August 08, 2010

Win Wallin: An authentic leader in our midst

Originally Published in the Star-Tribune on August 7, 2010

It is in fashion these days to vilify leaders, from Tony Hayward of BP to Wall Street bankers. When a problem arises, we look for the villain who caused it. Then we search for the perfect leader to guide us out of the wilderness, only to find they have feet of clay.

It’s time to recognize that leaders are just as imperfect as the rest of us. Instead we need authentic leaders — people who own their mistakes and acknowledge their faults. More importantly, we need leaders who always put the interests of their organizations ahead of their self-interests.

Young leaders need role models whose actions provide guidance for their leadership. My role model is Minnesota’s Winston Wallin. Now in his mid-80s, Win is former chairman and CEO of Medtronic and my ex-boss.

He’s had three distinguished careers — at Pillsbury, Medtronic and the University of Minnesota. As a board member, Win made major contributions to the success of such important Minnesota corporations as Cargill and Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo). But his greatest legacy may be the Wallin Education Scholars, a program that’s enabling thousands of high school students to attend Minnesota’s colleges.

Recently Win and I had a thoughtful discussion in his gazebo. He still combines keen insights and laser-sharp focus on what’s most important along with a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor. No matter how tough things seem to be, Win can lighten up any group with a clever line. As we talked, Win shared his wisdom and perspective about the challenges we faced together at Medtronic, and even more passion for the Wallin Educational Scholars. His commitment to help people is stronger than ever.

After graduating from University of Minnesota, Win joined Pillsbury, where he spent 37 years, rising to president and chief operating officer. The Pillsbury board made a grievous error in not choosing him to succeed Bill Spoor as CEO, one for which the corporation paid dearly. When Spoor’s successor failed, Pillsbury fell prey to a hostile takeover by Britain’s Grand Metropolitan PLC. After years of malaise under Grand Met and its successor Diageo, Pillsbury was acquired by Minnesota-based General Mills.

Beyond pacemakers

Pillsbury’s loss was Medtronic’s gain. Win accepted the board’s request to become chairman and CEO in 1985. Medtronic was floundering, due in part to a mishandled quality problem. But it didn’t take Win long to recognize that Medtronic’s entire future was at risk: Medtronic was blocked from entering the nascent implantable defibrillator market by a pioneering patent held by archrival Eli Lilly.

Ironically, Michel Mirowski, inventor of the defibrillator, had worked for Medtronic until the company unceremoniously dismissed him and told him to take his patent with him. Lilly purchased exclusive rights to his design and patent.

Win saw something few others realized: Not only was Medtronic blocked from this essential market but its mainstream pacemaker business was vulnerable. Win’s first act was to charge Medtronic pacemaker chief Bobby Griffin with launching a massive R&D effort to get Medtronic into the defibrillator business. In typical Wallin style, he told Griffin, “Spend whatever it takes.”

Soon Lilly sued Medtronic to halt its defibrillator research, and a Philadelphia judge ordered the company to “cease and desist” all efforts. At this point most executives would back off. Not Win Wallin.

Undeterred, he shifted the defibrillator project to Medtronic’s Dutch research center, beyond the purview of U.S. courts. He then hired former Pillsbury general counsel Ron Lund and told him to get the court’s decision overturned at any cost. In 1990, Medtronic won a 6-3 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Win also recognized that the company was too reliant on pacemakers, in part due to several failed attempts at diversification. So he hired Dr. Glen Nelson as vice chairman in 1986, and together they began to diversify Medtronic’s business.

Two years later, Win contacted me while I was at Honeywell about joining the company as president and chief operating officer. Initially, I declined because I was immersed in turning around Honeywell’s space and aviation business. After we got that business back on track, I called Win. Joining Medtronic in 1989 was the best move of my career.

My first week on the job, Win told me, “Bill, don’t worry about the numbers for six months. Get out and learn the business from the top doctors.” That sent me on a quest to work with some of the world’s finest physicians by gowning up and watching them implant everything from pacemakers to defibrillators and stents.

Win retired from Medtronic in 1991, but he certainly didn’t retire from life. In addition to chairing Medtronic’s board, he joined five corporate boards where he provided invaluable advice.

Wallin also answered U of M President Nils Hasselmo’s request to help the U turn around its struggling health sciences area. At the time the medical school was being challenged by the FDA for selling unapproved transplant drugs. Win dove into his new job and helped get the academic medical center back on track.

In the early 1990s he and his wife, Maxine, formed the Wallin Foundation, setting aside a significant proportion of their gains from Medtronic stock. Together they started a scholarship program at South High School in Minneapolis for talented students from low-income families. Eventually the program was converted to a private operating foundation now known as Wallin Education Partners. More than 3,000 students have benefitted from $26 million in scholarships.

Aspiring young leaders look to high-profile success stories like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. For a model of sustainable success impacting the lives of millions of people, they would do well to look to Win Wallin. They won’t find a more authentic leader anywhere.