking. And then we stare: at the elevator buttons, the floor, or our cell phones. Here’s what is really interesting: Where did you learn that behavior? Who taught you to do that? You didn’t learn that behavior from just one person; instead, you observed other people exhibiting this behavior and you learned this as acceptable elevator behavior. It’s as simple as that. Leaders, are you willing to let the culture of your organization emerge in a manner as serendipitous as elevator behavior, or is your leadership willing to take responsibility for creating and supporting the kind of culture that creates engagement and high performance?

— Tom Roth

Tom Roth

Tom Roth is Chief Operating Officer of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (U.S.) and President of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (Japan). With more than 40 years of experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions, Mr. Roth is responsible for the strategic direction and business performance of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. operations. In addition, he leads the global marketing services and R&D solutions group, which is responsible for the research and development of all solutions and position papers. Mr. Roth assists global executive leadership teams with issues related to employee engagement, leadership development, strategy alignment, and business transformation. Before assuming his current role, he was President of the global R&D and solution development groups and also served as President of Wilson Learning Corporation.

Mr. Roth has extensive experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions. He is coauthor of the book Unplugged: How Organizations Lose Their Energy and How to Get It Back, coauthor of the book Creating the High-Performance Team, and is published in numerous business publications. Mr. Roth is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and client events, presenting on a wide variety of issues including leadership, employee engagement, change, and strategy implementation.