Pursuing Excellence The Right Way With Mac McNeil

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TBT Mac McNeil | Excellence


Excellence is about how you embody your work and attitude. It is the way you approach things while keeping the big picture in mind. What does it take to unlock the highest level of excellence? Joining Penny Zenker is financial guru Mac McNeil. He talks about the difference between perfectionism and excellence, as well as the right way to remove the negative connotation behind taking accountability. Mac also highlights the importance of taking a pause, letting your mind rest, and giving yourself ample time to think things over.

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Pursuing Excellence The Right Way With Mac McNeil

In this episode, I’m excited to talk about excellence and what it is to work towards excellence. I’m looking for the best people, the people who are going to challenge you to think differently, that are going to give you new insights and now is no exception. I have Mac McNeil with me and he is a financial guru in the sense of he’s been a leader in the financial industry for many years in various different leadership roles.

He’s bringing that expertise to us and being in these roles. He’s currently Senior Vice President of Operations for a community reinvestment fund where he leads an enterprise operation that includes asset management, customer engagement, data management analytics, fund administration, learning and development, and loan servicing operations. He’s pretty much in charge of the whole thing. That’s why excellence is so important. I can’t wait to hear his perspective on that. He has a new book that’s come out, My Great Aunt EDNA and we’re going to hear more about that. Mac, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Penny, I appreciate it. I’m excited to be here.

I’m excited to have you because that is something, excellence in a way. I think that it’s something that we all want or think we want it. We’re not sure we want to put the effort to get there and maybe we’re not even sure how we get there. Maybe we get caught up in perfectionism and make a misunderstanding about perfectionism and excellence. Maybe we could start there. What would you say is the difference between perfectionism and excellence?

That was very interesting that you started out with that one because that’s the core of what I talk about in the book is the spirit of excellence is in the how. Perfection is the what, the outcome, what you were trying to create but excellence lives in the how. I’ll tell a quick story of how I got there. I was in the US Army as well in the Special Operations Command and I was corrected one time.

Thank you for your service.

You’re very welcome. I was corrected by a Sergeant and he started yelling at me and a bunch of other privates around what we were doing. We thought we were doing things based on the instructions and the way they gave us to do it, so I was a little bit confused. He had a coaching session with me shortly thereafter to explain why he was so upset. It wasn’t because we were doing something the wrong way but it was how we were approaching the work without the spirit of excellence.

He taught me that lesson and it stayed with me for many years but the biggest difference between excellence and perfection is the approach. Excellence is how you do your work, your mindset, what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to accomplish. Perfection is the outcome. Perfection is not guaranteed just because you approach something with the spirit of excellence. It’s not a guarantee, so they’re vastly different. They’re two different things.

I love that and I love that story. It’s amazing how when we get reprimanded but we understand the reason behind that smack on the wrist or whatever and how that can stay with us for a long time. You said that you were doing it the wrong way and you weren’t bringing that spirit of excellence. Let’s say we have a process defined and that process has a series of steps. Give us an example because I want this to get it deeply. Is it only about mindset or is there another element to it that is in these 3 or 4 steps? Help me understand what is excellence if I’m following a process.

I lead process governance as well in my organization now so I’m very close to that. As outlined within, I’ll give an example like sending a wire. There’s a process for sending a wire. It depends upon the role that you play within that process. There are many stakeholders and the mindset is the beginning of it. Moving into excellence is also a consideration of everything else that needs to occur and other stakeholders. Other impacts that may result as to how you’re doing something. It’s not only your mindset, but it’s understanding who else is involved, what else is involved and how can we do this in the best way possible so that we reach that outcome of perfection or attempted perfection.

It’s not only in your mindset because you can have the greatest mindset. If you don’t have the instructions on how to do it the right way, if you don’t know how your role is going to impact someone else’s role downstream in that work stream, it’s not excellence. That’s part of it. It’s learning. That learning as you go through and you do it multiple times. If you have the right mindset to start out with as you learn when you go, you make course corrections so that you can achieve excellence.

One of the things that I’m hearing you say but not directly, I want to confirm that this is what I’m hearing because this is a big thing for me. You talked about who else is impacted and understanding the bigger goal into what you’re trying to achieve. Many times, we get lost in doing the task and maybe doing the task perfectly. If that doesn’t serve the greater good for that particular context or situation, then that’s not necessarily excellence. To me, there’s this element of having an understanding of what the big picture is.

