Will Wheeler is a seasoned entrepreneur from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. A trainer and assessor who has served as a project manager for a number of events around his city, Will has built a successful career in business, following his first career in the music industry.
The founder and director of Evolution in Leadership, Will dons a crisp suit each day and appears in boardrooms and conference centers detailing how to lead, and build a winning culture across a company in this era of digital disruption. Will brings to his work a musician’s talent for showmanship from prior experience in the entertainment business.
As well as playing in his own bands, Will founded SweetAS Festival Tours, arranging for young Australians to have the chance to see live acts around the world. Will is also a keen communitarian, having worked with a number of Queenslanders who’ve been long-term unemployed, and also members of Australia’s indigenous community.
Recent years have seen Will emerge as a thought leader and influencer in Brisbane and wider Australia. As well as being a regular blogger and keen networker – Will always welcomes a connect invitation on LinkedIn – Will has also been as a professional mentor to a number of Australian college students.
Will’s a great example of an Australian success story. But he has also built his life and career from an unlikely beginning, having faced some real adversity and challenges along the way. These experiences continue to inform his approach to business and serving others today, as well as serve as inspiration for those who come to know his story.
I got in touch with Will for an interview about his life and career, and what lessons he has learned along the way.
Will’s Key Points
- You can build with any background so embrace your past experience
- Business must always be about action and engagement: stalling is as bad as stopping
- A spirit of openness and actively building your network is vital to ongoing growth
Thanks for speaking with us Will. In your own bio you detail that your success in life and your career was considered unlikely by some. On reflection, what inspiration or dreams drove you forward in spite of others beliefs?
I think it was a gradual process, informed by a couple of key moments along the way. Back in 2007 and 2008, I was still living the classic sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. To me, that was ife. I felt I had to live that life.
Sure, I felt like I was in a toxic environment, but it was my life, and that’s how I planned to live it.
But I had a chat to someone close to me. They said I was scared of change. And I’d always be the same. I didn’t like to hear that at first, but now, I continue to thank them to this today.
That was the first big moment for me. I knew then I’d always had some talent. But my confidence was knocked early on, as life was a struggle academically, and when you’re young it can be difficult to separate your sense of self-worth from your academic performance. I can do that now, and most people come to do that in their adult life, but it’s hard when really young.
I have dyslexia, so I felt early on in my adult life that work with lots of reading and writing was out, but I also felt at my core I had potential. It was just about painting a picture with it, and finding out how to use it.
I knew I had some unique qualities. For example, I ran a cold cold storage company from the age of 21. Many people would be in their mid 40’s or 50’s doing that. So the fact I was doing this was a bit of a revelation to people around me. But at the time, I didn’t recognise that ‘hey, this is actually a pretty rare thing you’ve done’. I felt capable, but I didn’t feel confident.
After that big conversation I mentioned, I set off to travel overseas for two years. I’d never been overseas before. I not only travelled, but I went by myself. It was a big and scary thing for me at first, but I grew as an individual. I became more confident. I was capable prior. But after that trip, I was confident.
Once I came back I vowed I’d make a difference. That I’d be active and grow. But it was not all magic for me. My second big moment came while in Britain. I recognised if I didn’t have a qualification or some further education beyond high school it’d be really tough to get a job I liked. All the more so as – different from Australia at the time – the minimum wage in the UK was really low. That realisation crystalised in mind ‘hey, to go you’ve got to grow’.
The final big moment was the recognition while overseas I’d managed to fall into the same sort’ve group of friends that I had back home. The drinking, the drugs. I had some happy memories traveling and still hold warm memories for the people I met along the way there.
But I traveled to expand my horizons, and also wanted to get away from the toxic environment I felt I’d left in Australia. Realising the construction of the life I want and the people I wanted to be around must be an active thing – and not something that i could be passive about – was a big moment.
So, the power to make change, the recognition ‘you must go to grow’, and that you must be active and not passive in building your life. I think those were the three big moments I had along the way in the overall journey.
Given how your career has progressed across many fields and ventures, what advice do you have about ‘starting out’ that you’d like to share with others?
Whenever someone starts something, I think they need to be prepared for the long haul. I really underscore that: it’s about the long haul. Even if you’ve got all the experience in the world. Even if you work as hard as possible, it is the long haul.
This is because some elements of business will simply require time. That is takes time is not a reflection on a professional’s passion or work ethic. Instead, it is about getting the word out about your new venture, building a network, and even incentivising people to give you a look in when they’ve previously been doing business with a competitor.
Time is also important because even if you have good foundations in a business, they will be tested. They may prove shaky, they may need to be adjusted – and in a best case scenario – may prove too small for your rapid growth and need to be expanded!
This is also a really important consideration. Many businesses that have had overnight success and grown rapidly have not always had the foundations in place to accommodate that growth. They’ve not had good processes in place, and as a result they’ve ultimately come undone.
That is why I always say to the young men and women who come to seek advice from me: be prepared to embrace the sweat, the slow, the grunt work. There’s no reason you can’t also experience strong and speedy growth while doing so! But by being ready at the start to do the grunt work, you’ll be ready to face anything, and have a good foundation in place no matter what.
