722: Unlock Your Leadership Potential: The Lifelong Learning Journey | Graham Wilson

Podcast Cover Image: Unlock Your Leadership Potential: The Lifelong Learning Journey Featuring Graham Wilson
Podcast Cover Image: Unlock Your Leadership Potential: The Lifelong Learning Journey Featuring Graham Wilson

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Feeling lost in a sea of leadership advice? Wondering what it truly takes to succeed in today’s ever-changing business landscape?

In this episode of the Conquer Local podcast, we welcome Graham Wilson, Founder of The Success Factory and a leadership expert passionate about empowering leaders to thrive in today’s complex business world.

Graham’s unique approach, honed through military service and global experience, equips leaders with the tools to unlock peak performance in themselves and their teams.

Join us for insights on strategy, innovation, and how to navigate change with confidence!

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Unlock Your Leadership Potential: The Lifelong Learning Journey


Jeff Tomlin: I’m Jeff Tomlin and on this episode, we’re pleased to welcome Graham Wilson.

Graham is a leadership coach with a military background who designs customized programs to help leaders achieve exceptional results, both personally and for their teams. 

He equips leaders with the skills and confidence to navigate complex situations.  His impressive client list and positive testimonials highlight the effectiveness of his methods, suggesting they can be more impactful than traditional leadership education.

Get ready Conquerors for Graham Wilson coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local Podcast.

Former Military Leader Discusses Leadership Principles.

Jeff Tomlin: Well, special guest today, Graham Wilson. An absolute pleasure to have you on the Conquer Local Podcast. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day, and it’s evening for you now, to come out and join us on the Conquer Local Podcast. Thanks. How are you doing, sir?

Graham Wilson: I’m absolutely fantastic, Jeff, and thank you for inviting me on. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I know we have a lot of connections, don’t we, with the Military and the past experiences? Looking forward to sharing my ideas and thoughts.

Jeff Tomlin: We certainly do. Just before the show started, I was sharing with Graham that my father was in the Canadian Armed Forces growing up. Maybe one of my bigger regrets as I was growing up that I never went through the training or some period of my life in the Military. My dad definitely wanted me to, but I’ve got all sorts of respect, and my favourite speakers are always people from the Military because I have just such great respect and great memories from people from that walk. I wanted to start out, Graham, maybe having you share a little bit about your history there and maybe was there a pivotal moment in your Military career where you said, “I want to focus on growing a new crop of leaders.”?