You mentioned who’s involved but also what’s the ultimate purpose that you’re looking towards. It requires us to think a little. It’s how we think about things. I’m going to maybe contradict something that in the military but I was going to say not just about taking orders and about following the process or the practice. True or not true?

It’s very true. In the military, a lot of people think it’s about taking orders. I’m going to use this example again. They gave us the order to set up a tactical operation center and so we followed the order. There are instructions on how to set it up. We were following the instructions on how to set it up. It’s not only about taking orders but it’s giving that permission. It’s what you said a little bit earlier but the permission to think.

If you’re only taking orders, you’re not thinking. The thought has been there before you even existed. There was an SOP that was created or whatever else that is or an instruction manual. In the spirit of excellence, you have to give your employees or your team or whoever that is the permission to think and that’s how you arrive at excellence because of evolution. Things change. We set a wire, as an example, months ago but months later, there’s a new fraud alert that’s out there.

If you're only taking orders, you're not thinking. In the spirit of excellence, everyone must have permission to think. Click To Tweet

If you were strictly following orders or following SOP but you didn’t take into consideration a new external factor, it still might not be excellence in what you’re doing because we didn’t consider that new variable or information that’s been introduced. You have to have that ability to think and then the permission to think as you go through processes.

I think one of the challenges now, and I’d love to hear your perspective on this, is if there’s permission to think then there is space to think. When we’re busy and we have a lot of stress and pressure, we don’t feel like we have the space to think. There’s so much urgency and pressure to get onto the next thing. I believe that one of our greatest risks is that we’re not thinking.

I promise it feels like you know me already. I’m serious about the questions that you’re asking. When I came to this new organization, one of the first things I did when I observed the team in what they were doing, I instituted a rule called No Meeting Friday, so no meetings after 12:00 and I’m very serious about that. The reason why I do it is exactly what you said. I want my leaders that work for me to be able to stop and think like let’s reflect on the week that happened. Let’s think about the forthcoming week. Some of the things that we need to do and some adjustments we need to make.

You’re right. Given that space to think because if you’re constantly on the go, you might be aware of a few things that need to adapt but you don’t have time to think through everything in that spirit of excellence. That space to think is extremely important, which is why, number one, I instituted but I managed that piece. After 12:00, no meetings. Nobody at all. I don’t want to see it on your calendar unless it’s an absolute emergency because this is our time to think through what we need to do in the spirit of excellence coming up.

Congratulations on setting that example. I think this is an example for leaders who are reading. It’s one thing to have an intention that we want people to think and that we tell people, “We want you to think outside the box or we want you to align with the goal. If there’s a change in the process, then do it.” You created a rule, a support system. You not only gave people permission to think but you gave them space to think. It’s important to create those structures for people because more and more, I find that there’s so much flexibility. Not enough rules or not enough boundaries that organizations are helping people to create.

We’re pushing it all to the employee and saying, “You create your own boundaries. You figure out where you’re going to do this and how you’re going to do that.” They’re overwhelmed. We’ve never had so few boundaries and we’re terrible at setting boundaries. Those kinds of things, even the companies that say, “We’re not going to send out emails after hours. We’re going to hold them and we’re going to release them in the morning.” Those types of things are so supportive for the team that may not be as recognized. Do you have some other things like that that you do that create space and boundaries that support your team? It’d be interesting.

I’m not going to take the credit for this next thing I’m going to talk about but we have a new CEO that came into the organization. Very similar to what I saw, he assessed the workload and the work-life balance and we’re managing in a remote situation now. He’s only been around for a month or so, but two weeks in, he’s like, “Lunchtime is protected. From 12:00 to 1:00, no meetings and that includes me.” He’s talking to his executive assistants as well. “No meetings from 12:00 to 1:00. Your meeting times should be 50 minutes or 90 minutes because we need that 10 minutes in between meetings to think. You took in a lot of information in a 50-minute time span to think about it.”

Also, think about the meeting that you have coming up. If you have those “back-to-back meetings” but you have that space. It’s taking a step further than what I did before this new CEO showed up. He’s thinking the same way that I am. It’s that we need time to stop. You have to have time to stop. In this remote work environment that we have now, it gets even more convoluted and more difficult. I think some leaders don’t get that yet. When you’re working remotely, you’re interrupted in other ways that you would not be if you were in an office. It’s even more difficult sometimes to have that space to stop. As leaders, you need to manage that and give people permission to pause.

