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Faces of Leadership

Pamela Wheelock

When University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler chose Pam Wheelock to be the U’s new vice president of university services, he found someone with a resume that’s almost mind-boggling in its diversity.

Wheelock came from an interim presidency of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, on whose board of directors she also served for nine years. She also was a vice president at the Bush Foundation; chief financial officer of Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Minnesota Wild; and state finance commissioner under Gov. Jesse Ventura.

That varied background has given Wheelock, 53, a rich repertoire of leadership lessons and philosophies to bring to campus. She shared some of her thoughts on that topic with The Line. What’s more, she took the time to do so during her third whirlwind day at the new gig, thereby embodying a little-known but important leadership tip: Always make time for the media.

The first leaders you meet can be very important. Wheelock grew up on a small dairy farm near Waseca, and her first job was hoeing rows of beans at a neighbor’s farm. Both paid dividends. “My parents taught me personal responsibility and a work ethic, which are important ingredients to develop credible leadership,” she says. “On a small dairy farm, you can’t be a stranger to hard work.”

There are leadership lessons to be picked up at every stop. Wheelock says shifting from government to nonprofit to academic settings has helped her evolve as a leader by seeing work from many perspectives. “I’ve learned something from all of my bosses, as different as they’ve been,” she says. “For me, there’s been an evolution from being a strong individual contributor to understanding that the job I have, ultimately, is to be a coach, a facilitator, and to help those around me develop to their full potential. I’ve moved from working toward becoming a leader to being someone who tries to develop the leadership talent around me.”

Don’t be afraid to fail. While working as finance commissioner in the Ventura cabinet, Wheelock found herself on an unusual staff in which the governor, lieutenant governor, and chief of staff had virtually zero collective experience in dealing with the Legislature. That meant she was placed in the sometimes awkward role of being that liaison. “The notion of doing that terrified me, but it was a real growth opportunity,” she said. “Until you really push yourself and put yourself into a position where you realistically might fail, you never know where your limits are. I encourage people to not think of failure as a negative. That’s where you test your boundaries and learn the most.”

Don’t be afraid to listen. As the new kid on the U of M block, Wheelock knows a big part of her job for now is not just to talk to her staff and colleagues, but to let them teach her, too. “You need to find a good balance between being decisive, indicating decisions that reflect your values, priorities, and approach, but also spending a significant amount of time listening and learning,” she says. “So often, people are inclined to accept decisions if they feel they were heard and understood, and that they have some context for that decision.”

Rewards given without fanfare can be the most meaningful. When Bob Naegele sold Rollerblade in the mid-‘90s, each employee was inconspicuously given a check in the amount of $160 for each month they’d worked with the company. Those types of under-the-radar gestures can leave the deepest impact, Wheelock believes. “It was a gracious demonstration of appreciation,” she says. “Later, having the opportunity to work with Bob and Mayor (Norm) Coleman on bringing hockey back to Minnesota and building the Xcel Energy Center, it was a delight to interact with someone who had really inspired me with that gesture toward his employees.”

There’s no such thing as over-communicating. Wheelock is a firm believer in letting her staff know where they stand--and where she stands--on every important issue. “Especially in organizations that are going through a change or transition, people who are feeling stress or uncertainty try hard to decipher the intention behind what you might think is a pretty straightforward statement,” she says. “I’ve become a lot more conscious about my role in a leadership position to really be thoughtful and aware of the message I’m delivering, who is receiving it, and what environment they’re in. It’s important to be conscious of the human dynamic.”

Present a demeanor of stability. People look to leaders for steady, reliable guidance, and to give them the vision that will inspire them and connect them to the mission of the organization,” Wheelock maintains. “It’s important to create a vision for the future of the company, but it’s just as important to help the individuals connect with it in a real, meaningful way in their day-to-day jobs,” she says. “They want a sense of assurance that you’re on a steady course and they have a role in that.”

Dan Heilman's last article for The Line was a portrait of the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, in our March 14, 2012 issue.
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