Paul McNeill

Management guru Peter Drucker is attributed the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  His statement is often repeated to emphasize the importance of culture in building a great organization.   Companies like Southwest Airlines or Zappos are some of the most well-known examples of companies that have achieved tremendous success by nurturing their culture.  Zappos CEO Tony Hseigh noted in a Harvard Business Review blog post, “Last year 25,000 people applied for jobs with us, and we hired only 250. Someone told me that statistically it’s harder to get a job at Zappos than it is to get admitted to Harvard, which says a lot about the strength of the culture we’ve created here.”

My interviewee this week, Paul McNeill, understands the importance of building a winning culture. McNeill serves as Senior Vice President-Wealth Management and Resident Director of Merrill Lynch in Ridgeland.   McNeill grew up in Oxford, England and moved to Jackson, Mississippi when he was thirteen years old. After graduating from Millsaps College, he began his financial career back in England.  However, he had the opportunity to return to Jackson in 1991 to join Merrill Lynch and has been there ever since.  After building a very successful wealth management business at the firm, McNeill was asked to become Resident Director and manage the local office in 2013.  McNeill decided to take on the position because of the confidence and faith he had in the team he would be leading, and because he could also continue to take care of the client relationships he had developed over the last 20+ years.

He shared, “My focus as Resident Director has been to create a great place for people to work.  I want our team members to look forward to coming to work each day.”  McNeill has been intentional about creating a great culture at the firm.  One of the ways he does this is to be very open and inclusive with meetings and decisions. McNeill recognizes that the only way to truly take outstanding care of clients is to take outstanding care of your team members.  While this may seem obvious, I have found in my business consulting practice that this principle is often not consistently applied. Too often, employers underappreciate and undervalue their employees and somehow expect them to deliver outstanding customer service.  Unfortunately, that just doesn’t work.  McNeill also noted, “I try to lead by example and not ask people to do things I would not do myself.”  This is another way to show people that you value them as individuals which is critical to building trust.

McNeill is active as a community leader and devotes time to organizations such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (AL/MS), Mississippi Children’s Home Services and St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.  He also was recently named to the Board of Trustees for Millsaps College.  In an industry where people often move around between employers, McNeill has remained loyal and built a very successful business.  I am sure that his understanding of how to develop a winning culture will serve his team and clients well for years to come.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, May 30, 2014.] Read More

In my executive coaching practice, I often analyze with my clients the constant barrage of demands on their time. One of the most influential books to me on this topic is a short work by author Charles Hummel titled Tyranny of the Urgent! For a successful leader, there are always more demands on your time than you can respond. Unfortunately, the tyranny of the urgent can cause us to miss the truly important things we need to be dealing with. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of modern leadership. The key for leaders is to remain focused on what is truly important and to continually remind others to “keep the main thing the main thing.”


Dr. David Shaw

My interview this week, Dr. David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University, has done a great job of keeping perspective on what is truly important and has had a very positive impact on the university and the state.
Shaw grew up on a family farm in rural Oklahoma. While at Cameron University, his life took a turn as he was originally planning to return to the family farm after graduation. However, as a newlywed he realized that the family farm might not adequately support his family, and with the encouragement of one of his professors he decided to pursue post-graduate education in agriculture. Shaw went on to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.

After completing his studies, Shaw took a teaching and research position with Mississippi State and has now been there almost 30 years. Shaw has been involved in cutting-edge research including remote sensing technology. In 1998, the school received a $25-million grant from NASA to further this research, and Shaw was named director of the Remote Sensing Technologies Center. In 2002, he was appointed director of the Geosystems Research Institute, which focused on the spatial technology visualization of complex datasets and computational modeling in agriculture, forestry, water resources, climate, weather and oceanography.  In 2009, Shaw was asked to serve in his current position of vice president for research and economic development where he acts as chief research officer for the university.