I’m a big proponent of shorter meetings and giving people space to write down their actions and shut it down then be able to think about the next thing. No more back-to-back meetings. I love when an organization takes responsibility and accountability for that. Kudos to you guys. We want to hear a little bit about your book. You said some of these concepts are in there. Tell us a little bit about your book and what are some of the key things that might get people excited about going to read it.

First of all, the book is called My Great Aunt EDNA. EDNA is an acronym. I’ll tell you the story of how it started but I was with Bank of America. I was leading a region of 60 financial centers there and I was successful. I left JPMorgan Chase and someone asked me, “How have you been so successful in banking?” I hadn’t thought about it in the context of that question. I said, “Excellence, doing things the right way and no shortcuts and accountability.” Someone said, “That spells EDNA.” I said, “I have a great-aunt Edna.” She’s the twin of my grandmother.

TBT Mac McNeil | Excellence

My Great Aunt EDNA: The Golden Girl of Leadership

That’s funny, you do have an Aunt Edna.

I do, yes. My team picked up on this and they personified it. I would go into the financial centers for visits. In the break room, there would be a big picture of Aunt Edna with the acronym next to it, Excellence, Doing things the right way, No shortcuts, and Accountability. It became a culture of what we led with. Leaders would say, “What would Aunt EDNA say?” We’re contemplating a situation. It just developed and it’s followed me, Bank of America, St. Gurney, and the organization that I’m with. I started a newsletter. The newsletter became very popular. It turned into a book, Talking about some of the concepts within the book, we speak about excellence and starting out with the spirit of excellence but we also talk about doing things the right way.

Once something has been established, it’s very similar to what we talked about with the processes. Making sure that we’re doing things the right way consistently because that’s how you evolve. If you’re doing things the right way consistently, you can see some of the gaps and controls that may need to be put in place as things evolve within a business. It’s extremely important to do that and to manage that then no shortcuts.

One of the things I talk about in the book with no shortcuts is that sometimes as a leader, you step into a situation where there was a previous leader that was extremely successful in whatever they were accomplishing. You try to do things the exact same way and it doesn’t happen. In my mind, that’s a shortcut because that blueprint was not created for you. It’s for someone else that has a completely different personality type, different experiences in life and those things.

You have to take the long way around and get through the good, the bad and the ugly as a leader to eventually get to that spirit of excellence and success that you’re trying to achieve. Lastly, we talk about accountability. That accountability, I call it a three-way street. It’s not a two-way street. It’s the employee to the leader, the leader to the employee then the team to the entire organization what are we accountable for. First of all, living and spelling out those expectations of what we’re trying to accomplish then giving everyone the permission to hold each other accountable so that we achieve the result we’re trying to achieve.

TBT Mac McNeil | Excellence

Excellence: If you lead like another leader, you are just taking a shortcut using a blueprint that is not created for you. Always take the long way around and get to the unique spirit of excellence you are trying to achieve.


Let’s talk about accountability for a little bit then we’ll have to maybe do a part two because the people have short attention spans so we have to be careful for that. Let’s talk about accountability because that is an important part of excellence. It is holding people accountable. Now, I’m a big fan. I don’t like the word accountability.

I’m a big language person when I think about the energy of the language that we use, especially as leaders, and what we’re putting out there and asking people how to show up. Accountability is a word that people think of when they think of a slap on the wrist. It’s typically at the end of a process. I’m a big fan of ownership and having people own it from the beginning. Tell me, for you, how do you feel about those two words then let’s maybe dig into a little bit about accountability.

Great point that you bring up and you’re right that most people when they hear the word accountability think of performance management in a negative context. If something went wrong, I’m going to hold you accountable. We didn’t achieve our goals or whatever that is. In your next point around ownership, I see ownership as a part of accountability. You have to own it at the beginning and that’s where the expectations come in. One of the things that I do with my teams, I used to do it in January. Now I do it in July because the fiscal year change in the organizations but I would have an expectations meeting.

