Wilson Learning, My Career Crash Lands Safely in Larry Wilson’s Company
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Larry Wilson, the founder of Wilson Learning Corporation, died last April. (2013( Word did not reach me until a few weeks ago, however. I wondered in recent years whatever became of him. He was not on Facebook. When I googled, I found that there hundreds with his name, but none with his background and history. I assumed that he remained famous and wanted to stay understandably aloof from social media.
I worked for Larry. In 1974, I joined Wilson Learning Corporation as the 41st person to be hired into the firm. I considered it great good fortune at the time. I was holding a position as Director of Claims at Blue Shield of Minnesota when the company was declared technically insolvent and my career, budding as it may have been at the age of 35, suddenly was in the straights with nothing but violent weather ahead. A brief stint with small data processing company specializing in medical records management also threatened to throw me further off course as it, too, was was struggling financially. With one major client, they managed to lose several hundred thousand dollars. Lose may not be quite the right term. The money was floating around in the computer system somewhere, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not find it and get it out again.
The company hired a systems analyst, a genius of a guy at a fantastic hourly rate, to chase down the lost funds and guide them out of the ether. The executives from the client company hung out in the lobby to our office waiting for the money to be put back onto the books in negotiable form. Every corner of the office was charged with tension.
The programming genius finally gave up and walked out in the middle of one afternoon, mounted his Harley, and started to drive off.
The company president ran out after him. “Where the hell are you going?” he shouted.
“Waterloo, Iowa,” the guru shouted back, “to get laid.”
“Stay and I’ll get you the best piece of a– you can find anywhere.” But it was no use. Geniuses hate being stumped. It throws them in to a terrible funk which perhaps does take getting laid, or the equivalent, to come out of it. As for my part, I took everything as a pretty bad sign and made an appointment to interview for a sales position that was open at Wilson Learning. Wilson was just down the road, as it turned out, in the Minneapolis suburb or Eden Prairie, MN.
One of the kindest men I have ever met interviewed me. His name was Bob Utne. He was probably about 63 years old at the time, tall, bald and distinguished looking with a deeply resonant voice, rich with confidence. I liked him immediately. He must have liked me, also, because he invited me back to visit with other executives of the firm.
The Briar Patch . . .
I was excited. A little research established that Wilson was using the work of popular psychologists of the day in designing their programs – Muriel James and Eric Berne (Transactional Analysis, TA) Abraham Maslow, David Merrill, and others. Games People Play, I’m Ok, You’re OK, Born to Win. I had read them all. Here was a company that was taking these exciting, understandable works directly to the public. As I told Executive Vice President Dan Chabot during my interview with him, “I’ve been a teacher. It will take years before these ideas get through to the classroom level.” He seemed pleased with my answer.
I was offered a job in sales days later. I tried to share my enthusiasm with my wife.
“I supported you on the last job change,” she said. “See how it turned out. I don’t know about these things. You want it. You take it. I don’t want to be part of the decision.”
My major concern was whether the frequent, sometimes extended, travel was a something she would find too disruptive. My family had grown accustomed to having me away from home while I was on the road for the medical software company. It didn’t seem to matter that much. The kids were older. We had wonderful Friday night reunions. One or two the kids would be with their mother when she picked me up at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. We’d go back to the house, sit on the floor in the living room, eat popcorn and watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus together. Everyone seemed happy with the way the world was going.
The first day in the Eden Prairie headquarters, I was introduced around and left in the good and gracious company of a young psychologist, Steve Buchholz. I was in Steve’s office when Larry Wilson walked in.
Larry was about five foot eight inches in height, brown hair, bright brown eyes, and a quick sincere smile. He exuded energy. “This is John Hohn,” Buchholz introduced me.
“Of course you are!” Larry said, and we shook hands. I was immediately caught up in Wilson’s enthusiasm. My career suddenly seemed firmly back on track. I was eager to begin.
Buchholz took me under his wing, and I began my training as a seminar moderator of the Wilson programs namely; “Counselor Selling,” and “Managing Interpersonal Relations,” the latter referred to in-house as “MIR.” For me, this was the briar patch. I loved it.
I was assigned a cubicle directly in front Utne’s office. I saw him every day. He checked up on me, and when I was through with my training, he assigned me to another salesman, David Cornelius, who had the Atlantic Coast territory which extended roughly from Pennsylvania south to the gulf, east to the Atlantic and west to the Mississippi. Eventually, I would be taking over the southeastern states which would free Cornelius to concentrate on the Mid-Atlantic region. Arrangements were made, and I met Dave at the old Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem airport (GSO), a facility that was 40 years behind the state-of-the-art of the time.
No Idea Where We Were . . .
Cornelius was affable company. Active in Young Life, he was relaxed, talked a lot about his sports car, a Z something, and how much he liked it as we zipped up and down I-40 with me expecting at any minute to come over a rise and see the Atlantic Ocean spread out before us. I had no idea where we were. I had not bothered to check a map before departing. Aside from my geographically absurd expectation,
Cornelius prattled on and on about the territory, who we would meet, what the history of the prospect or the account was, and what the agenda was for the meeting and what, if anything was expected of me. I learned to grin through the meetings. Sales people always go through these introductory rituals for the benefit of the new person taking over the territory. The new salesperson does not gain very much from the exercise, however. Not knowing the people who are being discussed, they rely on their own skills to discover what they need to know as soon as they are allowed to make calls on their own.
That said, I found nothing to fault in the way Dave handled things. I didn’t know enough to be critical or impressed. When I reported to work the Monday after my trip, Bob called me and told me that it was time for me to “solo,” as he put it. “We’ll keep you close to home and among friends for a first time out,” he said. “Why don’t you get Best’s Directory and schedule appointments for next week in the Kansas City area. Check in with me as you go along. OK?” He patted me on the back. Bob knew how to make a subordinate feel capable.
I went right to work. I knew how to make appointments from my work with the medical software company. I knew about the insurance industry from my years with The Travelers and Blue Shield of Minnesota. I decided that the first company I should call was Kansas City Life, the largest in the area.
“How’s ol’ Bob,” my contact asked almost quickly as I introduced myself.
“Bob Utne? Bob’s great. He’s my boss.”
“Well, you come see then. Anybody Bob would hire is the kind of guy that I’d like to meet.” With that as a cheerful start, I filled out my calendar for three days with other companies in the area and set up my itinerary.
This article is the first in a series that I plan about my years a Wilson Learning Corporation and the working relationship that I had with Larry Wilson.
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