One of the key points Shaw emphasizes as a leader is to “never let the urgent take priority over the important.” He believes in creating clarity about what is truly important and making sure team members are aligned around the real priorities. He also believes in finding the best talent and letting them operate in a zone where their passion, talent, and responsibilities intersect.  He understands that when people are allowed to spend most of their time in this zone they will be truly happy and highly productive. As a man of faith, Shaw has drawn inspiration from studying the great (and not so great leaders) in the Bible. In particular, he has been reflecting on the servant leadership that Jesus modeled.

During his time at MSU, the school has proven to be a national leader on many fronts. Dr. Shaw emphasized that there are exciting things happening all over the campus. In particular, he noted the national reputation that the university has developed in agriculture, engineering, and cyber security.  In his role, he also has the opportunity to work with business and political leaders to create opportunities for economic growth in the state.  He shared, “It is part of the DNA to be involved in economic development and be a positive change agent for the state.” Along with many other fine institutions and leaders in the state, Mississippi State and Dr. Shaw are doing many exciting things to advance the state of Mississippi and improve the economic prospects for the future.

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, May 23, 2014.] Read More

I am excited to share with our readers this week about a topic I am passionate about — TED. No, not a person — I am talking about the global phenomenon known as TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. This week, I asked David Pharr, one of the coordinators of the first TEDx event in Mississippi, to share about this excited opportunity for the state.

MW: Tell the readers more about TED for those who may not be familiar.

DP: TED is a non-profit organization that was started in 1984 by an architect, Richard Saul Wurman. He believed there was a convergence of the fields of technology, entertainment and design (TED). The first conference featured demos of the Apple Macintosh computer and included talks by digital pioneers Nicholas Negroponte and Stewart Brand.  The second conference did not happen until 1990, but it took off as a community gathered annuallyTEDx_logo_sydney_022309 in Monterey, Calif., to hear talks by leading thinkers from around the world. In 2000, new media entrepreneur Chris Anderson took over the organization and has developed it into an organization having global impact.

MW: I first learned about TED by watching videos online of interesting people giving talks. Tell us about those.

DP: Anderson’s motto for TED was “Ideas Worth Spreading.” At each TED event, speakers are askers to give the best speech of their life in 18 minutes or less on innovative ideas. In 2005, TED started posting their highest rated talks on and shared them for free.  There are well over 1500 talks on the website, and they have been viewed by millions of viewers.  The talks are now in over 100 languages and viewed by people all over the world.

MW: My understanding is that in addition to the annual conferences, there are now TEDx events. What are those?

DP: To expand the TED concept and to bring innovation to local communities, TED in 2009 began to allow people to organize TED-like events in their local communities. The goal is to foster innovation and collaboration. Over the last five years, there have been thousands of TEDx events around the world and over 30,000 talks have been recorded.

MW: Tell us plans for TEDx Jackson, which to my understanding will be the first TEDx event in the state of Mississippi.

DP: You are correct. On Nov. 6 this year, the first TEDx event in the state will be hosted in Jackson. While it will be hosted in Jackson, this will truly be a statewide event.  I have been hoping for several years that we could bring this program to the state, and I was excited to get a call earlier this year that a group had decided to take the initiative to make this event happen. The focus will be on innovative healthcare, education, and the creative economy.

MW: Who is helping to organize the event?

DP: At this point, Maris West & Baker, C Spire Wireless and Jim and Donna Barksdale are the lead sponsors and the Mississippi Development Authority. Innovate Mississippi, the State Institutions of Higher Learning, and UMMC, are actively involved. To host a TEDx event, you are required to have an individual as licensee so I was honored when the group asked me to serve in that role. I was particularly excited because one the requirements is to attend the annual TED conference, which I was able to do in March in Vancouver — it was an incredible opportunity.

MW: How are the plans coming along for the event and how can people learn more?

DP: We are finalizing the venue for the event now as well as lining up the speakers.  The theme for the event is “Fertile Ground,” which is intended as a reference to the many opportunities that exist in Mississippi. There will be a mix of local and national speakers focusing on both local and global ideas. Seating will be limited so we will be accepting applications soon.  To keep people informed, we have set up a Twitter account (@TEDxJackson); a Facebook page (TEDxJackson), and we are launching a website (

[Originally published in the Mississippi Business Journal, May 9, 2014.] Read More