The expectations meeting was I would tell the team what I’m holding them accountable, what I’m expecting from them but I give them permission to do the same thing for me, “Tell me, what I need to do.” Once we all agree on it is where we get to that ownership like, “I am now owning this piece to do this so that we reach this particular goal.” The accountability is not necessarily at the end and I know where you’re going with that. There are a lot of postmortem project reviews and things of that nature. Let’s look at how we’ve done and now we’re going to say it was your fault because we didn’t hit this and that. I see you’re ready to have a question.

Maybe you’re getting to it and you said it like setting the expectations in the beginning. I love that. That is creating ownership because you had said accountability is part of it. I see accountability as a byproduct that when you are owning something, you naturally will be accountable. You’ll have those meetings like you said after a project because you own it and you’re going to own what went well. You’re going to own what didn’t go well so that you can learn and bring it into the future. That’s what happens when you own it.

I’m a freak about ownership when my kids don’t show ownership. It’s like you said with your sergeant I think it was or that situation. Something would happen with my son and he would say, “It’s not my fault.” That drives me crazy because that says it’s no ownership. I don’t care that something happened or didn’t go well. I’m not concerned about whatever the cost is or whatever. We’ll deal with that. I’m concerned that you’re not going to own it and say, “Here’s what I’ll do to mitigate it to make sure that it won’t happen again.” To me, that’s ownership and accountability is a byproduct of that.

That’s a good way to look at it. We’re having the same feelings as parents, as leaders in explaining that you’re part of this. Whether or not the full outcome is your responsibility but let’s hold each other accountable or accept ownership. There’s a piece in there that you played that we may need to adjust.

I want to talk about that hold each other accountable. Coming from the military, I think it’s another environment that can be strategies across contextual. If it works there, you have that heightened pressure. I’m curious, what have you taken over from the military and what is different? How do teams hold themselves accountable because often people don’t want to speak up? Everybody wants to be liked. They don’t want to be that person that’s pushing and saying, “Why aren’t you doing this?” They push it up to the next level and say, “You do it. It’s your job.”

I’ll start with the military. The military has certain regulations and it’s tied to legalities as well when it comes to accountability that could impact you outside of the military later on. There’s a structure within the military that accountability is extremely important but here’s the point that I want to make that I tie together. It’s the why it’s important that I translated from the military into the civilian world. In the military, the why is life and death. You can’t translate that into the civilian world unless you’re talking about police or fire or something of that nature but it’s still the why. Ownership or accountability is extremely important. That’s what I do with my teams.

We talk a lot about the why something is important and what’s your role in it. That way, you can tie it back to purpose like, “Why are we doing this in the first place?” If you’re telling someone, “This your accountability. If you don’t do it, this is the outcome,” but if there’s no why explained, it doesn’t resonate. You’re not leading at that point. The way I see it, it’s management. There’s a huge difference between management and leadership. That’s something that I’ve taken from the military that I utilize in the civilian world but within different parameters.

How do you do that? Let’s say you’re talking to somebody who’s not a leader or at a leadership level. We can all be leaders at whatever level we’re at. Let’s say you’re talking to somebody who’s at one of the lowest levels of, maybe doing data entry or something within the organization that as the structure is organized. How do you help that person get the why for the work that they’re doing? Maybe they’re the furthest removed so that’s why I’m stating that.

The first thing is that you have to know the individual that you’re speaking to. I’m a firm believer in personal relationships at work where you know them and you allow them to know you as your person, not necessarily as a leader. This goes a little bit back to my military days but I was in psychological operations and so understanding the person or the entity that you’re getting ready to speak to is extremely important before you start to speak to them.

If you understand the person and what makes them tick and happy, those kinds of things, it helps in the conversation. That’s step one. Step two is you can’t tell someone the why. You have to allow them to self-discover the why and that’s through a series of open-ended questions. You can say, “Tell me about your daily routine. What do you do?” They tell you about the daily routine and what they’re doing. Where else does this go, this information that you’re putting into this system or whatever? I’ll use data entry as your example. Where else does this information go and allow them to speak? If they don’t know, they ask questions, and you fill it in.

