Apathetic, disengaged, insecure, afraid, these are words appropriately associated with many aspects of corporate America. In his new book, Begin With WE, leadership expert, Kyle McDowell, examines the root causes of dysfunction in business, highlighting the plague of a “Me” oriented paradigm, and provides them remedy with his framework, the 10 “WEs.” 

These guiding principles are the cornerstone of Kyle’s leadership philosophy and establish a foundation required for a culture of excellence. This inside-out approach cultivates courageous, “We” oriented leaders who recognize the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the method also teaches how to transform apathy into optimism and fear into fulfillment for creating authentic leaders in higher performing teams. 

Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Kyle McDowell, author of Begin With We: 10 Guiding Principles For Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence. Kyle, thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Kyle McDowell: Hey Drew, it’s a pleasure to be here, thank you for having me.

Drew Appelbaum: Kyle, help us kick the podcast off, can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?

Kyle McDowell: Sure, interesting story, it started off. I began my career at corporate America, just two months fresh out of high school. You know in fact, when I interviewed for the role at a customer service center for a regional bank here in Florida, I was only 17 and I rolled the dice, thinking, if an offer were to come, should I be so lucky to be offered a role with this company? It would come after my 18th birthday and it worked. I got the offer, as a matter of fact, parenthetically, 29 years ago, to the day was my first day in that role at that regional bank. 

So I started in a tiny cubicle and I paved my way through my undergrad and just kind of took on successively larger and larger roles with greater scope and you know, I would say, most of my career has been spent in the healthcare space, working for big insurance companies, some government sponsored healthcare organizations as well and – but every single one of those roles had a very, very strong component as it relates to service.

I was always leading service organizations and you know, for some perspective, the journey consisted of again, beginning in that tiny cubicle to the last decade or so, leading organizations with tens of thousands of employees, multibillion-dollar budgets, and just huge scale and scope. So I was a very lucky guy to have, you know what I would say, a pretty distinguished career in corporate America but that brings me to the book.

Drew Appelbaum: Let’s talk about the book. So, why was now the time to write this book? Because you said, you entered the workforce 29 years ago. So what happened along that path that you said, now the book is out, let’s say you started writing at a year or two ago. Why did you start now?

Kyle McDowell: Yeah, well, I felt like Drew, over time, my relationship and frankly, my trust in corporate America began to erode. You know, I genuinely believe that over time, corporate America has really lost its focus on its greatest asset, and that’s the employee and I’ve tested that hypothesis because when I joined an organization, gosh, it’s probably been five or six years ago now.

Going into that role, I knew there was an opportunity for a big cultural shift and I told myself, had I ever been given the opportunity to lead an organization where I had the autonomy and the opportunity to lead a big cultural transformation, I would take that opportunity to do things a little bit differently and that led me to create a series of what I now call, guiding principles, the 10 “WEs,” every sentence, every principle begins with a word “We”.

So I wrote these principles and on like day 60 of my tenure with that organization, shared them with the team, the top 50 or 60 leaders within the program that I led and Drew, five years later and I’ve long since left that organization, the 10 “Wes” are the kind of the cultural manifesto for that organization. So, that’s a long way of saying, I thought there was a better way to lead in corporate America, to allow others to not just exist in corporate America but to also thrive and find passion and purpose that so many of us yearned for when we joined the workforce but over time, began to erode. 

So I felt like once I rolled those principles out, saw how they resonated with the team, I knew I was on to something. So I was fortunate enough to leave corporate America about two years ago and I thought, you know, I have an opportunity to go back into a similar leadership role at any organization, frankly, where I felt like, I could make a difference or I could press pause on my own career and begin to essentially evangelize these same principles and have it brought around impact.

So rather than leave one organization in a cultural transformation, I now have the opportunity to reach thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people to put my stamp on corporate America and hopefully, folks benefit from that Drew.

Drew Appelbaum: So, when you say “folks benefit” let’s dig into that. Who exactly were you writing to? In this book? Is this for you know, HR teams, is this for executives or is this for any manager or leader within a company, read the book and enact change in the organization?

