In this episode together, we hear about Mac’s backstory and how growing up in Germany in the ’80s, plus his experiences in the US Army, contributed to molding what excellence means to him. We talk about leadership, leading by example, and the experiences that inspired Mac to create EDNA’s leadership principles.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. We have a dynamic guest with us today. He is a highly accomplished leader with a diverse background in military intelligence, business, and financial management. After joining the army at 17, he quickly rose through the ranks and became a respected expert in psychological operations and human behavior. He then applied this knowledge to the business world, where he excelled for over two decades. Currently, he serves as the Senior Vice President of Operations for the Community Reinvestment Fund, USA. He holds a Master’s degree and a Doctorate in Management and Organizational. Welcome Mac McNeil!
Mac McNeil: Thank you, Steve. I’m really excited to be here today. Appreciate the invite, sir.
Steve Shallenberger: I’ve been looking forward to this. We’re gonna have a great time. This will be a delight for our listeners. We’re honored that they would choose to join us and be with us today. Before we get going, I’d like to tell you, our listeners, a little bit more about Mac. He has held key positions at some of the most prestigious financial institutions in the world, including Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase. At Bank of America, he managed 100 financial centers and led a team of 600, earning the #1 rank in the Division, which represents 2000 branches in overall customer service for Bank of America. At JP Morgan Chase, he became a top 1% performer and helped 10 of his branch managers achieve similar success out of 6000 branches. Mac is a sought-after speaker who has inspired and educated over 200,000 leaders around the world. He was also on the Board of a multi-million dollar non-profit, Feeding America in California. Mac’s groundbreaking book, “My Great Aunt EDNA – The Golden Girl of Leadership”, is a widely-acclaimed roadmap for leaders to lead with excellence. We’re going to have the chance to hear about Aunt EDNA today.
Mac McNeil: That is absolutely right. EDNA has been a character that has followed me for a while and it’s helped me tremendously in my leadership career.
Steve Shallenberger: Let’s just get into it. So, Matt, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. And how did you get where you are today?
Mac McNeil: First of all, I grew up in Germany, primarily. My dad was in the army as well. So, Frankfurt, Germany, also a little bit of time in Arizona as well. But I think that was a big part of my foundation growing up in Europe in the ‘80s. My mindset is a little bit different just because of that. But at 17, I went into the army and military intelligence. I was stationed in Korea at 17, my first duty station there. That really set the groundwork for me and how I think about the spirit of excellence. There’s a lesson I was taught there with a sergeant who ripped into me one day and how I was approaching the work so that’s always stayed with me. I transitioned to Fort Bragg in Special Operations Command and ended up in psychological operations, that’s definitely different than the regular army. I went to Desert Storm, lessons learned there. But really the transition to where I am right now occurred when I was recruited by JPMorgan Chase in 2005 right around the same time Jamie Dimon came on board, and that’s really helped frame how I think about things and finances.
Steve Shallenberger: Those are important crossroads, aren’t they?
Mac McNeil: Yes, they are most definitely.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, tell us about Great Aunt EDNA. Tell us about your book.
Mac McNeil: I will say that I really do have a great aunt EDNA. She was the twin of my grandmother. They’re both passed right now. But back in 2014, when I was with Bank of America, I was leading 60 financial standards at the time, and someone asked me, “How do you become successful?” I hadn’t thought about it, I gave it a few seconds, and I said, “Excellence, doing things the right way, no shortcuts, and accountability.” And that one of my teammates yelled out, “Hey, that’s spells ‘EDNA’.” And I said, “Hey, I have a great aunt EDNA.” So, my team took it upon themselves to personify. I used to go to the branches for visits—well, they call them Financial Centers of Bank of America—and in the break room, there would be a picture of Aunt EDNA with the acronym listed next to it: “Excellence, Doing things the right way, No shortcuts, and Accountability.” And it became a culture of how we lead, and of course, we were very successful with that team. And it’s followed me from Bank of America to Synchrony, now to the Community Reinvestment Fund. Started a newsletter, and eventually led to the book that has been released. The book talks about my stories. I have a lot of leadership stories and some things that I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’s very similar to the works, Steve, that you have in your own book about leadership principles; they are not new principles, but how we apply them in today’s world. And then I interviewed several leaders as I was writing the book, and they added some of their own anecdotal stories to the book that I added. That’s where we are right now. It’s a book that helps leaders, whether they’re new leaders, or you’ve been in leadership for a while, and there are some reminders, just didn’t do metaphorical ways in how you can approach things.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’ve been so excited to have Mac on this podcast because we share something and it is a passion around excellence, of becoming your best. So, what does the spirit of excellence mean for you and from your experience? And how do you apply those types of lessons to being excellent?