Graham Wilson: I think it’s hard to say one pivotal moment. I think it was the whole journey, really. I guess it’s interesting about your passion for the Military and the stories that you must’ve heard from your grandfather and your father as well. I grew up in obviously a loving family. My dad worked for Shell and my mom was a teacher, but my granddad obviously was in the Military and my dad was in the RAF actually. It was really interesting about the power of stories because I think, from a leadership point of view, the storytelling is a key skill that we can all develop. It was them that really ignited that passion. Right from an early age, I was in the Cadets and then when I got the opportunity, I either went to university or I could join the Military. I know my parents wanted me to go to higher education and get a degree, and I made that, I guess, a plea or a business case, you’d call it now to say, “Look, I’ve had enough of traditional education. I’d like to join the Forces.” Thankfully, they were very supportive because they’ve always said, “Follow your dreams.” I think the first pivotal point was, that you leave that secure environment of home and you’re thrust into an environment that is completely alien and you obviously go through your basic training. It just amazed me around how it was so focused on almost the structure, the skillsets you need, but also the mindset. That was almost the first time I’d really experienced that, that if you build people’s confidence, it’s amazing what they can do and this whole concept of extraordinary results. I can still remember at 17, 18, and 19 doing things I thought were completely impossible, but having the right mindset to be able to do that. That whole rigour of the training development was the first thing you had a realization of. Maybe there’s a lot of people out there that don’t perform as high as they could do because they haven’t had that experience. That was the first thing. I guess, in the Military, you’re trained technically for your role, but also you’re trained for combat, you’re trained for peacekeeping, but also, the traditional ceremonial tie stuff that you get involved in. That amount of training and development, that when you put that in place with a set of standards, you weren’t allowed to do anything unless you passed a certain set of standards, whether that’s from a fitness or a technical point of view. That was really fascinating then. When you start to then progress through training and then into the combat situations, the peacekeeping situations, which is probably harder than combat, actually, the peacekeeping stuff. I think a pivotal moment for me was over in Beirut, attached to the peacekeeping force, attached to the US Marines. I’m sure you can remember when the US Marines’ barracks were blown up and the American Embassy was blown up. Seeing how people perform and how they can lead through really tough situations, but lead through a caring, considerate, confident way, I think those elements started to help me realize that, actually, there’s something about this. A lot of people think that the Military is very command and control where people at the top are telling you what to do, but actually, it’s the complete opposite of what I experienced. They have a concept in the British Army called Mission Command, which I think they still use over in the US and Canada as well. The idea is that the people who’s got the knowledge really are in control. The senior leaders will share their mission and the purpose, the reason why we’re doing something, and then, it’s down to the people who have the knowledge then work out how they’re going to do it. I think those experiences helped me to really form a real picture really of decoding what real leadership is about from a purpose-led point of view, from a human connection point of view, from a caring point of view and from a trust point of view. It got to the point where I was thinking, “What do I do with… Do I stay in the Military and have a career in the Military or do I go out and make a difference?” Obviously, a lot of my friends were outside of the Military, obviously family friends as well. When they talk about leadership, they talk about something completely different. They talked about being micromanaged and the boss having all the answers and being told what to do and having annual appraisals and KPIs and all that. It’s just so different. Maybe I can go out there and make a difference. After a decade in the Military, I decided to make that shift. I thought, “Well, need to go work in the corporate world first.” I went to work for DuPont, obviously a large global organization. I was really impressed actually with DuPont and the style of leadership. A lot of our clients and people that I work with were thinking, “Wow, there’s so much we could actually do.” After a short while of working with DuPont, I need to get out of this. I understand the challenges and the problems now. I need to go out there and make a difference. That’s really where I started Success Factory. I guess really it’s that, rather than the pivotal moment, it was more around that whole experience, that whole journey I went on, and realizing actually there is a different way to do it.

Graham Wilson sees Transformational Leadership as Building Trust & Confidence.

Jeff Tomlin: You know, Graham, I wanted to ask you a question here about transformational leadership or transforming leadership culture to create growth in organizations. I wanted to share with you a little bit about my perspective growing up in a Military family. My perspective of Military organizations and why I’ve got so much respect for them, I’ve always perceived them to be organizations that are created from the top all the way down and the bottom all the way up as organizations that can get shit done. That’s my perspective. These people, they get stuff done and they’re built to get stuff done. I’ve got this perspective. I have a 16-year-old son, and he’s a fantastic young guy. One of my observations about the youth and people of his age and in our day and age, is they get distracted so easy. With distraction, it can affect their motivation and their focus. I laugh sometimes because I’ll call out to him and he’ll be distracted and I think to myself, “Oh boy, if my father, back in the day, ever called out to me and I ignored him or sloughed him off…” He asked or tells you to do something, boom, you’re Johnny on the Spot, you’re up and you’re moving. When you’re thinking about corporate organizations and businesses, at the end of the day, they’re about taking plans and transforming them into action and getting stuff done. Maybe just a few words about how you think about transformational leadership.

