The Leading Edge

Center for Exceptional Leadership is designed to enhance the development of northeast Wisconsin’s existing and emerging leaders

Story by Rick Berg

May 2017

If you believe effective leaders are made, not born, you’re on the same wavelength with the minds behind the creation of the Center for Exceptional Leadership (CEL) at St. Norbert College in De Pere.

“I have a very strong view on that,” said Terry Timm, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Thrivent Financial in Appleton. “Leaders are developed, not born. There are people with natural charisma and that can be a component of leadership, but it’s not the main component. Some people may have a better aptitude for leadership than others and pick it up more readily, but everyone can improve their game through some self-reflection and personal development.”

Timm was one of the early proponents of the CEL concept and one of those tasked with creating the vision and structure for the program. That process was led by Tom Wiltzius of Oshkosh-based enVision Performance Solutions, who now serves as volunteer executive director for CEL. Working in conjunction with St. Norbert administrative leadership, Wiltzius brought together an initial group of 20 and later 50 business leaders to help craft the framework for what would become the Center for Exceptional Leadership.

The concept itself grew out of a 2008 New North survey of about 250 northeast Wisconsin CEOs and presidents. The results of that survey identified a growing need to take a step beyond the region’s successful MBA programs and focus on more effective leadership development.

“MBA programs are very important in teaching business strategy and principles of leadership, but translating that into one’s own style and persona, and understanding how you as a leader can impact the effectiveness of other people – that’s very hard to learn in a book,” said Timm. “It takes a lot of self-reflection and putting principles into action and being exposed to other dimensions. When people can really bring those things home to themselves, their effectiveness as a leader goes up.”

Investment in talent and leadership

With fees ranging from $4,000 to $15,000 for various program components, the CEL model is based on the idea that organizations are willing to invest in the further development of their high-potential leadership talent. Wiltzius said it’s likely that nearly all program participants will come in under the sponsorship of their employer. That has been the case with the first group of participants, who began this past January.

“Their organizations are saying, ‘I’m going to invest in this person based on his or her attitude, aptitude, disposition, demonstrated behavior and effectiveness,’’” Wiltzius said. “They want to do what they can to take that person to the next level, to help them grow and develop, by investing in them. So what we’re getting here is the top talent these organizations have. We’re not getting leaders who are broken, who need to be fixed.”

Timm already has four Thrivent employees enrolled in the program and fully expects it to pay dividends for the organization.

Abby Dion, director of business operations at Total MSP in Appleton, is one of the high-potential emerging leaders chosen to participate. A business management graduate from UW Green Bay with an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Dion said the faith her employer showed in her by paying for her enrollment in the program says a lot about the values of the organization.

“It’s a very big compliment to be able to do this,” Dion said. “I know from talking with the others in the program, it’s a compliment for all of us, that our organizations see potential in us. So it’s obviously a big motivator to make sure we get the most out of this that we can.”

Real world leadership development

Dion said the value she received from her undergraduate and MBA programs laid an important leadership foundation, but the CEL program offers the ability to ramp up her potential.

“One of the things my MBA program focused on was identifying tools that leaders can use to create high-performing teams,” Dion said. “So, you read all these books and you do your research on how other leaders have had great success and how we can emulate that. You understand from that the technical aspects of leadership, but what the Center has done is allow me to apply what I learned. The program allows us to focus on our own strengths and on areas we need to work on – on our bright side and dark side.”

Wiltzius said the CEL structure does that by creating individualized development goals, including a hands-on project for each participant to apply within their workplace and enhance the participant’s leadership skills. The project is determined based on interviews with the participant, as well as leaders from the participant’s employer.

“This is not an academic exercise,” Wiltzius said. “It’s an exercise of impact. It’s real world, real time, real value to the organization.”

Each cohort of six to 12 participants begins the program with four consecutive days of intensive assessment and review, Wiltzius indicated. They identify what are the leadership behaviors they want to maintain and enhance, and what are the leadership behaviors that maybe they exhibit under duress that they want to manage. Participants then take those findings back to their organization to work on as a project. Along the way, they meet once a month with coaches to review and refine their plan.

Companies surveyed in the New North study several years back indicated real world, experiential development is what has been lacking in the past.

“People come out of the CEL assessment and immersion programs with a real development plan,” Wiltzius said. “They know, ‘This is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to do it, this is how I’m going to hold myself responsible, and this is how my (employer) is going to hold me accountable.”

Dion said the interaction within the cohort group is a significant attribute of development.

“Everyone brings different strengths and backgrounds to the group, so that can be a great source of learning,” Dion said. “Advice doesn’t just have to come from the coaches. Sometimes it comes from one another.”

Behavior- and character-based leadership

CEL’s programs are based on extensive leadership research, which demonstrates that an organization’s success is largely determined by the character and behavior of its leaders.

Wiltzius cites leadership guru Fred Kiel, author of Return On Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win.

In his research, Kiel has found organizations headed by “strong character” leaders – those who consistently exhibit the key traits of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion – outperform more weakly led organizations by a factor of 5 to 1.

MBA programs are good at building knowledge, Wiltzius said, but because of their inherent limitations, they aren’t well-suited to put that knowledge into action.

“We know that behavior is what determines the degree of success a leader will have,” Wiltzius said. “It’s not the knowledge they have, and it’s not the experience they have. Those are necessary components of an effective leader. But the single largest determinant of sustained success as a leader is how the leader behaves.”

CEL’s character- and behavior-based platform includes Kiel’s big four – integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion – and adds several other key traits, such as effective communication, collaboration, accountability and inclusion.

“These are not drawn out of thin air,” Wiltzius said. “They are based on surveys of leaders in our areas to identify the focus points for the CEL program.”

Strengthening regional leadership

CEOs across northeast Wisconsin who provided early support behind CEL clearly did so because they hoped to help their own organizations prosper, but there was also a strong belief that improving leadership will have a prolonged benefit for regional growth.

“The stronger leadership we have across the firms in our region, the better it’s going to be for our regional economy,” Timm said. “It also benefits our communities more broadly, in terms of providing leadership for not-for-profits and other community groups. We’ve done a lot through New North in terms of improving the health and economy of our communities. This is just one more thing we can do to enhance the quality of life and the future social and economic health of our region.”

Jerry Murphy, executive director of New North Inc., clearly agrees.

“A community’s critical leadership capacity cannot be assumed simply because we’re blessed with strong and committed leaders today,” Murphy said. “We need to leverage today’s leaders to grow the next generation of leaders. CEL is a great step toward assuring an ongoing stable of leaders for the New North region.” 

Rick Berg is a writer and editor based in Green Bay.