Mac McNeil: It’s a great question. Going back to that story I was talking about in Korea, I was a private in the army and we were tasked to put up a TOC (Tactical Operations Center). Me and some privates were doing the work and goofing off, and Sergeant came over to me, former Vietnam vet, and he just ripped into us really bad. I didn’t understand why at the time, I was very young, but he coached me the next day and said, “Hey, do you know why I got into yesterday?” And I said, “No.” And he explained to me, “You were doing what we asked you to do, and you were following the instructions on how to do it correctly. But it was the how you approach the work, that was the problem; you weren’t doing it in the spirit of excellence.” So that stayed with me. And what I learned over time is that the spirit of excellence is not a result. People think sometimes excellence is a result; it’s the how you do things, not the what you’re doing. The result may vary, but how you do your work in the spirit of excellence is important. And as far as the application is concerned, taking it from the military into where I am right now, it’s one demonstrating that for your team, as a leader, that everything you do, you approach your own self with a spirit of excellence, and then setting the expectation that that’s what your you’re wanting from your team as well, and then recognizing that when that happens or when it doesn’t happen. I have a great story about a teller in Bank of America as well. I went into the branch in an opening situation, I thought I was helping out, and the teller corrected me right there on the spot. We talked about the spirit of excellence when we’re just now implementing my grain on EDNA, and I knew that it was starting to take root and how she approached it with me, and I was her boss, four levels up. I ended up promoting her but that’s the how you demonstrate it, you set that expectation, and then you coach and recommend regularly.
Steve Shallenberger: Mac, I’ve got a question because what we think about has every impact on what we do. People say that where your focus goes, your energy flows. So I would say that maybe the first part of having the spirit of excellence, so the spirit of becoming your best starts upstairs here in our head. So, what have you found the best way for people to create this mindset, this anchor, if you will, of the spirit of excellence because once they get it, in other words, “I am someone that creates excellence,” and starts becoming part of their DNA, my guess is it changes everything. Just like you had that experience in Korea; you changed your thought and said, “This is me. I want to have a spirit of excellence.” And when you feel it all the way through, then it’s a game changer.
Mac McNeil: So, Steve, you said some things that got me really excited as you were speaking, my spirit was going through it. And one of the things you just said right now was, “This is me.” So, one of the first things is self-identification, finding who you are. When you said that, it sparks something in me because that’s exactly it; you have to get it yourself first. But first, you have to identify what that is. So, there’s either an observation, or sometimes you get it through reading a book, a memory, or something like that. But then defining who you are, like, “This is me.” I get up every morning and I make my bed. That is me. It seems like something that’s very trivial, but it ties into the spirit of excellence and how you approach everything that you do. So, you’re right, it’s a mindset, it’s defining that that’s you. So, when things are outside of the realm of what you define yourself as, it should bother you; if it doesn’t bother you, that’s a problem. That isn’t you yet. So, I think you’re absolutely right, it starts with the mindset and what you define yourself as.
Steve Shallenberger: I love that. Thanks for emphasizing that. That’s beautiful. You just don’t tolerate anything else and say, “Listen, this what I’m about and.” And that way, because it’s really hard to predict circumstances, the future, the things will come at you. But if you have that mindset, then you’re gonna get after it, you’re gonna be a finisher, you’re not going to let up until you have that kind of result. Thanks for making that a big deal. So, in your book, you mentioned a leadership principle, a lesson that was learned from the great jazz American musician, Miles Davis — oh, my goodness, what a musician. He just changed the world. I’m glad you pointed him out. What’s the lesson that you were thinking about? Can you elaborate on that?
