Introducing Jeff McKay, co-host of Rattle and Pedal, as he speaks about the meaning behind the name “Prudent Pedal”, his background in marketing, and what he’s learned from his numerous positions as a senior marketing leader within large firms.
Jason Mlicki: So last time we talked, you shined the spotlight on me and interviewed me and embarrassed me a little bit, put me in uncomfortable situations, which is great. So I get to do it to you. So here is my first question and it’s a question I had never really thought that much about until, one day, when we were prepping this Podcast, I suddenly realized that how I had been thinking about this word clearly is not how you’ve thought about this word.
Jeff McKay: Oh god.
Jason Mlicki: So my question, and I’m not saying one’s right or wrong, I’m just saying I probably had never thought about the word. Why the word prudent?
Jeff McKay: Oh, you know, and many people ask me why I chose that word and I bet you probably an exponential number don’t ask me about that word because there is a preconceived notion of what it means. So I really appreciate it when people say, “Why’d you choose the prudent?” And there were several reasons for it, the first one is as a CMO, I was really frustrated with agencies in general. And I felt like they always wanted to come in and meet with the C level marketing exec and talk about the latest fad, trend, technology that was going to change everything. And, in my experience, no one thing ever changes everything. When I decided to start this firm, I wanted a firm that was going to focus on practical wisdom, things that worked. And I felt like that was a key differentiator for me as well having not come out of the agency world. And I don’t even consider myself an agency, I consider myself a management consulting firm that prudence, on one level, speaks to practical wisdom. Things that work, that have been learned from experience. So it was very pragmatic in that regard.
Jeff McKay: The second, and I talk about this quite a bit in all of my writing and it’s kind of a tone that comes through every communication that comes from me, is this concept of living for something larger than ourselves. Thomas Merton famously wrote, and I live by this adage, that our lives are shaped by what we live for and I’ve added the word firm to that quote. Our lives and our firms are shaped by what we live for and it’s something bigger than ourselves, it’s beyond just the pursuit of profit for profit’s sake but about having an impact in the world. And if look at the definition of prudence, prudence is one of the four cardinal of virtues and prudence guides the other three cardinal virtues. And that really leads to the third reason why I chose prudent is it just kind of describes who I am. I tend to be more thoughtful, more discerning, more introspective.
Jason Mlicki: I never would have guessed those things about you.
Jeff McKay: And it was actually my wife who really suggested it and, because she knows me so well, and she’s like, “Boy, if there was just one word that describes you, that one would rise high on the list.” So I knew there would be pushback on it particularly in a certain age group and I even feel this way, the image of Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live doing his best George H. W. Bush imitation about now I’m going do it, wouldn’t be prudent. It just makes me laugh and I think it makes a lot of people laugh but the downside of it is it really doesn’t reflect the importance of prudence in our individual lives and the lives of our firms. And I actually have-
Jason Mlicki: So-
Jeff McKay: I actually have, I haven’t shared this with you, Jason, but in the seminal piece that I wrote on the purpose of a leader, I speak to this that there is a set of 10 questions that prudent firms and prudent leaders ask themselves. And I’m going to send this to you after we get off the call, I have a new infographic on that so that you could print that out and put that on the wall in your office and maybe someday, you could become prudent too.
Jason Mlicki: The odds of that are low. The thing I think is interesting about it is that I think a lot of people, if their wives said, “You’re very prudent,” would probably take that as an insult. I mean because it implies, I think the implication to a lot of people is that it’s almost extreme caution, not being willing to take a risk, but I think the way I hear you describe it, how you perceive the word to be or really maybe the reality of the word, to be about, which I think is a really fascinating thing about language. So that, we’re out of time now. I’m teasing, but no, the second question I have is about pedal.