Graham Wilson: I think it’s such an important topic and I think we live in a world now that is different to what we’re educated for. I think it’s for the first time in the corporate world that we got so many different generations that we’re leading as well. Being really aware of those differences. We at The Success Factory ran a session a while ago for some young graduates and the business was investing heavily in the graduates, so they wanted us to develop their leadership skills. One of the exercises we asked them to do was to do flip charts. We said, “On the left-hand flip chart, we’d like you to write down what you’d like to get from the business. Why are you here? What will the business give you? On the right-hand side, we’d like you to write down all the things that you can give the business.” What was very interesting, there was very little on the right-hand side and an awful lot on the left-hand side. I thought, “Wow.” That really shocked me. It was all about what do I get from the business rather than what can I give. I certainly think about, when I joined the Military, it was all about what you give and servant leadership and being purpose-led and making a difference. I think your leadership really is about making a positive difference to the world. Whatever you’re in, whether you’re in a startup technology company, what problems are we solving? I think that’s really important. For me, transformational leadership really informs us if there’s a shift, isn’t it? It means that we’re developing. What I’ve found, particularly some of the larger corporate organizations we work in, it’s very easy to get caught up in what I call command and control situations where you’re told what to do, you’re measured on what you do, and you just do the bare minimum to pass and survive. I think what we need now is leaders who can actually go and book them beyond that really and start to think about, “Well, how do I improve? How do I innovate? How do I drive performance improvement?” It’s very interesting when we ask a lot of leaders around. Okay, so you’ve got your organizational purpose, your mission, your vision, your values. It’s quite when we ask of values, we often ask, “Why have you got values?” They can’t answer that because it’s something they’re supposed to have rather than actually shaping culture. What they don’t tend to do really is think about how they translate “Our business is here now, but we want to get to here. What do we need to do in order to get to where we need to get to?” I think that transformational leadership point is really important. I often ask organizations, “Do you set targets around building confidence, and building trust about employee engagement?” Often they don’t. There’s all financial stuff and things like that. I think for me, my view of leadership really is that a leader is someone who creates a high-performance environment where success is inevitable. They have to be able to articulate what that high-performance culture really is, and they have to make sure they remove the risks and the barriers to achieve success. I think you do that by really awakening the possibility in people to deliver external results, which is really about focusing on building your team and building the confidence in your team. That’s something that I certainly learned from the Military. The initial training really is all about building confidence. I think as I progressed through the Military, it was all about making sure your team were confident to be able to perform in any environment. We’d come over to Canada to train up in Banff, we’d go up to Norway to train in the Arctic, we’d go to Belize and we’d go to the desert. It was all about developing what I call, rather than situational confidence, I call it total confidence. It doesn’t matter where you are, we can drop you in and you’ll be confident to perform at the highest level. That whole mindset, skillset and structure is really important. I think sometimes we have a phrase like transformational leadership, but what does that really mean? I think part of leadership is to decode that and it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I think the books I’ve written really are about, “How do we decode leadership for today’s world?” We can learn from the past, but we need to think about, “What do we need to do to be successful in a new world?” I always talk on my progress around going back to school and certainly a school I went to the teacher would ask you a question and then if you knew the answer, you’d put your hand up and they would tell you whether you’re right or wrong. I often think back thinking, ‘What would happen in my school if the teacher asked me a question and I turned around to my classmates and we had a bit of collaboration, we had a bit of conversation around the question?” We’d have probably got told off or something thrown at us. We’ve learned that team working collaboration is cheating, yet that’s exactly what we need today as well. I think that whole concept of decoding what we really mean about leadership is really important.

Leader Training Builds Confidence to Avoid Imposter Syndrome.

Jeff Tomlin: I want to pick away at this topic of confidence. I love it. I think a lot… I find myself… I feel like my son Jack, I feel like I preach to him a lot, but I try to be cognizant of the information that I’m putting in his head. How can I give him a little bit of wisdom along the way but not overload him with information so he can digest it? I try to keep some things consistent, but one thing I always tell him is one of the most important things in your life is confidence. Don’t let anyone take it away from you and make sure you’re always building it. Oftentimes, a lack of confidence comes from the hard work that you’re avoiding. There’s a lot of things that you can do to build that, but no matter what, if you’re confident you can do damn near anything, you can figure it out. It’s really easy for leaders to get imposter syndrome, newer leaders to get imposter syndrome at some point along the way. Are there ways that they can avoid these pitfalls? Is it preparation or does it come down to more than that?