Mac McNeil: Yes, sir. This is one of my favorite lessons of the leader. When I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this lesson. But now, as an older leader, a more mature leader, and understanding grace as a leader, this is a great lesson. But to get into what happened, Miles Davis is, as you said, one of the greatest ever. But there’s also a young man by the name of Herbie Hancock, who’s now considered one of the greatest ever. Herbie Hancock tells a story: when he was young and he was asked to be a part of Miles Davis quintet. He was super excited. In his mind, he’s made it, he was a keyboardist, he’s playing the piano live on stage for the first time with Miles Davis, and the rest of the group live, audience right there. And then he hits a wrong note, and it was very, very bad. It was so bad that the band stopped playing and the crowd got silent. So, Miles Davis stops and looks over at him for about seven seconds. And then Miles Davis turned his head back and looked down at the ground for about another seven and 10 seconds, and he started to play the same song with the wrong chords that Herbie Hancock had just hit. And then the band picks up on it and they start playing again, the audience gets back into it, all is well. But the leadership lesson in here is covering for your employees’ mistakes. So, a couple of things that I think about that had to occur when this happened is, first of all, there was a recognition of the mistake — everybody looked at Herbie. But what Miles didn’t do was chastise him. He didn’t point it out; he immediately focused on how can I make this mistake, not only for my new employee but for everybody else who’s paying attention right now. And he was so good at his own craft, that he could recreate his song, re-compose that song with the wrong notes immediately, and the band kept playing, all is well. So, Herbie Hancock talks about all of his accolades right now and the fact that they wouldn’t be there had Miles Davis took a different approach as a leader with him. So, as a leader now in finance and what I do, I understand, first of all, my employees are going to make mistakes. Eventually, that’s going to happen. But you have to be prepared as a leader in your own craft, you have to be so good at it that you’re able to cover for those mistakes, allow grace, and then maybe provide a coaching session later on. So, that lesson will always stick with me, there’d be no Herbie Hancock that everyone knew about had Miles Davis taken a different approach.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that’s an inspirational story right there. Well, there are a lot of measures of success and a lot of things that bring happiness. So, money is definitely not the only criteria we use to measure success, but Miles Davis was worth 19 million dollars as a jazz musician. That’s how good he was. And the fact that he would have humility and goodness. I loved the word “grace” that you used. Those are great traits of leadership. Nice going. So, what are some practical things that leaders can do to introduce into the culture the type of things you just talked about of My Great EDNA into their organizations? And thank you for pointing out what they are. I love them. Let’s review those three things again.
Mac McNeil: Yes, sir. So, EDNA an acronym stands for Excellence, Doing things the right way, No shortcuts, and Accountability. From a practical standpoint, first of all, when you use the term “My Great Aunt EDNA,” it’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s funny for people, and it’s not threatening. So, that’s one of the first things you want to do is have fun with it because it’s non-threatening, it’s not seven steps or seven principles; it’s just the concept culture. The second thing I’d say in making them practical is one with excellence. I mentioned that already, demonstrating the spirit of excellence, but one with doing things the right way. And by the way, I point out the difference between doing the right things and doing things the right way, they’re totally different. But once you decide on what the right thing to do is, make sure that you’re consistent in doing that for various reasons. You do things the right way consistently, one, you can point out necessary controls that may need to be put in place and adaptations that need to be made to the process. So it’s extremely important to do that, and make sure your teams are doing that consistently. No shortcuts, it sounds self-explanatory. But again, not taking shortcuts because shortcuts can eventually come back to hurt you. So, as people make suggestions, think through, is this just a shortcut or is this a new concept in how we can get better at what we’re doing? Because shortcuts eventually going to come back to bite us. The last piece about accountability, I first believe in setting expectations. I have an expectations meeting with my team every year, which is usually at the beginning of the year, where I will set expectations of them that’s fair, but I allow them to set expectations of me as a leader because that is fair also. We’re all on the same page. And then once we agree on that, giving everyone the permission, and this is important. You don’t just set expectations, but you have to give them permission to hold you accountable as a leader to what we said we’re going to do, and then hold each other accountable to what we said we’re going to do. And if we think through sports or business, Apple, Microsoft, whatever, as an example, the ones that are extremely successful are the ones where the leaders have given their teams to hold them accountable because we get off track as well. So, that’s something that’s extremely important in the practicality of this.
Steve Shallenberger: I love how Mac is taking this spirit of excellence and combining it with the principles of “My Great Aunt EDNA.” And just think about EDNA: Excellence, Do things the right way, No shortcuts, and Accountability. Those are powerful. And what’s the result they produce?