Jeff McKay: Before you ask me that question, I think that’s a great point, and I want to clarify it. Most people misconstrue the word to be risk averse and quite honestly, it’s just the opposite. Because prudence is about identifying risk, knowing risk, but going in spite of the risk, and that’s something most people don’t think about. And I would argue that in today’s business world, taking a stand against conventional wisdom is the prudent thing to do more often than not. But firms don’t take that risk. They do what is safe under the hospices of taking a risk but really isn’t a risk. I just think that’s an important distinction that the word has gotten twisted 180 degrees but it’s often more risky to act in a prudent way in conventional business wisdom.
Jason Mlicki: I can’t argue with that, my sense is that the pairing of the word prudent with the word pedal was purposeful and meaningful because my inclination on the word pedal is that, of course, you put your foot down on the pedal, you’re trying to accelerate but I think it’s deeper than that for you, right? Why pedal?
Jeff McKay: It is and if I hadn’t created a name for this firm and gone with a word that was in the dictionary like they say at Rattleback, it might be less confusing. But the pedal is a metaphor from cycling, I’m a big cycling fanatic and the pedal is about efficiency. If you immerse yourself in cycling, you learn that there’s a very particular way to spin the pedal on a bike and I use that as a metaphor for how to get the most out of an investment in marketing. And so it’s about smart and efficient and setting growth in motion and it’s those combination of things that Prudent Pedal speaks to.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so then when did you go out on your own and why did you go out on your own? Because you had had a number of senior marketing positions in large firms and companies, right?
Jeff McKay: Yes, there were-
Jason Mlicki: So, why’d you strike out on your own?
Jeff McKay: So, I struck out on my own for a couple of reasons, multiple reasons. The first one is I fell in love with consulting when I was at Genworth Financial. We had 1,800 financial advisors and as CMO, one of the things my team was tasked with was helping these financial advisors, who were accountants and wealth managers, grow their clients. And as I was developing these trainings and helping these financial advisors do this, I just fell into something I was really good at and just thoroughly enjoyed. And I said, “If I ever had a chance to do this, I would try to do it full time.” And a year later, a private equity firm came in and bought Genworth Financial and they didn’t need me, the new private equity firm already had a really good CMO and I used the package I received as seed money to start this company. So the timing was just really serendipitous.
Jason Mlicki: Sounds like a prudent risk.
Jeff McKay: Yes. But I think, one other thing is, being in your 40s and having those senior roles, I had really had enough, I think, of the corporate life and, what I call, the BS of PS. And I was ready to try and go to attack that dysfunctional culture that exists in professional services firms. And it’s the thing that really shapes the type of work that we do that what’s causing professional services firms to underperform their growth potential isn’t always just bad marketing or inefficient marketing, it’s cultural. And culture is at the heart of our model so I wanted to get out and help more firms do that stuff.
Jeff McKay: And this firm allowed me to do that. And then the third reason, and this is probably one of the most important, I have three kids, all three of them are adopted from Guatemala, and they were growing up so fast as I was flying all over the world in these corporate roles, and I just didn’t want to be away from them anymore. So setting up Prudent Pedal gave me a chance to spend more time with my kids. And that’s been one of the best things for me and the family.
Jason Mlicki: Is the kids agree with that?
Jeff McKay: Some of them do.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, how did you end up in professional services?
Jeff McKay: Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. I grew up as, you and I share this, we were in family businesses.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Mine was the auto parts business, my grandfather-
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I was curious if you’d be covering this story or not, that’s why I was just curious.
Jeff McKay: My grandfather came over from Ireland and he started this auto parts business out of the trunk of his car during the Depression. And my father and uncle joined the business when they came of age. And I think, to a large degree, it was just always assumed that the third generation would come in as well. I was being groomed from a young age, I started working in our parts stores when I was 13. But I was running around those stores from the time I could walk. So I went to undergrad at Illinois State because my dad said, “Go there, get a marketing degree,” and I just went because that’s what you did in the family I was in. And when I got out, I went to work for a Silicon Valley company that served the auto parts industry, a company called Triad Systems, again, just to get more experience in the industry. Then I went to work at operations for a big firm a State away. And then it was back for the family company in senior roles in my 20s. I had lots of responsibility as a young guy there.