And you know what? I’d also advise people: don’t settle. Stay dissatisfied. That excitement you feel on the first day of running a new venture; look to harness that each and every day. Be flat out. Write blogs. Connect with others. Engage in your local network. A good routine is vital to productivity, but building a new venture should never become routine. It must have vigor.
Was becoming a thought leader and influencer something you always had in mind or did it happen more organically?
I think the seed of it was always there. Looking back on my early life and career, as I said, I knew I was capable. Having spent time in the music scene, I was also confident as a performer.
Over time, I think it crystalised how advantageous this background could be in my business.
Ultimately, I think a common thread throughout the music industry is people wish to create, engage, and leave a lasting impression. A good song can grab you in the moment, entertain you, and then become a favourite forever after.
When you’re an influencer in your industry, a good speech, a presentation – even just a handshake and a hello with someone – can achieve that, when you take the time to make it count.
How exactly did that shift from ‘doer’ to influencer occur for you?
I think it was a couple of big steps across a few areas. Writing blogs and public speaking was a very direct part of it obviously. In some of my presentations I’d speak in particular about my struggles, and how I overcame them. I also won the 2010 young achiever of the year award for my industry. I think the fact I could show proven personal growth was a big factor in this shift.
But there was also other areas. With my past jobs, I would work with Aussies who are long-term unemployed, and help people who doubted themselves go onto achieve great career success.
Overtime that group of folks became a core audience of mine, and word of mouth spread.
Then, I then went into working with companies. Looking to build in organisations what I did in individuals, helping them to achieve the same success in leadership and confidence.
Finally, I also mentor university students – and given this generation is outstanding in using social media – that has helped to build my audience too.
What proactive steps did you take along the way to build your audience?
As well as the aforementioned, I would definitely have to say my video blogs really helped to get my name out there. Plus proactively connecting with industry professionals and really ensuring they knew who I was and what I was about was important too.
I really find collaborating with others in my industry a great step in and of itself, as you connect with someone, but also feed off others ideas, and teach each other new skills. It’s really like a ‘two for one’ deal.
Finally, I think just being myself and doing the right thing within life and my career has helped build my profile. If you commit to working with honesty and integrity, it may take a little longer to get noticed than someone who is all style and no substance. But your platform is built to last, and will come to be very valued by those who want to work with someone they can trust.
As a world, we maintain local economies, but are also undoubtedly global. What do you see as the unique challenges for consultants and business coaches operating in the Australian context?
Australia is great, and we’ve so much going for us here. But it is true too; the ‘distance factor’ isn’t totally gone. The fact we are so far away from the U.S, Europe, and elsewhere can be a challenge. It will always be this way in some respects, and it’s nothing we can’t navigate.
Like a lot of Aussies though, I think we need to up our game on technology. Every country and government has its turbulence, but Canberra could be doing the NBN [National Broadband Network] better. It’s one of those big projects that is so vital that you just want all sides to get together and get it done. Give Aussies an even chance with the right set of tools? And we can go very far.
In fact, I’d say one of the great things about Australia is we embrace those challenges. Building a global business is tough anywhere, but certainly Australia brings some unique challenges. Like the decision many local businesses face after some good growth here ‘OK do we now head overseas to try and build further or look to build straight from here even if its a tougher climate?’
The fact so many Aussie professionals faced that question and built beyond it shows our mettle.
It’s a mindset thing. I think that’s one of the great things about Australian business. We’re ready and willing to get stuck into it when it comes to the gritty work on building a business globally.
What do you feel are universal qualities – the sort of virtues and values you could utilise in Brisbane, Boston, Berlin, and all in cities in between?
There’s three qualities I’ve found really useful to my career in Australia and beyond. First, personality. For all the cultural differences we see from one place to another, if you can bring some confidence and energy that is universally appealing.
The second is the ability to inspire. You can have personality, but being good company and being compelling company is not the same. It is good to be the first, but great to be both. So, being able to grab the attention of a room, hold it, and leave it with a lasting impact. That is something that will go down well anywhere around the world.
Finally, I’d say openness is vital. An active willingness to engage and experience. That’s a personal quality of mine, but I also think probably of Australian business at large.
This doesn’t mean no other countries have that – but just because of our history having spent hundreds of years since European settlement largely disconnected from the Northern Hemisphere – we’ve always been ready to look beyond our shores, and to travel and connect with people. We continue to see that today as our influencers and thought leaders rise up.
What do you perceive as different challenges and opportunities today compared to when you started in your career?
I always advise others to start whatever they want to do right now. Don’t wait until it’s definitely time, or you’re totally ready: part of being a leader and succeeding in business is about going early.
But in saying that, it can be a journey. I recognise if I started earlier the quality of my work may have been diminished, so it can involve timing. Overall though, the crucial thing is just to avoid the risk of ‘tommorowitis’; the idea that you’ll do it tomorrow.
If you were starting again today, what would you do the same?