Mac McNeil: Well, the results vary. So, I’m also very transparent about that. Because again, the spirit of excellence is the how, not the what. Sometimes you do exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. You may even exceed that. I’ve done that a couple of times in my career. Sometimes you don’t hit the mark. You’ve got to be realistic about that. But Aunt EDNA is not the result, it’s not the what, it’s how you approach everything you do. But more likely than not, you’re going to be successful and many times exceed your goals.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I agree. Mac and I had the opportunity before our session today. We’re talking about Becoming Your Best and the 12 principles of highly successful leaders, and I predicted and said, “Mac, you’re gonna talk about some of those principles today.” And that’s exactly what EDNA is; it’s this spirit, doing things right away, no shortcuts, and acountability; it’s having a vision and having clear goals, building high trust, living the golden rule, and innovation so that you can create the excellence. You’ve touched on all those, so this is going to be a fun book to read. Tell us about some of the tips, Mac, in the book that helped people do this.
Mac McNeil: I think one of the tips that I have a chapter in there called Broken Mirror, which is one of my favorite chapters in the book. I have a broken mirror from 1988. I was in the Army, wanting to cut my own hair and I needed a smaller mirror to look in the other mirror to see the back of my head. Female soldiers said, “Hey, use my mirror,” and it was broken. I didn’t care at the time. I cut my hair, and I was getting ready to hand it back, she said, “You can keep it. It’s broken.” So I kept it. And I still have that mirror, and it’s been with me to multiple continents, multiple vacations. But what it also does, metaphorically, is that it helps remind me as a leader that I have cracks in my face, there’s never a perfect view of me as a leader, even when I look at myself or when others see me. And I also turn the mirror periodically to understand that people see different cracks from different angles. So, someone can have another angle of me as a leader, maybe not directly in my hierarchy, but they’re on my team, so their view is different. So, that absolutely helps me as a leader to remind myself that my leadership face will have cracks, it’s not going to be a perfect vision for everyone and I need to continuously work on that.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great insight. I bet there are a lot of tips that are helpful in “My Great Aunt EDNA.”
Mac McNeil: Yes, sir. A lot of them.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, any final tips for our listeners today that help them and creating excellence and be an excellent leader, whether that’s applied in their own life, with their families, or professionally?
Mac McNeil: Yeah, and this is not new, going back to our conversation before the cameras start rolling. First of all, I want to say this so everyone else can hear, Steve is the first person that I’ve ever met that knew Stephen Covey personally, so that’s extremely impressive to me. It was one of the first books I’ve read that all of the principles stayed with me. What I want to say lastly is that leadership is, first of all, not easy and it’s not for everyone. Sounds self-explanatory, but it’s true and it’s a servant mindset. Although you have power, you have authority most of the time, it has to be a servant mindset. And if you’re not there to help other people get better, then it’s a waste, it’s a complete waste of time. And many employees have come up to me previously that want to get promoted into leadership teams, one of the first questions I ask them is, “Who have you helped make better?” And if they can’t answer that question, I don’t care how your individual performance look. I’ve had some national achievers come to me and they get mad when I turn them down for leadership role because leadership is about making other people better, not necessarily you succeeding. So, it’s a servant mindset, I’d say, that you have to have as a leader. And if you’re creating other leaders, then you’re doing the right things.
Steve Shallenberger: That is great advice, Mac. Thank you. The fact is that is inspirational. What we do and how can you make a difference in other people’s lives and leave the world a better place than you found it, and people better than you found them. What a great attitude. Mac, how can people find out about what you’re doing? How can they get the book?
Mac McNeil: First of all, the book is available pretty much everywhere. You can go to Walmart, BarnesandNoble.com, Good Reads, Amazon.com, all the normal book channels. It’s an all formats: electronic, paperback, hardback, and audiobook as well. My LinkedIn profile is probably the easiest way to contact me or see what’s going on: Mac McNeil on LinkedIn. You can find me there, and there’s usually information on everything that’s going on.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, Mac McNeil, it has been a delight to have you on this program today. It’s been inspirational for me, I want to lift the bar. And I’m sure for our listeners as well, they’ve got some good ideas today and reinforce those ideas. So, we wish you the best in all that you’re doing, Mac.
Mac McNeil: Thank you, Steve. And again, appreciate you having me on the show. Super excited to meet you.
Steve Shallenberger: You bet. Same here. And we wish all of our listeners the very best as you’re making a difference in the world every day. It has such a big impact. You’re a light and you’re an inspiration. The very fact that you’re listening in really describes the kind of person you are, of being humble and wanting to get better and do exactly what Matt talked about: leave the world a better place. So, this is Steve Shallenberger, your host today. We’ve loved having you here, and Mac, we wish you the best.
Mac McNeil: Thank you, sir.
Steve Shallenberger: Best wishes to all. Steve Shallenberger, signing off.
CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader
VP of Operations at Community Reinvestment Fund, USA, and Author