Jeff McKay: No marketing whatsoever, I managed all the IT operations, I managed our warehouse, customer service operations, I managed 75 product lines like AC Delco and Motorcraft and big brands like that. And I thought that’s where I was going and then I went back to school for my MBA against my fathers’ wishes and I just was exposed to something new and different in my mind. And I’ve always had this passion for the intersection of business and psychology and spirituality. And I was at St. Louis U and several of my professors were family business consultants and saw me as kind of a lab rat and I just fell in love with these family business companies and the issues they were wrestling with in trying to sustain the longevity of these. And I said that’s what I wanted to do. I called up Arthur Andersen, who had just bought Leon Danco’s who was the grandfather of the family consulting space. I said, “Give me a job,” and they said, “Who are you?” Three hours later after lunch with a managing partner, they hired me and I jumped into professional services. And I just found my niche.
Jeff McKay: It was a rough transition moving from the kind of blue collar auto parts industry into that white shoe white collar consulting but those were my people, smart, driven, articulate-
Jason Mlicki: They accepted you anyway huh?
Jeff McKay: They did, they did. It’s funny.
Jason Mlicki: You were a consultant, so you started in a consulting function before transitioning into the marketing function of the firm.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I was doing a combination of things because this was, while it had a good brand, the center for family business was a fledgling practice. So they needed consultants, marketers, and business developers all into one. So I was doing all three of those things. The interest for Arthur Andersen was the tax and the estate planning and for me, the interest was the psychology in the business side. So it was just a match made in heaven.
Jason Mlicki: Why did you leave that then? Why’d you transition out of that role to whatever you did next? I’m not sure what came next.
Jeff McKay: That’s a great question, there were a couple of things that happened, but the most important one was that the partner I was working with left the firm. He had some personal issues, martial issues, and he just left. And the business was a little young and the office wasn’t committed to it and the timing was wrong. Well, I had been doing some work, some marketing work at that same time with their middle market practice. There was a overlap between those two and the CMO, at the time, took an interest in some of the work I was doing and I started doing some work for him and the middle market practice, well then the global head of middle market practice got wind of some of the stuff I was doing and asked me to join her team and it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I mean it was a great … she was a phenomenal person and one of the most influential people in my business life and when she offered you an opportunity to work with her, you take it.
Jeff McKay: And I did and that’s really what changed my life and I’m happy for it.
Jason Mlicki: That’s really interesting, we could probably spend days inside of that kind of just transition from a family business and into consulting and into marketing but we’re not going to. What I want to do is I want to transition and just talk a little bit about the things you do outside of work. You mentioned a little bit about that you love to cycle, so here’s my question. So imagine that you woke up tomorrow and you had absolutely nothing to do, you could do anything you want, you had no obligations, no deadlines, no commitments to anyone, what would you do with that day?
Jeff McKay: Whoa.
Jason Mlicki: I ask the question because I’m not sure I have the answer for me so maybe you can give me some inspiration.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, good question. My kids often utter this phrase as I’m sure all of our listeners’ kids do, “I’m bored.” And they often ask me, “Dad, do you ever get bored?” And I would say, “Not anymore, there’s so much for me to do, I just never get bored.” So having a day like that, I wouldn’t even know where I would start, I could tear down some bikes and rebuild them. I could read 20 books, I could garden, I’d go for a hike in the woods, I’d go scuba diving, there are just so many things I could do, I don’t know. I’d go for a 100 mile bike ride. I just would do it all. I really thought you were going to ask me if you’d win the lottery what would you do?
Jason Mlicki: I could ask that question too.
Jeff McKay: Oh, I would definitely be a philosopher monk/bike mechanic. I’d open up my bike shop and just have people come in, fix bikes for free, talk about philosophy, theology, politics, economics, drink some good wine, eat some good salamis and cheese and bread, and just have a hay day all day long.
Jason Mlicki: I think that was another business plan you had.
Jeff McKay: Huh?
Jason Mlicki: It was either Prudent Pedal or philosophy/bike shop, right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, yeah. I figure, after I’m done with the consulting, I can just use the brand for my philosophy bike shop.
