Author/Leadership Expert Kyle McDowell: How Corporate America Can Inspire – Not Terrify – Our Workforce

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Catching up with Kyle McDowell, the best-selling author of Begin With We: 10 Principles for Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence, takes some tricky planning. McDowell maintains a strict schedule these days, plane-hopping around America, meeting with CEOs, and delivering keynotes to thousands of people. His goal is to do the seemingly impossible: redefine the work culture inside corporations, whose leaders have for years relied upon fear to lead their employees. McDowell’s framework for a new era of business relies on one idea: “WE” is far more important than “me.” With his new book leading the charts of USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon, he took some time out to talk about the secret to inspiring an apathetic workforce: trust, empathy, and authentic leadership.

“Stop me if you have ever said this before: I just don’t feel energized or passionate about my job anymore,” says McDowell. “Every hand goes up in the room – it doesn’t matter if it’s an executive or a person they lead. Even I felt that way at one point, and I was on top of my career, where I should have been enjoying my life.”

McDowell spent almost 30 years guiding teams through the gauntlet that is corporate America, including at UnitedHealth Group, General Dynamics, and CVS Health. While he excelled in the highly challenging environment and was the kind of leader that the business world expected him to be, he could feel himself growing more disillusioned as the years passed.

“Where was the fun? The relationships? The camaraderie? It was all missing,” McDowell recalls. “Worse, I looked around at the people I was leading, and I saw that same apathy and even fear mirrored in their eyes. Corporate America might have been fine with who I was as a leader, but I was not.”

When he left behind the golden handcuffs and big paycheck to start Kyle McDowell Inc., more than a few people thought he was crazy. McDowell admits that it was a risk, but he was determined to start a revolution by setting out on what he calls “his life’s mission.”

“Fear creates a barrier between team members and their leaders,” he says. “How on earth can anyone love their job and excel when they are scared of their boss? There was a double standard between boss and team. People felt disposable even though they were trying their hardest, and there was no real framework to help leaders reinstill that passion and purpose we all had early in our careers. It all really bothered me, and one night I came up with the answer: The 10 WEs.”

In a dark hotel room in Lawrence, Kansas, where McDowell was preparing to deliver a speech to 50 leaders of his 15,000-person organization, he created The 10 WEs, his framework for how leaders can create an environment that establishes accountability as well as a system of support.

“The 10 WEs are principles that govern first and foremost how team members treat one another and second, how the team treats who they serve, the client,” McDowell explains. “By definition, a principle is a fundamental truth or something we hold to be true. When you have a group of people, a team, aligned around a series of ‘fundamental truths,’ you remove any ambiguity about how we operate.”

He says The 10 WEs flew out of his mind onto a pad of paper and included:

  1. WE do the right thing. Always.
  2. WE lead by example.
  3. WE say what WE’re going to do. Then WE do it.
  4. WE take action.
  5. WE own our mistakes.
  6. WE pick each other up.
  7. WE measure ourselves by outcomes. Not activity.
  8. WE challenge each other.
  9. WE embrace challenge.
  10. WE obsess over details.

“When I finished, I read the WEs over and over and thought, ‘I’m not sure how this will resonate with the team, but it’s authentic. If nothing else, the team will know exactly what to expect from me and my leadership,’” McDowell recalls. “Leaders will be deemphasized and more approachable, teams will feel appreciated and empowered, and the talent and potential of “WE” will be spotlighted.”

Since the launch of his book, Begin With We, McDowell has been working with executives in nearly every industry. He laughs a little when he says that he knows how to speak their language and to bridge the gap between the down-to-earth ideas in his book and the jargon-filled, coat-and-tie environment in corporations.

“I am still, at heart, the guy who drank the corporate Kool Aid and rose to the top of my industry, so it’s a lot of fun to meet up with executives again,” he states. “What I’ve been finding is that so many of my peers are very receptive to The 10 WEs. They are disillusioned like I was and understand that the old leadership playbook needs to be tossed out. I am very happy – and fulfilled – to be helping them to lead with integrity and authenticity so that they can build trust with their teams and transform the future of their companies.”

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