What you’re doing is, what you said earlier in the interview, you’re helping them to see the larger picture because it’s easy for people to get caught in their day-to-day and only realize what they do and don’t understand the full impact to the organization or even broader. In the organization I’m in now, it’s community reinvestment. Our constituents are extremely important to the borrowers or the end users. Helping someone understand what they do helps them get to the why of why we’re doing it to begin with. You can then get to the ownership. You’re right, at the lower levels, sometimes they don’t own it because they’re thinking, “I don’t have an impact. I’m not that important. Why are you even concerned?” You have to help them understand their role in the larger picture.

If people can see the larger picture, they will get caught so easily with their day-to-day and pay more attention to the full impact they are making. Click To Tweet

We’re almost out of time. I want to say I love the fact that you talked about self-discovery and helping people that it has to come from them. People support what they create. If it comes from them, then that’s where the ownership began. We’ll have to schedule a part two. Before we go, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel is important to share with the audience?

A little bit about the platform again. The book is available. It’s available in all the major retailers, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and so on and so forth. It’s called My Great Aunt EDNA. Also, I have a podcast and a YouTube show. The newsletter that I mentioned is on LinkedIn. If you Google My Great Aunt EDNA, you can find it anywhere.

I’d love for leaders or those that are reading that want to be leaders or maybe even leaders that need to rethink how they’re doing things, take a look at it or read through. There’s also an audiobook if you’re not into flipping pages that you can listen in and then provide feedback. I love to have conversations in dialogue. This is not a one-way thing where I put out a book and I think it’s the greatest thing in the world and it’s going to change your life. Reach out to me through those social avenues and we’ll talk.

Thank you, Mac, for being here and sharing your expertise.

Thank you. I appreciate you having me, Penny.

Thank you all for being here, and remember, the key thing is about excellence. This is about how you embody what it is that you’re doing in your attitude, in your approach, and keeping that big picture in mind. Many great nuggets from this episode and in the spirit of Mac talking about feedback, let me know what your feedback is and how you’re doing. Make sure you subscribe to the show so you can get updates. Let me know what other topics you want to know about. We’ll see you in the next episode.


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About Mac McNeil

TBT Mac McNeil | ExcellenceMac McNeil has been a leader in the financial industry for seventeen years in various leadership roles. He is currently the Senior Vice President of Operations for the Community Reinvestment Fund, USA where he leads Enterprise Operations which includes Asset Management, Customer Engagement, Data Management & Analytics, Fund Administration, Learning & Development, Loan Servicing Operations, Process Governance, Risk & Controls, Technology/Automation, Underwriting & Closing, and Vendor Relations. He has leadership responsibility for a data architectural and data science team relationship in Chennai, India.Mac is the author of My Great Aunt EDNA book and weekly newsletter that highlights the leadership topics of Excellence, Doing Things the Right Way, No Shortcuts, and Accountability. He has a soon to be published book titled: My Great Aunt EDNA – The Golden Girl of Leadership that illuminates the leadership philosophy that he created, along with contributions from other top business leaders.

He began his career with JPMorgan Chase in Arizona in Branch Banking, and spent four years as a 1st Vice President, District Manager in Southern California. He finished in the top 5% of performance in the country and was recognized two consecutive years as a Top Performing District Manager. He accepted a role with Bank of America as a Vice President, Consumer Market Manager in the Los Angeles East Market in 2014. He was then offered the position of Vice President, Operations Market Manager, where he managed over 100 financial centers in Southern California and finished 2015 #2 in performance in the country and was recognized as Pinnacle Club Performer top 1%.

Mac became Vice President of Operations Optimization for Synchrony where he was responsible for leading IRA and Trust call center operations, all bank letters and correspondence, as well as lead optimization initiatives for the Consumer Bank to include robotic process automation, digital transformation, process mapping, and product development with operations in Charlotte, NC, Merriam, KS, Hyderabad, India, and Manila, Philippines.

Mac has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Pfeiffer University, a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix, and Doctorate (ABD) in Management and Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix.

Mac spent four years in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Analyst in Psychological Operations, Special Operations Command (Airborne), and he is a Desert Storm Veteran. He has served on the Board of Directors for Feeding America of Greater Riverside, Inspire Life Skills Training, Inc, The Christian Adoption Service, The Black Professional Group of Bank of America, The Black Organization for Leadership Development for JPMorgan Chase, and The Minority Supplier Development Service. He has been married for 27 years, has four children and one grandchild, and enjoys golf, travel, and being the Captain of his boat in his spare time.


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