There's an old adage that goes 'If it's not broken, don't fix it.' What happens, however, if we are deceived by appearances? How can we improve if we are looking in the wrong direction? These are the questions that corporations across America find themselves confronting as employee engagement and satisfaction dip to all-time lows. 'It's a problem that has been decades in the making because so many businesses were built on this culture of 'us,' 'them,' and 'me,'' says leadership expert Kyle McDowell, whose book Begin With We: 10 Principles for Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence is climbing the charts at Amazon, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. 'I think it was already in motion, but the pandemic was the tipping point. Workers have more choices than ever, allowing them to reevaluate their level of satisfaction in the workplace. As a result, they are starting to question the traditional leadership paradigm and to try a new principle that resonates with leaders, teams, and clients: 'WE.'
McDowell understands the old playbook, having spent nearly 30 years at the top of giants like UnitedHealth Group, Maximus, and CVS Health, where he led thousands of people every day.
'Big companies get big because they've done something right,' says McDowell. 'But, in my experience, the bigger the company, the higher the likelihood for bad and even toxic leadership. When you look closer, you can see cracks in their cultures because of how they define the relationships between leaders and their teams.'
As a leader, McDowell was part of the 'me/them' mentality, which worked just fine for years. He hit his performance goals time and again, earning the appreciation of his bosses and propelling him up the corporate ladder. Even so, the higher he climbed, the less appealing the view became.
'I had everything I thought I should have: the salary, the accomplishments, the success,' McDowell recalls. 'Why, then, did it feel so empty? Why was it that when I came into work each morning, there was this distance between me and my team? At meetings, why was it so difficult to encourage people to speak their minds and tell me what they really thought?'
The answer wasn't pretty: just like the leader-team dynamic in so many American corporations, there was no real connection. 'I cared a hell of a lot more about the numbers than the people. What a shame,' he remembers. 'My teams and I always delivered. But because of garbage leadership, a 'walk softly and carry a big stick' paradigm, we couldn't truly connect with each other, enjoy our workdays, and find genuine fulfillment and pride in our work. Something had to change. No matter our role in the company, we all deserve to come to work energized and excited about the day ahead of us, not spend it clock-watching and waiting for it to be over. I'm not naive - it's called work, not play. But if we're going to spend so much time doing it, shouldn't it give us some satisfaction and even passion?'
America's corporations were built on hard work and dedication but also, in many cases, a mentality that its employees are disposable. McDowell's goal was to honor the first and change the second. He now calls it his life's purpose. His mission: rid corporate America of its toxic ways and develop courageous and authentic leaders.
'There has to be someone in charge of the ship, obviously,' he says. 'The question was how to respect that while bringing leaders and their teams closer together. One night I came up with it: it all had to be about WE.'
As he envisioned who he wanted to be as a leader and how to build trust with his team, he developed a framework for invigorating teams and helping companies to push to new levels:
- WE do the right thing. Always.
- WE lead by example.
- WE say what WE're going to do. Then WE do it.
- WE take action.
- WE own our mistakes.
- WE pick each other up.
- WE measure ourselves by outcomes. Not activity.
- WE challenge each other.
- WE embrace challenge.
- WE obsess over details.
'Looking back at it now, it makes total sense. People are social and need connection with each other, especially at work,' McDowell says. 'When we keep this divide between leaders and teams, it actually goes against how we are all wired. We are not meant to be separate from each other - we are meant to rely on each other so that we can achieve greatness for our companies. And, crucially, how can leaders inspire their teams and let them know what is expected of them when that divide exists? It's impossible.'
It has been interesting, to say the least, for McDowell to return to corporations and talk about his 10 principles for leading with 'WE.' He has been encouraged by their receptiveness and questions about his experiences and book.
'These are some of the most successful CEOs in the country, and they all tell me the same thing: what worked yesterday doesn't work today,' says McDowell. 'Corporate America is undergoing a pivotal transformation, one that will take time, of course. I do believe, though, that as more companies embrace a 'WE'-oriented leadership style, we will see happier employees, more authentic leaders, and more inviting and rewarding company cultures.'