Kyle McDowell: Great question and my publisher doesn’t usually like the way I answer this question but it’s the truth. The book is intended for anyone that exists or operates inside of a team. It’s especially for those in a leadership position or those that have influence over a team and they want to do things in a way that is more fulfilling, provides them a sense of passion but most importantly, it gives them the fuel to energize and inspire those around them.

I’ll tell you who it’s not for, Drew, it’s not for people that are happy with the status quo, it’s not for those that are kind of sheepish or lack the desire to drive change. Although, there’s certainly tips and how tos inside the book that I think would help that cohort but it’s really for those that want to make a difference, want to have an impact and inspire those around them.

Drew Appelbaum: So let’s dig in, what exactly is your definition of a culture of excellence?

Culture of Excellence

Kyle McDowell: Ah, love that question. In my mind, the culture of excellence is culture that has established guiding principles, they’ve evangelized and they communicate those principles not only one time in a big bang or a splash event, they live, breathe and discuss them aloud on an almost daily basis and this is not to be confused with a mission statement because, you know, in my opinion, and they’re great by the way. 

Mission statements are great, they provide a lot of value but rarely do they speak to the employee on a practical day-to-day basis. You know, they’re usually these nebular, kind of lofty statements that frankly make it really difficult for the employee to say, “Yes, this is how my actions today will connect to that mission statement.” So what has to happen to build that culture of excellence is we’ve got to align around the set of principles and those principles, you know, by definition, they’re a series of beliefs.

They serve as the foundation for everything we do. So the principles that I’ve established, the 10 “WEs,” you know, the guiding principles that the book is exclusively written for and about, once those principles are established, they level up and they enable into the mission. So the culture of excellence must have a group of people where the team is two or 2,000, must be on the same page with how we’re going to operate on a daily basis and that’s what these principles do. 

They discreetly identify how we will interact with one another, they govern the rules of basically how we treat each other which dictates and sets us up for success for how we treat those we serve our customers.

Drew Appelbaum: Are there any examples that you can provide of companies who are really doing it right and of the ones that are doing it right, what are a few of the “WEs” that they are incorporating into their culture?

Kyle McDowell: Well, I think any organization that has an over-emphasis on the employee is in the right direction or heading in the right direction. I mean, a lot of companies say that but it’s those that actually live it every single day. You know, one that comes to mind is Trader Joe’s and there’s a story that I lay out in the book that I think is pretty powerful in that, when the pandemic hit, Trader Joes initially received a lot of – I wouldn’t say backlash, that’s too strong of a word but a little bit of criticism that they were not part of the online grocery craze that really exploded during the early months of the pandemic.

They weren’t on Instacart, they weren’t on you know, similar apps. So as a response to that, Trader Joe’s is very overt and said, “Listen, for us to get into an environment like that, it takes years and millions and millions of dollars of investment. We at Trader Joe’s, we choose to spend those dollars on our most important asset, our people.”

So I think Trader Joe’s highlights, you know, the importance of not only just taking care of your employees from a compensation perspective. I mean, that’s obviously important but they’re overt in how they take care of their employees and I think we feel that. I don’t know if you’re a Trader Joe’s shopper Drew, but I feel it, I feel the service they deliver. 

So I think that’s a shining example and you know, as quickly as I could point out a good example, we’ve all been kind of exposed to those not so good examples and I rarely blame the organization for that type of experience. I typically blame the leader within the organization or particularly, the leader who is responsible for the domain that I’m interacting with or a customer of. 

Because it doesn’t take a lofty mission statement or anything at the corporate level for us to really deliver our best work, it takes a leader within that organization to inspire us to deliver our best work. So I think Trader Joe’s is a great example and I think they’ve proven that over the years.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, as you mentioned before, you know, you boiled all of these down in your process to the 10 “WEs.” Now, you don’t have to list them all certainly but if you could name a few of you know, maybe your most important ones and maybe dig into one of them in depth for us? 

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/contemporary-gradient-handrails-perspective-434645/

The 10 “WEs”

Kyle McDowell: You bet. Yeah, let me just highlight — maybe I’ll highlight — let me highlight the first one and then go deeper on a couple of others. So the first one is we do the right thing always and this is conspicuously number one and it’s really hard to refute but it sets a standard and an expectation for every single thing that follows. 