Jason Mlicki: There you go.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, we’ll add a little coffee corner and just keep going, not miss a beat. But this is something people probably don’t know, my office actually is part bike shop. I have three or four bikes of mine in the room, I’ve got a bike rack, all the tools. And when I need a little break from thinking, I either go for a ride or tinker on something in that shop and it frees up my mind to solve some problems.
Jason Mlicki: Why do you need three or four bikes?
Jeff McKay: Well it depends on whether the sun is shining or if you’re riding up a hill or down the hill, across the dirt or you need a little bling or you want to go fast or you want to go slow. Obviously, you don’t know anything about cycling or you wouldn’t have asked such an absurd question.
Jason Mlicki: I’m just curious when you leave your garage, does it sometime go uphill or downhill? Okay so I want to play a bit of a game with you and I’m going to ask you a series of rapid fire either or questions. You can’t think about them for more than a couple seconds and you got to pick one.
Jeff McKay: Okay, is this going to lead to embarrassment?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know, we’ll find out. Okay, so-
Jeff McKay: When I run for mayor of La Grange, they’re just going to come back and haunt me, okay. All right.
Jason Mlicki: Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man?
Jeff McKay: I guess I’ll say Ms. Pac-Man, I’m not into games.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, Batman or Superman?
Jeff McKay: Oh, Superman, no doubt.
Jason Mlicki: Interesting. SWOT or Five Forces?
Jeff McKay: SWOT.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, interesting.
Jeff McKay: No
Jason Mlicki: Seinfeld or Modern Family? You can’t change, I said rapid fire, you got to keep going. Seinfeld or Modern Family?
Jeff McKay: Oh, Seinfeld.
Jason Mlicki: Oh okay. Pearl Jam or Louis Armstrong?
Jeff McKay: Louis Armstrong.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, John Glenn or Neil Armstrong?
Jeff McKay: Oh, how can you choose between those two? John Glenn.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, nice. I mean maybe for some of our younger listeners, some context. John Glenn was the first American in space and, of course, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. All right, and Pixar or Disney?
Jeff McKay: Pixar.
Jason Mlicki: Oh nice, I have no idea what any of that means, they’re just a bunch of questions I came up with that was going to ask you.
Jeff McKay: Ohio State, Michigan? Michigan.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, I’m sorry. There’s one last question that I think is worth covering real quick and I think it’s just to kind of give a little more context on you. So you’re an ordained minister right?
Jeff McKay: I am a Stephen Minister, it’s not ordained, it’s a special type of counseling for people going through grief.
Jason Mlicki: Oh okay.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, there’s no religion out there that would ordain somebody like me.
Jason Mlicki: I have to confess to not really necessarily knowing what it means to be ordained or Stephened for that matter, but that’s an important part of your life, right?
Jeff McKay: It is, and I think it’s paid real dividends for me, I became a Stephen Minister and you can look that up online on exactly what it is, but I had gone through some tough times early in my life and there were some really important people that came through and helped me through some tough situations. And I became a Stephen Minister to give back in a very similar way, in any way that I could. And it’s been very useful to me as well because I get more out of it than, I think sometimes, the people that are receiving care but I think it’s made me a better husband, it’s made me a better father, it’s made me a better friend and it has definitely made me a better consultant because it’s taught me how to listen and empathize in a way that, I think, is lost anymore.
Jeff McKay: I think so many of us just wait for our turn to talk instead of to really listen and understand and until I went through the experience of being a Stephen Minister, I never really appreciated what that meant to just be present for somebody to talk and to be listened to. So it is an important part who I am and I hope it continues to be.
Jason Mlicki: I’m sorry, that last part, I wasn’t paying attention, could you repeat it?
Jeff McKay: Thank you very much.
Jason Mlicki: That was really thoughtful, and I just want to thank you for taking the time to share some of your backstory and some of what drives and what’s brought you to our listeners and with me, thanks for your time today.
Jeff McKay: All right, thanks, Jason.
Jason Mlicki: See you, Jeff.