Graham Wilson: Yeah, I think it is preparation. I think it’s around development. I think often we’re good technically at our jobs, aren’t we? We get promoted. That first transition that people make from being a technical expert to being a people leader, that team leader role, that’s pretty scary. It always amazed me how organizations go, “You are really good. You’re going to become a people manager now,” but give them no training. That just would not happen in the Military. I wouldn’t say, “Here’s a new rifle, go out and have a go at it.” You would be trained and there’d be certain standards that you have to meet before you could go live. I think in business we should be thinking about that as well. It’s not only at that level. I work a lot with senior teams and I find there’s a concept when you become on the C-suite or the board of a company or you are the founders and you’re the top team, let’s say in the business. There’s a shift from being a subject matter expert to thinking and looking at the business as a system. I call it a difference between team one and team two. Team one is the leadership team. Team two is your functional team. I see so many leadership teams having conversations based on their functional expertise rather than what’s best for the business. I think even at that level, there’s a big shift in mindset. I think it is, it goes down to, “If I’m going to get that person to shift into that level, then I need to develop them.” I think about some of the work we’ve done with some of the global clients where like Samsung, for example, we would run training programs at team leader level, middle management and senior leadership to get them ready to then move into the role. I think is around that and helping them to make that transition. It’s not just training, of course. They’re passing a bit of coaching and obviously different forms of coaching. There might be some mindset stuff, some belief chain stuff that needs to happen and obviously mentoring and support in that role as well. I think it’s a holistic solution really. I think you’re right. I think a lot of people get thrown into that role, which is different to what they’ve done before and that’s when your doubts start coming in. It’s almost like there’s no way I would get a team in the Military and drop them in the jungle to go and do a mission without developing them first. It just wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t have happen. Or drop them into Norway and go, “Okay, you’ve seen snow before, off you go, you’ll be fine. You’ll be okay.” You would develop them first, set a set of standards, get them to pass those standards, and then they would operate. I think that’s what we need to do in business. If you think about people who listen to this podcast who are in a startup business or they’re in a fast growth business, we spend so much time on either technology or the product or the service we’re offering, but we forget actually to really grow the business and we need to grow our leaders as well. That’s where we come in and spend a lot of time helping the organizations to grow really fast and having control. It’s about having the right skills to be able to do the job. You just wouldn’t actually put someone in a situation where they haven’t got the skills because obviously, that’s going to make an impact on their confidence. I think confidence really is around creating a safe environment, but then to be able to take people outside their comfort zone, into their stretch zone before they get to the panic zone and support them through that development. I think that that is a really important thing to do.

Graham Discusses Using Calculated Risks for Innovation.

Jeff Tomlin: You know what, this is so fascinating to think about some traditional challenges that businesses face, but through a Military lens. Just as I’m chatting with you, one of the things you quickly had touched on or mentioned there was this de-risking decision and this fear of failure. In a lot of organizations, leadership is taught that you have to create this safe environment where people feel that it’s okay to fail, but the business has an outcome that they have to achieve at the same time. You got an outcome that you have to achieve. Your experimentation that they’re going to be free to do, they have to be de-risked. That’s probably to the nth degree in the Military. You’ve got an objective you have to overcome or achieve at some point and you have to have some wiggle room to test or experiment or think outside the box, but you have to de-risk those, I imagine.