You know candidly, the remaining nine “WEs” would be a house of cards if we weren’t in absolutely agreement that everything that we approach, we’re going to approach it to the lens of doing the right thing. Now, establishing what is the right thing is subjective, right? It is important to understand that how people arrive at what that right thing is, is different. 

So if we set that standard that this is kind of the threshold principle, it is easy for us to have a dialogue around the approach, “Is this the right approach? Is that the right approach?” because we know we’re all focused on finding the best and “right outcome.” By the way, I get this question a lot is of the 10 “WEs,” which one do I think is the most important or the most powerful? 

I usually lean to we number eight and that is we challenge each other and there is a very short sentence that follows that opening sentence and that it’s a one word sentence and it’s diplomatically. We challenge each other diplomatically. Look, in life especially in business, we’re going to get challenged. 

Whether it’s an external or an internal source, we have to view that challenge as fuel for the continuous improvement engine. We’ve got to hold each other to higher standards. In other words, it’s not simply enough for the boss or your manager to challenge the team to do better and reach for new heights. 

I think it’s important for colleagues to challenge colleagues. If I am on a team of five and I am really killing it, working very hard, delivering a great work or product, three of my peers are as well but one isn’t, the team is not performing at its highest and best. So I think it’s appropriate and it’s incumbent on those four members of the team to say, “Hey fifth guy or gal, you’re not delivering at your best.” 

Now, I am not saying you manage that person or threaten or create any type of disciplinary action or path but I think it’s important to recognize directly that listen, we’re a team. We’re trying to collectively deliver something beautiful and one-fifth of us is not carrying their weight. So when we challenge each other, we create that environment where the status quo is kind of a negative world. 

We don’t live in that world, we don’t embrace the status quo. We are always looking to be better and those, you know, a challenge coming from the boss is great but I think it is much more powerful and easier to be heard when you are receiving that challenge from someone on the team like a peer or colleague. 

Drew Appelbaum: You mentioned the 10 “WEs,” you just highlighted a few of them. Can we talk about implementation? So when you say, “Okay, I have buy-in” or “I have leadership buy-in, we’re going to bring this to the company. We’re going to present this” what is a reasonable timeframe and what ways are you measuring success by the program? 

Implementing the WEs

Kyle McDowell: The truth of the matter is there are so many variables when trying to drive a cultural transformation that make it really hard to kind of quantify a time or timing. I use this analogy in the book, culture transformations are like, a lot like giant battleships. When they are used appropriately and effectively, they can be very effective. 

I mean, they are floating cities that can do all kinds of amazing things but like a culture transformation, they don’t move quickly. They don’t dart on a dime, they don’t change directions quickly but slowly and surely, with the right focus, coordination, buy-in, communication, inspiration, that ship will turn just like the culture. 

Now, unlike the battleship, the challenge is to get everyone rowing and turning in that same direction at the same time and that is, you know, there is a word of caution I would offer. If you’re engaged in a big culture transformation, you will have absolute enthusiastic buy-in from many. You will have abstinence and kind of rejection from some and you’ve got to be prepared for that. 

I think taking into consideration the size of the organization, where the company or the team is on their cultural journey and their cultural transformation and I guess lastly, what really matters the most when you’re driving this cultural transformation is do you have the stomach to lead it because it ain’t easy. 

I mean, there are times when I found myself I kind of felt like I was running on a beach with a giant parachute behind me but over time, the adoption of the principles became so clear and resounding that it was impossible to ignore and that momentum helped those that were not onboard from the very beginning, it helped them find an open mind to get onboard. 

Drew Appelbaum: When you’re starting to bring the 10 “WEs” into your organization, can they be modified to fit your need, to fit your structure or is this something where it’s a checklist and you follow each individual step rigorously? 