I’d live the life that I’d live so far. I know it can be fashionable for people once they’ve made a career change to shy away from the past, and say ‘oh yes that an old chapter. I don’t turn away from it, I embrace it.
What would your advice be to others starting new chapters of their career today?
The advice I’d have for others in this field is really seek to identify the returns on your education.
I am a big believer in the value of education, but also believe it should give a return on investment. I often say to young men and women who come to visit me: consider getting into the workforce right out of high school before you go to college. Get some practical experience, and identify what you want to do.
All education is a gain, and college can be great, but I see so many kids struggle in this area.
They will start college, and then swap majors a ton of times. They may lose interest and drop out. They may even finish a whole degree, find out they don’t want to work in the field, and then head on back to school.
Of course, this is all part of the process of growing and learning, so I’m not condemning this path altogether. I’m just saying instead: take the time to draw a breath. Study should be about equipping you with greater skills to work in a field you enjoy.
Many kids may hear ‘go to uni right after high school’ and that a gap year is a bad idea – but then many of those same kids end up doing a gap year or two after college anyway. Like I said before about foundations, I’m always a big fan of the idea of building strong and early. That’s why I recommend being bold, and having the courage to seek out and truly define your path.
And, what do you have zero regrets about, and would do again?
Well, I’m not sure I’d call it a full-blown regret but I do wish I’d built friendships and relationships in a different way when I was in the earliest stages of my career. Back then many of my friendships were one dimensional. Built on a shared love of drinking or drugs! Once I turned away from that, these friendships faded. And on reflection, they weren’t all that healthy and positive.
To be clear, I’ve still much love for those friends I made along the way. Every person and experience shapes you, and if I see people I know from back then they’re still going to get a hug! But today, when it comes to building new relationships with people, I try to seek out others who will be positive, give value, and connect with me in multiple ways.
Looking back, what key moments in your career do you feel shifted you from a regular ‘doer’ to a influencer?
I recognised ‘something was up’ when my social media began to be self-sustaining. People would be seeking to contact and connect with me out of the blue. I’d have professionals still coming along the road in their career get in touch for advice.
The realisation this was a common thing made me recognise I’d shifted from someone building his business to having a role in building others. Thereafter, starting my work as a mentor for many fantastic young university students was also a big moment for me.
You really recognise being an influencer and leader is not just a big deal for your career, but can be a really defining moment for someone coming up. That’s why I try to ensure every person I connect with, and experience we have really delivers for them. Unquestionably, being a thought leader isn’t something you can phone in. You’ve got to give it your all.
With the influence you have in your field, what issues do you feel most passionate about?
I think building more agile workplaces is absolutely a central passion of mine. It’s a personal and professional thing. My background in dyslexia informed it. But also my experience working with a diversity variety of people. People who would have learning disabilities such as impaired vision, but also people from overseas, and people of a senior age.
Workplaces were not adapting to those needs, but they can! I knew they could, and I began speaking about this field accordingly. I’m also big on using technology as well. We have to be ready to use new tech.
We can’t do the old ways in the digital age. We have to be open. Being closed isn’t an option anymore. It’s not just a human decision its a business decision.
What do you feel is done but done incorrectly in this space that hinders agility in the workplace?
There are people still afraid of change. I think it’s a matter of change or get changed. The old ways of doing things are not only inefficient, but also are completely unacceptable in the disruption era.
If you aren’t receptive to change. If you don’t go ahead and build an agile workplace, the risk is huge your business will get left behind. So, change it must be. Simple as that.
Finally, an open-ended one for conclusion: what do thought leaders and influencers need to do more of in future to really maximise their impact and output?
My public speaking career is all about that. It plays a huge role.
I went into leadership while still quite young. I can walk the talk. But what I find is, people young and old don’t use all the platforms available to them. They think identity alone will carry them.
Sure, your identity if important, but it needs to be acted upon too. I know from my background in music, a song can’t possibly be good if nobody can hear it.
That’s a big part of the reason why I’m so proactive in my day by day about building my network.
People think networking in a dirty word – but having been around some bold bands I can tell you there are far worse words out there! – and actually, I think it goes back to what I said before.
That if you’re building a business you can’t stagnate or stop. It’s about perpetual momentum.
That’s why right now I’m preparing to join the Australian Human Resource Institute, and also connecting with a ton of HR professionals. I think this experience has affirmed again a good universal rule of business: set a goal and do it! Networking is a goal to pursue just the same.
To close out, what is a piece of advice or story you’ve always wanted to share but haven’t yet had the chance to?
A big thing for myself is to inspire people to really go on and do great things. And to do it themselves. A lot of the time they don’t use their talent to their full capacity. Take action. Do something. Move, move, move. That’s the advice I have to people who seek leadership.
For fellow leaders, I’d say we must prove everyday why we are leaders in the first place! Once you start getting recognised as a thought leader, you’ve got to really be on the throttle. Once it’s clear people recognise you as a leader, you need to truly prepare to lead.
That can bring some pressure, but it is immensely rewarding when you do it right. For you and those who seek you out.