I was born in New York City in 1946. My dad was a Lutheran Pastor, noted for his innovative ministries and his excellent preaching. My mother was a pastor's wife who also had a career of her own, very unusual for the time.
Neither of them actually supervised anyone, and so I didn't have any role models at home for what was going to become a passion. That would come later
We told family stories about ancestors who had been war heroes and commanders who had led in political arenas and who had been successful in business. We talked about battles lost and won, fortunes won and lost. But we didn't talk much about the day-to-day work of accomplishing a mission with the help of a bunch of people for whom you are responsible.
I went to the Bronx High School of Science and graduated from there in 1963. That was the golden age of the Public School System in New York City, and Bronx Science was its crown jewel. At the time, it was probably the premier academic high school in the United States.
"Science" was a great experience for me in two ways. I learned that it was not only okay to be smart there, I learned that it could be fun. I also learned that there were a lot of people a whole lot brighter than I was. Both lessons were critically important.
When the time came for me to graduate, I had won some academic scholarships and had the option to go to school in a couple of different places on a basketball scholarship as well. In those days, pastors didn't make much money, and I was going to have to find my own way to pay for a college education.
As I was thinking about where to go and what to do, I found myself at dinner one night with my dad, talking about a relative who was just a little older than me. He had gone off to a major university with his family paying the way. The problem was that he didn't go and study.
Instead, he avoided going to classes for almost a year and a half, before his father found out. I thought about that a lot. I realized that however bright I was, if I went to college right then I'd probably do pretty much the same thing.
For many years I'd been fascinated by the military and actually had thought about making it a career. When I was a little boy, there was an Army Master Sergeant at the local recruiting station who took a liking to me and patiently answered all my questions, and gave me all kinds of recruiting literature intended for people ten to fifteen years older than I was. I thought about going to West Point.
I was certainly bright enough, but the district that we lived in had too many people going after those service academy appointments, who were well connected politically and in the world of business. I didn't think I'd be able to land an appointment. So I started making the rounds of the recruiters.
Even in those days of the draft, the military services were on the lookout for bright, young men and women. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard recruiters offered me wonderful packages of benefits if I would sign up with them. The last service I talked to was the Marines.
I walked into the recruiting station where an old guy (he was probably thirty-five) with an almost shaved head, a jaw as big as my fist, and creases in this shirt and trousers you could cut glass with, was filling out a form. He was the Marine recruiter.
When he looked up, I told him what all the other services had offered me. He listened and didn't say anything. Finally, I said, "What will the Marine Corps offer me?"
He didn't pause. He went back to working on his paperwork and muttered, "Four years of hell, a haircut every week, and a rifle." Naturally, I joined the Marines.
I served in the Marines from 1963 to 1968. It was a formative experience in my life. I learned a lot about courage and leadership and principles and about how your capacity is so much more than you ever thought it was.
There were a lot of things that stay with me to this day, but there are two that are important here. The first one was what the Marines taught me was the job of the Marine leader. It has two parts. Accomplish the mission. And care for your people.
The other comes from when I was up before the Promotional Board examining me for promotion to Sergeant. They asked me what my overall ambitions were. Because I thought it was the thing to do and because it was actually true at the time, I stated that I wanted to acquire a commission and ultimately become Commandant of the Marine Corps.
There was a Marine Major on that panel. He had started out as an enlisted man and landed at Iwo Jima. That adventure gave him a scar that started above his hairline, ran across his cheek, and disappeared down into his collar. He had a chest full of medals. He fixed a steely glare on me.
"Don't worry too much if you don't make it all the way, son," he said. "You're seeking promotion to the most important job in the Marines. Those Generals may win a battle or two, but it's the Sergeants that win the wars."
I've never forgotten that. It stayed with me as I've done research. It stayed with me as I've examined the results of the research of others. I found out that the Major was right. First line supervisors are the most important influence on worker productivity and satisfaction.
When I got out of the Marines, I ran through a succession of jobs. I worked for a small consulting firm designing training programs. I worked for a rigging and hauling company. I went to work for a large multi-national and got on the fast track. While I was there, I completed my degree in Management Science at the Regents College of the University of the State of New York.
That was a great experience, because I could study material at night and on the weekends and then go back to my job, which was increasingly responsible, and try to apply it. But I was always frustrated. I'd get advice about how to motivate people and the like, but nobody ever told me how to actually do it. That came to a head one afternoon.
I was still an assistant manager, and that day I had to talk to one of our warehouse people who was about twice my age, about his increasingly poor performance. I'd read all the stuff and I thought I knew I was doing. I don't think I've ever been quite so wrong.
Not five minutes into the interview, my subordinate rose up and towered over me while he turned bright red and slammed his fist repeatedly into the desk. He stormed out of the room and slammed the door.
I sat there for a moment, letting myself get back together. I didn't know what I'd done wrong. Heck, I didn't even know what some of the right things to do were.
I vowed, right then, that I was going to learn how to really do the things that first-line supervisors have to do. I started reading and trying things out.
A couple of years after that, I moved on from the multi-national to a non-profit. I was the Business Manager at a graduate school. After that, I set up my own consulting and training firm. It was only about a year after I started it that I got a call from the Oakland, California Police Department.
My office was in Oakland at the time, and Oakland was looking for someone to do supervisory training for newly promoted Sergeants. I did a needs assessment, determined that I, in fact, could do some things that would be helpful, and wound up getting the agreement. I assumed that there would be plenty of good written material on what makes a good Police supervisor. That's another time that I was wrong.
In fact, there was next to nothing. The books, at the time, were either gargantuan academic tomes, filled with theory and little else, or "This is how I did it" approaches of experienced supervisors. If I was going to do good training, those wouldn't be enough. I'd have to come up with something different.
That turned out to be a good thing. As I developed the training, I also embarked on a multi-year research project to define what great Police Sergeants do that sets them apart from their peers. In the training world, this is called, "Competency-based Training."
The principle is actually pretty simple. You find out what top performers do. You train others to do what they do, and they become top performers, as well.
That initial research is supplemented by several studies since, and absorbing the studies of others. I developed good, solid training for, first Police Sergeants and then for Fire Supervisors, and took the same materials and adapted them to several other industry groups. Then a giant opportunity presented itself, and I went off in a different direction for a while.
In about 1982, I discovered discussion groups on this online service, CompuServe. I wound up selling some of my books there.
Then, I wrote a little special report called, "Cyberpower for Speakers, Trainers, and Consultants." It was one of the very first books about how to go online and use it to do better training and speaking.
That led to a book contract or two, and I caught the opening wave of interest in what was then called The Information Superhighway. For several years writing and speaking about the Digital Age, and helping clients profit in it, was the main focus of my attention. I never lost interest in supervision, though. I kept reading and researching and training.
As the Internet moved more and more into the mainstream of business and life, I found my attention going back more and more and more intensely to the issues of supervision and leadership and management.
That's where I am today. I'm back to doing what I love: research, writing, speaking and training on supervisory leadership. That business is based on what I heard so many years ago and that decades of research and practice have verified: Generals win battles, but Sergeants win wars.
Click here to download Wally's one-sheet, describing his programs.