Customizing the WEs

Kyle McDowell: That question speaks to me because when I rolled the 10 “WEs” out, I was so direct. I said, “Guys, we can end up with eight, we could end up with 11. I don’t want to be prescriptive of what these principles should include or not include but make no mistake, they are the principles that I will hold you accountable to as your leader but more importantly or maybe as important, I want you to hold me accountable as well.” 

So you can, as long as the team aligns around a discreet number of principles and we stick to those and we remind each other of those on a daily basis, I’m going to give a quick example, the number in my mind is not as important as the fact that you take the step and the time to do it. I mentioned a moment ago, one of my favorite “WEs” is we challenge each other. 

I found — it was so encouraging and humbling — I found leaders in my organization using that sentence as kind of like a disarming caveat before they created a challenge or issues a challenge. They would not go by, I would not be in a meeting whether it be in person or on a phone and hear someone say, “Hey Lorie, we challenge each other, right?” and you can sense Lorie’s kind of disarm.

You can sense that she knows that this is part of our culture now, this is how we operate. This person is about to challenge me and they’re coming from a place of good intention — and oh, by the way Drew, I should probably add in my mind, a challenge must be based on data or experience. You just don’t get to say, “I don’t like the color of that shirt, I’m challenging you on the color of that shirt” right? 

So with that premise in mind, the person receiving the challenge is much more likely to be open to what they’re being challenged about and I guess the last point I would add is that challenge and every challenge must also be quantifiable, right? So again, no opinions but the fact that I have an experience that’s related to this scenario or I have data to drive my challenge is what’s most important. 

We focus on the topic, the issue not the person who is responsible for that issue because then, we start to get feelings of like ownership and bias creeps in. So we got to keep it very tangible on the challenge front. 

Drew Appelbaum: What impact do you hope the book will have on a reader and maybe when they’re midway through, maybe when they’re finished, are there any immediate steps that you hope they’ll take in their life or at their org? 

Kyle McDowell: Yeah, absolutely. I have been fortunate enough to share the 10 “WEs” with tens of thousands of people across several organizations and through those experiences, I learned what I yearned for years ago and delivered in a couple of different organizations now, it wasn’t unique. People want to have an impact, they want to be recognized for their contribution but mostly Drew, I think people want to be led with authenticity and transparency. 

I think those are two key ingredients for trust. So I think beginning, once you’ve taken in the principles and you’re ready to lead that transformation, you got to do it authentically and transparently. People sense, the team will sense if you’re paying lip service. They will sense it if you just read some fancy new leadership book and this isn’t coming from a place of good intention, right? 

They know that, they’re adults, people get that. I would say, lead with authenticity and transparency like this is how we’ve done things in the past but today is the day, today is a new beginning. This is how we’re going to go forward and whether it’s my principles Drew or it’s the team that we’re, you know, the team in question, if they sit down and develop their own principles, you know, I really don’t have a preference. 

I think mine are very effective and it worked, so lead with those authentic and transparent principles but be mindful that it is a lengthy process but steady as she goes and just kind of being deliberate in how you communicate them, the impact of them will be obvious and I guess lastly, the key on that momentum, once you start to sense that people are becoming a little more open-minded and optimistic that there is an opportunity for us to be better, to be there for one another, capitalize on that. Call it out, be very overt and purposeful in how you recognize people when they are living these principles. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well Kyle, I feel like this went actually really fast but I know we just touched on the surface of the book here. There is so much more inside. I just want to say that building this book, just a way for organizations to build a better culture inside and for its employees is no small feat. So congratulations on having your book published. 

Kyle McDowell: Thank you, Drew. It’s been a wonderful journey. There were some times where I wasn’t sure I’d get to this point but now that it’s out, I’m just so thrilled with the final product and grateful for those that helped me get to this point. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well Kyle, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Begin With WE, and you could find it on Amazon. Kyle, besides checking out the book, where else can people connect with you? 

Kyle McDowell: Very simple, so Kyle McDowell Inc. just as it sounds, is my handle on Instagram, LinkedIn, even just launched a TikTok, there is no content there yet but basically all social platforms, I have the same handle as Kyle McDowell Inc. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well Kyle, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today, and best of luck with your new book. 

Kyle McDowell: Thank you Drew. It was a pleasure.