What Wally Can Teach You About Leadership And Life and Why He’s My Knight in Shining Armour

Knights in shining armour come in all guises. They’re not always on a white horse and don’t always have a six pack.

Sometimes, you find them on Twitter. And sometimes, they’re an American dude who’s written more than 30 business books who agrees to mentor you as you write your first book.

This week I introduce you to my Book Writing Knight in Shining Armour – Wally Bock (and yes – our professional relationship began on Twitter!)

His latest book, Become A Better Boss, One Tip at a Time, is one you should get your hands on pronto.

It’s really, really good.

And it’s not just me who thinks he’s pretty clever – one of his first collaborative books was cited by Inc. Magazine as “a book every CEO should own” and they’ve named him as one of their one hundred top leadership and management experts.

Let’s just say he knows a thing or two about leadership and writing.

He’s also generous, kind, and a real gentleman – is it me or are these wonderful traits underrated in business these days?

Where’s Wally? 

You can follow him on Twitter here, on LinkedIn here and check his website out here.

Most of all, you can buy his latest book here.

BTW, this interview’s worth reading the whole way through – there are so many wise leadership tips in his answers. I even got a bit teary when he gave me his last answer. 

Here’s what he has to say about how to become a better boss, why he joined the Marines, and the worst thing you can do as a leader. 

Suzi: You’ve written more than 30 books. For many people, that would be ‘job done’, but you obviously had at least one more book in you! What made you write Become A Better Boss, One Tip at a Time?

Wally: There are a few ways to answer that. One was that I had written a bunch of tips over about three years as blog posts. I thought a lot of them were pretty decent, and several people suggested I turn them into a book. A second reason is that writing is the basket where I collect the pieces of my life, and there are a whole bunch of pieces among the tips that hadn’t found their way into a coherent written work. The tips, really, were the result of 30+ years of reading and observation and research and training and coaching. And a fourth reason is that I always need some kind of a project to work on to move ahead, and a couple of years back, this was a project that claimed my attention.

Suzi: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book and what is the leadership lesson in that?

Wally: I thought this would be pretty simple. I’d written most of the tips and I knew that what was needed was a certain amount of connective tissue to turn them from a bunch of tips into a book. So, I thought it would be easy.

It turned out to be one of the hardest books I’ve ever completed.

I try to send every book out to beta readers. They give good feedback and make a book solid. I did that with Become A Better Boss, One Tip at a Time. Guess what? The first group of beta readers loved the tips but didn’t like the collection of them as a book. They asked for some specific changes.

Okay, I made the changes. Then I sent it out to another group of beta readers. They liked the book better than the previous group, but they said I needed some kind of overarching framework and an index.

The framework was easy. I included a short section that introduced the book and sketched out what I’d learned about being responsible for the performance of a group over a period of decades. I thought the index would be easy, too, but I was wrong.

I reached out to several friends of mine who are thinkers about leadership and who have written books about it. I asked them to suggest what the categories should be for an index. They were all helpful, and they made great suggestions, except that none of them seemed to work for my book and my tips.

I tried two or three different ways to do it myself. I didn’t do any better that way, either. Then I put the project aside for a couple of months so I could return to it with fresh eyes.

Eventually, I went back to the framework that I’d written and used the key points in the framework as the topics for the index. When I sent this one out to beta readers, they loved it. It took almost as long to get the index right as it did to write all the tips.

So, what’s the leadership lesson? For me, it’s that some things will simply be hard to get right, but you’ll be rewarded if you keep working on it.

Suzi: One of my favourite tips in the book is:

“Bring in the customersSometimes it’s difficult for team members to understand why their work is important. No matter what job they have, there’s a customer for the work, sometimes inside your organization and sometimes outside. Bring in customers to tell the team how the work they do makes a difference.”

What is your favourite tip in the book?

Wally: Like my children, they’re all my favourites, but if I have to pick one, it’s the one about catching problems when they’re small. Problems are a lot like dinosaurs. They’re easy to handle or kill when they’re small, but if you let them grow up, they get big, and nasty, and will eat you and your Land Rover. 

Suzi: You spent some of your formative years in the US Marines. I love the story you told me about the conversation you had with the Marine recruiter when you were deciding which Armed Services to join. It went something like:

You: “What will the Marine Corps offer me?”
Him: “Four years of hell. A haircut every week. And a rifle.”
You joined the Marines. “People like to be challenged,” you said.