Graham Wilson: Yeah, yeah, it’s an interesting concept. I think certainly in a lot of educational systems you develop what I call all-thinking and all-thinking is, there’s one answer because I’m sure if I went into a business that’s drilling “You need to cut your costs,” they could do, but if you cut your costs, of course, then your value to your customer is going to drop. I’ll spend lots of time reducing costs and go, “Oh my God, we need to improve our customer offer or product.” I’m sure if I said to them, “I need you to improve your customer offer,” they could do, but that would cost too much. I think what we need to do is ask the right questions, which is, “How do I improve customer value and reduce costs at the same time?” Which brings in what we call and-thinking. I think that’s where it’s about where one of my hobbies is motor racing. It’s something that I’m passionate about and I love and we were quite honoured to work with some of the Formula One team. I know it’s been over in your world, recently. If they’re not breaking a car, there’s something wrong. In a high-performance culture, we’ve got to be pushing the boundaries. We’ve got to innovate, we’ve got to fail fast, we’ve got to push the push, push, push the limit. It goes back to what you said before about creating the right culture and in the Armed Forces, culture is something that we are going to deliver our results and we’re going to innovate, we’re going to challenge, we’re going to get better. The whole concept of marginal gains as well is just importantly, and lots of little changes. Creating that growth mindset, creating that innovation culture, that’s high performance, it always has been. In the Military, we used to always, you’ll do a bit of training or a bit of combat or a bit of peacekeeping or a bit of ceremonial service, but afterwards, there’s always a review. There’s always an after-action review, which is what went well, what didn’t go well, what could we improve, what we’re going to stop doing, start doing and all that stuff. We don’t do enough of that, I think in business really. For me, a lot of it is from a leadership point of view, we’ve got to lead first, don’t we? We’ve got to be prepared to be vulnerable. We’ve got to admit when we get it wrong. Set the tone in the organization. Get to the point where I always talk about non-negotiables. For me, if I’m leading a business as a leader, people need to know who I am, why I do what I do, what my purpose is, what I do and how I do it. If they know that, then they’ll start to build trust, build a relationship, and they’ll start to want to be led by me. I think what happens then is that you can start to set the boundaries. For me, is that if we constantly focus on our results, then we’re going to go backwards, because what we need to be thinking about is what are we doing in order to get better results? I always think targets in my language have always been a minimum. It’s not been something you achieve. It’s always the minimum. In business, when you think about it, our business model is that if you have a really great year, you get rewarded. It’s tougher targets next year. It’s going to get to a point where you’ve got to innovate, you’ve got to think differently, you’ve got to be constantly improving what you do. I think it’s all part of the system really, isn’t it? When people start thinking about their organizations and life, but as a system, you start to see how it all connects and how it all interlinks.

AI as a Leadership Tool to Enhance Human Experience

Jeff Tomlin:  So, here, Graham, thinking… Well along the lines of thinking differently, one hot topic today is AI. I’ve had a lot of conversations about AI. A lot of conversations seem to focus on how can we use it best or how should we be thinking about using it to get an edge or keep up? One aspect that they haven’t really talked a lot about is how it might impact leadership or how does leadership need to change, evolve, or what are the things that they need to be thinking about as we… There’s maybe some uncharted territory over the next few years. We don’t know exactly what all the impact of AI is going to be truly. You’ve been thinking about this a little bit. What are your thoughts on how leadership should be considering things?

Graham Wilson: Yeah, I can give you an example that happened last week actually. We were running a strategy session for the clients. It was about 50 leaders in the room, and we had the flip charts and whiteboards around the room, and we were getting to a point where we had lots of versions, but it was all very similar. It’s getting down to that wordsmithing point, which is always a difficult bit around, “How do we take all this information and create a compelling vision and statement?” One of the young lads said, “Hang on a minute.” He went around with his phone and he typed in all the words around the room and hit his button and went into ChatGPT, and then five really compelling vision statements came out using AI. I thought, “Wow, that was amazing. That would’ve taken us days and days of getting that out and I think that was just quite incredible how that happened.” If I go back a few years, I can remember when the internet first started and people realized they could start to sell things on the internet. I can remember our retail clients that time, again, that’s our… We’re over, unless we go online. There’s no point in having shops anymore. We might as well just close down our business because we ain’t going to operate in the new world. It goes back to what we said before. It’s not all. It’s and, isn’t it? It’s around how do we create an online channel and a retail human experience as well. I think with AI, it’s going to be the same. It’s not going to replace everything. It’s going to add value. I think we don’t know yet where it’s going to go. I’ve heard examples of technology now, which is having AI to actually run a meeting for you. I’m thinking, “Wow.” I think we all still need that human connection. We are people at the end of the day. For me, the challenge is how do we use it to our advantage. How can we use AI to really help us to get an advantage and improve what we do for human beings? I think that’s the challenge. I haven’t got all the answers of where that will go. I haven’t got that technology experience, but I think it’s really exciting. I think it’s the companies that can grasp that and start to work out how to work. Yeah, there’s loads of technology advances. Starbucks is one of our clients, and they were talking about the other day about how they have now their menus, their electronic menus behind their screens, and they’re linked to the weather forecast. If the weather changes, the menu changes. I’m thinking, “Wow, all this technology coming in.” I think for me it’s around how does that improve the human experience? That’s what we’ve got to gather. I don’t think it’s going to change too much how we lead. I think at the end of the day, we still need people who can get the best out of people regardless of what their jobs are. I think the jobs will shift. There’ll be certain repetitive jobs that we don’t need to do anymore. I think that will shift, but we still need leaders who can lead people. We still need people who can work with people to collaborate, to inspire action to, as you said, get stuff done. That will still be in place. Probably if I think about what AI can do, it’s probably going to remove a lot of technical jobs and give more opportunity for us to move into a more leadership role, really, which is quite exciting really when we think about it.

