When Kyle McDowell, the author of Begin With We: 10 Principles for Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence, walks into a board room these days, the irony isn’t lost on him. Only a few years ago, he threw away his golden handcuffs, burned out on a career that took him to the top of UnitedHealth Group, General Dynamics Information Technology, and CVS Health. While he had a history of delivering great business results as well as transforming the culture of an organization with tens of thousands of employees, McDowell’s success came at a price: he grew apathetic toward the very environments he helped create. McDowell opens up about his journey to discover the real meaning of leadership and his goal of bringing it to corporations and businesses across America.
“If you wanted to find me five or ten years ago, you wouldn’t have even looked for me at home. I was either on a plane or at the office, where I was one of the first people there and one of the last to leave,” McDowell remembers. “I was 100% committed to my work. On the surface, there wasn’t anything wrong with this.”
The problem, he says, is that like many executives, he drank the corporate Kool Aid. “I bought into this idea that in order to lead hundreds or even thousands of people, all of whom had such diverse personalities, motivations, and lives, I had to use fear. It was largely what I observed in other leaders, including some of my own, during my climbing of the ladder. And sure, it worked. I was always viewed as a high performer and rarely missed a performance goal. And naturally, my own bosses were happy with me. They saw good results but rarely looked under the hood to see how the sausage was made.”
However, over time, McDowell began to notice something disquieting: some of his employees were actually afraid of him. It was manifested in big and small ways. People kept their heads down when he walked past them. Meetings weren’t lively and didn’t generate exciting ideas.
“The whole vibe was off,” he says. “People were trying hard, no doubt about it, but there was no passion. It was like we had left behind the energy of our early twenties when we realized what our work lives were really going to be like: long and something to be endured, not enjoyed. The whole system made me feel disposable – something I probably ‘paid forward’ without even knowing it. But I always knew that if I landed a role that would afford me autonomy and allow me to lead in a way that I always wanted to be led, without fear and with a maniacal commitment to developing others, I would.”
McDowell started over. He threw away everything he thought he knew about leading and sat down with a blank piece of paper – literally. One night in a Kansas hotel room, where he was preparing to deliver a speech to a group of leaders of his newly inherited 15,000-person organization, McDowell reimagined his whole leadership paradigm.
“I wanted to erase the divide between leaders and employees and create a framework for mutual accountability and support,” McDowell explains. “I started with trashing the whole idea of ‘me, I, and them’ and replacing it with ‘WE.’”
As he focused on an environment that would govern how team members treat each other and clients, he wrote faster and faster. Before long, he landed on ten principles. “I stared down at ten sentences, each beginning with the word ‘we.’ I’m not known for my creativity, so those ten sentences simply became ‘The 10 WEs.’”
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.
“What if those principles became the fundamental truths that define how every team in America rolls?” McDowell enthusiastically asks. “What would our board rooms and meetings look like then? Executives and employees would have a solid understanding of how to work each day. Leaders would become more approachable and authentic, which would empower team members to reach their full potential.”
The next day, he brought the 10 WEs to his organization, asking for feedback. He says he was humbled by the response. The principles resonated with his team, making him want to take them to a wider audience: corporate America. With this in mind, McDowell put the 10 WEs into a book, which quickly rose to the top of USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon.
“The response to the 10 WEs reminds me of a fundamental truth: leaders want to connect with their teams, who in turn want to feel connected to their leaders,” says McDowell. “Until now, we have just lacked a strong framework for how to do that. By making the shift to WE-oriented leadership, we are unlocking the real potential inside every person and transforming American businesses into places of creativity, integrity, and innovation.”