How did the Marines shape you as a leader?

Wally: The Marines shaped me as a leader in several ways. First, I was just a few months past my 17th birthday when I enlisted. At the time, I thought that being smart was maybe the most important thing in the world because being smart made it possible to do anything. What I learned from the Marines is that hard, focused work gets the job done and that you can accomplish far more than you think you can. Just get out and do it.

Here’s something about the Marines that rarely gets talked about, but is truly amazing. The U. S. Marine Corps is the world’s largest elite fighting force. Other, smaller forces, like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs are highly selective. They’re chosen from the top performers in a larger force. But the Marines draw on a cross-section of the population. Instead of cherry-picking the best, the Marines take normal people and turn them into Marines.

The second way that the Marines shaped me as a leader is they gave me a framework for thinking about leadership. One of the principles is that if you are a leader, you have two jobs. One is to accomplish the mission, and the other is to care for your people. That’s true whether you’re a Marine or a person responsible for the performance of a group in a company someplace.

Another piece of that is that leaders serve their people. The way the Marines like to talk about it is that leaders eat last. The non-commissioned officers and the officers eat after everyone else has eaten. There’s no cutting to the front of the line because of your rank.

The final way that the Marines shaped me as a leader is it gave me several incredible role models to try to live up to. I remember and think about them to this day. Two of them were Captain James Ayers and Major Donald Mitchell. I aspire to the standard that they set.

Suzi: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about leadership (both through your own experience as a leader and through your research)?

Wally: I think when I started out I saw leadership as an arena of big and important actions. What I’ve discovered over decades is that leadership is an awful lot about making a little bit of progress every day, using every contact with a team member to move a relationship forward, and getting better bit by bit. I remember a conversation years ago when I was spending a shift with Art Jones, the best supervisor that I’ve ever seen up close. As was common, we were joined at dinner, mid-shift, by a younger, less experienced supervisor. He asked Art how he got so good. Art’s answer was “A little bit every day.”

Suzi: This book has some awesome practical and actionable tips for leaders. I’m going to turn things around for a minute. What’s the worst thing a leader can do?

Wally: The worst thing that a leader can do is simple. The worst thing that a leader can do is think that it’s all about him or all about her. When a leader starts to see him or herself as the most important thing, lots of bad things happen.

Suzi: I love how you’re into leadership AND writing. That’s a powerful combination. What three tips would you give to business executives that would immediately improve their writing?

Wally: The first tip I would give most writers is get it out of your head and onto a page or into a file. When it’s in your head, it’s soft and fuzzy, and you think it’s good. When you get it out you can see the flaws. You can’t do anything to fix the flaws until you see them.

The second tip builds off the first tip. Recognise the fact that all great writing is rewriting. Ernest Hemingway said that “All first drafts are crap.” Many other seasoned writers agree with him. Don’t assume that you will write a great first draft. Instead, assume that your first draft is your worst draft, and you have several revisions left to go. When I work with my book-writing clients we normally go through at least four drafts before we send the book off for a professional edit. I just finished working on the fourteenth draft of a chapter in one of my client’s books.

The third tip is a little more technical. Read your writing aloud. The great writing coaches will tell you that we may think we read with our eyes, but we actually read with our ears. The fact is that things that look good to you on paper won’t sound good when you read them aloud. Your tongue will find problems that your eyes miss.

Suzi: Finally, what advice would you give to your former self at 25?

Wally: At 25, I was a rising young corporate star, and I’d signed the contract for my first book. I thought, no, I knew that I was hot stuff. That version of me needs to know that relationships are probably the most important thing in the world. They will save you when times are hard. They will lift you up and make the good times better. It’s not all about you, and you’re not nearly as good as you think you are.

Suzi: At 45?

Wally: 45 is an interesting time, because it’s right on the cusp of great commercial success. Within the next 10 years, I would do my first collaborative books, one of which would be named as “a book every CEO should own” by Inc. magazine. I started picking up extravagant speaking fees. But if I were writing to myself from this vantage point, I would tell my 45-year-old Wally that I don’t remember the fees or awards. I remember people who helped me, people who worked with me. I remember my partners in business. And I remember times with my children, who were growing into their teen years then. Yes, the fees were wonderful. And yes, you could do great things with the money, but what I remember has nothing to do with money and everything to do with people. If I were writing to my 45-year-old self, I would tell him that and also that life is full of good and bad times, so when you’re in a good time, savour it.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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