Effective Leaders Possess Self-Awareness, are Purpose-Driven, and Cultivate Routines for Success.

Jeff Tomlin: Graham, this is fascinating stuff. If there’s one takeaway that you wanted to make sure that you left the audience with, what is that one thing right now?

Graham Wilson: I always remember someone once said to me many years ago is, “The minute you stop learning, it’s game over.” I think that’s the key really is, I’m 62 now and learning every day. I think for me, really from a leadership, if I was to stay just still leadership for you, really for me is that all the great leaders I know have that human connection. They’re confident, they’re caring, they really create that… Almost like the hairs on the back of your neck that says, “I want to follow that person because I just connect with them.” To be able to do that, I think you really need to understand who you are as a person. All that self-awareness, emotional intelligence, all that key stuff is really important. You then need to really understand what your real purpose is. I think for me, my purpose is around how I awaken possibility in people to deliver external results. That’s what drives me. That’s what keeps me going, what keeps me resilient, really. You’ve got to work out what you need to do. I think from a leadership point of view, in our books, we’ve distilled it down to 10 key disciplines that leaders need to do in today’s world to be successful. Once you’ve done that, then you need to turn that into a way of working, and that’s what I call rituals and routines and habits. If you can turn your leadership approach into a way of working, which for me is around being aware of the difference you make. It’s about being you, being collaborative and making an impact. It’s about leading self, building your team, creating a plan, communicating that plan, aligning everything behind that plan, innovating, learning, growing, improving what you do and keeping that cycle going that you start to create momentum. For me, the message would be is to, even if you’re in a fast-growth technology business, just stop for a moment, get off the hamster wheel and think about, “What is it I should be doing as a leader to be successful?”

Graham Wilson Offers Leadership Resources on Website and Social Media.

Jeff Tomlin: If people want to continue the conversation. Graham, how do they reach out to you?

Graham Wilson: Well, we’ve got their website, so GrahamWilson.com, certainly you’ll get all my details on there. There’s obviously our corporate website, which is TheSuccessFactory.co.uk. I’m also on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and all the usual channels, that you can get me. If anyone’s got any questions or any thoughts about how to expand this, I’m more than happy to have a conversation. As you can tell, leadership is really passionate for me, and I know when we do develop leaders in organizations, the growth you see, not just from a personal point of view, from a business point of view, is huge.

Jeff Tomlin: Graham Wilson, absolute pleasure having you on the show. Thanks so much for taking time out of your evening to join us, and hopefully we can do this again in the future sometime.

Graham Wilson: Love to. Let’s talk more. Thanks, Jeff.


Jeff Tomlin: A special place in my heart for current and former military leaders! They’re experts in planning and execution. 

The first takeaway is to develop situational confidence. Graham emphasizes the importance of situational confidence for leaders. This confidence comes from a combination of skills, mindset, and structure. Leaders need to be able to adapt their approach to different situations and inspire their teams to perform at their best.

The next takeaway is to never stop learning. Lifelong learning is essential for leaders according to Graham. The business world is constantly changing, and leaders need to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and developments. He highlights that even successful leaders he knows prioritize continuous learning.

If you’ve enjoyed Graham Wilson’s episode discussing Transformational Leadership and lifelong learning for effective leadership, keep the conversation going and revisit some of our older episodes from the archives: Check out Episode 720: Building Powerful Communities: How to Foster Leadership Growth with Tricia Benn or Episode 623: The PepsiCo Way: Lifelong Learning and Leadership with Jorge Alzate. 

Until next time, I’m Jeff Tomlin. Get out there and be awesome!