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Former Corporate America executive helps turn bosses into leaders

Kyle McDowell's 10 principles for building and sustaining a culture of excellence are essential — but, he says, not rocket science.


  • Leadership
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Kyle McDowell’s career transformation from multibillion dollar executive to national leadership coach, author and keynote speaker had an unassuming beginning: the spark was lit in the summer of 2017 inside a dark hotel room in Lawrence, Kansas around midnight. 

A Plant City native, USF grad and Tampa resident, McDowell was in the hotel room that night prepping for a big speech the next day. He had recently been named senior vice president and program manager at Maximus, a business process outsourcing firm with 14,000 employees and a slew of federal government contracts. Maximus had some big successes, but, says McDowell, who had previously worked for UnitedHealth/Optum, the company was heavily siloed. And the flowing profits masked a faltering morale. His charge? Transform the culture. 

Yet McDowell, then 42, was having issues of his own. “I found myself really disengaged and really apathetic,” he says. “I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled.”

McDowell watched the hours tick by, hoping for some inspiration for his presentation, to be given in front of 50 top Maximus leaders. He sought authenticity and sincere buy-in, not cliches and platitudes. He didn’t, he writes in his debut book, want to be “just another starched shirt making empty promises about what I was going to do and how I was here to save them.”

As 3 a.m. approached, McDowell found his answer, one that would transform not only the business, but his own life and career. “My laptop, now staring back at me, displayed 10 items,” he writes in his book, “Begin with We: 10 Principles for Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence,” published in September. “With no intention or pre-planning, they all began with the word we. And at that moment it occurred to me these would be the guiding principles needed to establish our culture of excellence.” 

By November 2020, McDowell, after three years turning around the culture at Maximus and a stint as a senior vice president at CVS Caremark, had gone out on his own. Two years later came the book. The main focus of his leadership culture and business coaching gig, says McDowell, now 47, remains the same today as back then: to transform bosses into leaders. 

 

Curiosity corner

During an hour-long interview in person in Tampa and a follow-up phone call, McDowell's passion for the 10 principles is palpable. He also acknowledges that, taken in total, some of these are pretty obvious to say — though not necessarily simple in execution. “It’s not rocket science,” McDowell says. 

An overview of the 10 principles includes:

1. We do the right thing. Always.

This principal is “consciously No. 1,” says McDowell, because “if you can’t do that, then everything else is a house of cards.”

 

2. We lead by example.

McDowell says leaders many times miss opportunities to lead by positive example, given how often employees look to leaders for all sorts of cues. “Those in authority are constantly under a microscope, and others emulate their behavior, whether good or bad,” he writes. “Leaders must ensure their behavior is worth emulating.”

 

3. We say what we’re going to do. Then we do it.

“Leaders,” McDowell writes, “are in the service business — but a leader’s primary objective isn’t to serve customers. You serve your team, who ultimately serve the customer. When you make a commitment to do something for a customer, the expectation is you’ll do it. Why should things be any different behind the curtain for your team members?”

 

4. We take action.

Taking action and making a mistake is OK. Being idle is not. This principle is a follow up to No. 3. Taking action is the follow-through to what you said you would do. This principle also crystallizes, in some ways, McDowell’s approach to life. It’s why, for example, he punted away a perfectly-fine corporate career to go on his own —  a move several in his inner circle told him was nuts. McDowell also writes about how creating an environment where choosing to be curious; not settling for the status quo; and thinking like you're the company founder is essential.  That’s the only way, he says, where the team will feel safe to explore new ideas. 

 

5. We own our mistakes. We’re not judged by our mistakes. We’re judged by how quickly we remedy them — and if we repeat them.

Although McDowell doesn’t have a favorite principle, per se, this one is near the top of the list for how it resonates with his life ethos. “Mistakes are an opportunity to objectively improve,’ he writes. “The key is to allow for mistakes, identify the correct path of remediation and ensure the mistake only occurs once.”

 

Get uncomfortable 

6. We pick each other up.

McDowell says for bosses to become leaders they need to not only encourage and embrace the success of others, but facilitate an environment of opening doors for their teammates. Even if that means they leave the organization. It’s being OK with asking this kind of a question to an employee on your team, writes McDowell: “Marissa, what do you want to do next in your career? Do you have an interest in assuming my role someday?”

 

7. We measure ourselves by outcomes, not activity.

“The biggest myth in Corporate America: a jam-packed calendar signifies importance and automatically equates to progress toward results,” McDowell writes. “Endless meetings and other forms of bureaucratic activity only matter if we can clearly draw a line from the activity to the outcome. If an activity doesn’t conspicuously contribute to an outcome, it should be questioned.”

 

8. We challenge each other — diplomatically.

If you are not challenging your team, and yourself, to be better, says McDowell, “by definition, we are not only accepting the status quo, we are promoting it.” (See principle No.4)

A big caveat, writes McDowell, is challenging others doesn’t “provide license to criticize a decision you simply don’t like…It doesn’t mean you tell your coworker their operation sucks. It doesn’t mean you point out all the deficiencies in their operation.” It does, he says, allow for anyone on the team to challenge others in the “spirit of improvement.”

 

9. We embrace challenge.

This principle follows No. 8 because challenging each other and yourself, realizes McDowell, can be grueling. It’s why he quotes ultramarathoner and retired U.S. Navy Seal  David Goggins at the start of this chapter on comfort zones: “If you live in one for too long, it becomes your norm. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”  

McDowell adds in the book: “You’ve got to endure a certain amount of pain and discomfort before breaking through, stronger on the other side. The only way to get to the other side is by embracing the challenge, not running from it.”

 

10. We obsess over details. Details matter a lot.

“Obsessing over details is synonymous with obsessing over our clients needs and wants,” McDowell writes. “It’s the difference between average and excellent.” McDowell adds this is the final principle for a reason: if your end-product your company makes or provides isn’t adhering to standards of excellence, then there’s likely problems in principles one through nine, too. “Details,” McDowell says, “are an absolute indicator of the care you put into your brand.”

 

 

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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