Nov. 3, 2020

Doing good to do well as a leader with Lyles Carr | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Doing good to do well as a leader with Lyles Carr | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Lyles Carr, Senior Vice President of The McCormick Group, shares how his upbringing and value system influenced his commitment to giving back to the community, helping found and supporting dozens of organizations in the Greater Washington DC region. 

Some highlights:

How Lyles Carr’s childhood gave him a better understanding and appreciation for others

Lyles Carr’s passion to helping organizations connect with the right people

How organizations and their leaders can strategically be involved in the community

Communication for leadership success

Leadership’s role and impact on other people

Lyles Carr’s approach to successful networking

Also mentioned in this episode:

Jim Knight, President of Jubilee Housing

Bill and Brian McCormick, Founders of the McCormick Group

Jim Rouse and Patty Rouse, Found of Enterprise

Bob Rosen, CEO of Healthy Companies

David Rubinstein, Founder The Carlyle Group, Philanthropist, Author

Connect with Lyles Carr:

The McCormick Group


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. This week, I'm really excited to be speaking with Lyles Carr, senior vice president of the McCormick group. The McCormick group is the largest independent executive consulting firm based in Washington, D C area. Lyles has had a tremendously successful career with the McCormick group. And he has also played a critical role in starting mini community based organizations in the DC area. 

Lyles has been awarded by the Greater Washington board of trade, Leadership Greater Washington and Washington Business Journal for all of the great work that he has done in the community. So there is a lot to learn from Lyles. 

I hope you enjoy this conversation. And do a couple of things for me. First of all, this podcast is available on 15 plus apps. The one that cares most about ratings is the Apple one, take a minute and rate the podcast on Apple. And additionally, share this interview just with at least one other person learning from Lyles' insights. To have an impact on others, to do good for others. We'll make sure that we all become a source for more positive, in our community. 

Now here's my interview with Lyles Carr.

Mahan Tavakoli: Lyles Carr. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. It is such an absolute honor to have you on. 

Lyles Carr: Mahan, thank you. I've got to tell you though, knowing something of the people I'm sure that you've interviewed and included on these podcasts. It feels a little like one of those, what doesn't belong in this picture moment.

So I'm pretty humbled that you consider me in your group of leaders. Thank you. 

Mahan Tavakoli: You are a humble leader and I am super excited to share your leadership journey with the entire audience Lyles. You have had an impact on so many people, including me. Let's take a little time to find out about you.

Whereabouts did you grow up and how did that impact the person you've become?

Lyles Carr:  I grew up sort of in two places. I was born on Eastern shore, Maryland. My family, then, now there for a couple of hundred years and we're waterman really, and ran a boarding house of my great grandmother, and that was the summer. We were there over summer.

And I sort of think of that as home sort of literally the barefoot boy, crabbing, fishing, those kinds of things. But in the winter, from the time I was seven, I grew up in Palmer park and we were the first family into the second section of the five sections of Palmer park. I took music lessons on Minnesota Avenue.

So that was pretty much the inner suburbs back then. And so those were that, that was the boyhood. It's interesting though, I mean, as I got a little bit older, I went to junior high school at Kent Junior High which is now a police substation, by the way. I used to sleigh ride on Wilson's farm Hill, which is where they built FedEx field.

And interestingly, I only realized this after the fact. But, I experienced white flight. Billy came along in the early 60’s, and it sucked all of the sort of middle class out of the inner suburbs. I was bust. Wayne Korean, I would've gone to Bladensburg high school together had I not gone away to a prep school, and I did. I went away to high school in Alexandria, third generation. And I didn't realize, I didn't think of myself as being in a privileged class because candidly I'm the first person, since our families have been here, my clan of Scottish has been here since 1668, I'm the first person to graduate from college.

We were sort of the wrong side of the track, all of those, against what was then the Southern new village. The boys and it was all boys not integrated, totally segregated school at the time. And so it was a different existence, but my experience in watching sort of the complexion, if you will, and that's not just, that's not a white or black thing, but the overall complexion and sense of community changing in Palmer park as that development happened.

And that's come back to me and been with me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: So how did those days impact who you ended up becoming as a community leader? 

Lyles Carr: Again, it made me, I think, somewhat colorblind. We really didn't think about kids as white, black, Latino. I mean, it just, we were all kids and it was a mixed race and mixed socioeconomic community.

Now, I get to a physical ball, and we're talking Southern white boys and that's vastly changed now. I mean, it's integrated boys and girls there, and it's terrifically evolved as a school, but back then, it wasn't. I was a Midland student for about two years and in my third year, or right after the football season, I just felt like I didn't fit.

That I wasn't part of the culture, and I went home. I went home to the local high school for a year. And candidly, it cost me a grade because I had already had the American history. I had already had geometry. The fourth English book was my third English book. So the advanced math book I'd already had.

But I realized that I was missing something in terms of underpinning values, it was sort of, what does it mean to be a gentleman and in all the positive sense of that word? What were those? And I went back, I hadn't thought I belonged. I felt like I don't want to admit I'm not, I'm missing something.

I went back, and candidly turned into a wholly different person. It was a 3 sport per 3 sport Letterman, captain of one of the teams. I was ranked high on the high list in the academic honor roll. And it was a changing experience as I realized that juxtaposition of those cultures and experiences, and I realized that, the privilege that I had been given and then sort of re-embraced.

Well, it's interesting because just to carry that on, I don’t want to go to the University of Virginia. I was on their way to Princeton for the wrestling team. And I got rushed pretty hard by the then wrestling coach at Virginia that was trying to turn that program around. And they got me down there on a party weekend that I was impressionable.

Because I was coming for a festival, and it's the festival in Virginia, the high school and UVA is the university. So you pipeline the high school to the university.  I was a multi-sport Letterman. I was recruited to wrestle and was a wrestler in my first year. And so I got rushed pretty hard, I mean, there are 33 for fraternities back there probably still are in Virginia.

And here I am. And one of my classmates said, go on to St. Anthony or St. Elmos or Phi gamma, all of the houses with the white columns in the main square, so to speak. And it was sort of moving in that direction, except that my dorm counselor was Jewish and out of respect for him, I accepted an invitation to go down to Alpha Epsilon Pi, which was a very Northern Virginia, Northern Liberal Jewish fraternity. It only had an open rush for two years. But they were a real brotherhood. And candidly, at the end of the day, as I was leaning towards the wrestling fraternity, that was Phi Gamma. I sort of reflected on the two and one looked like a social meeting club and the other looks like a real fellowship.

And after dinner, all the people, all the brothers were getting ready to go dating together or to the library together, or they're sitting around the house playing gin. I became a pretty good gin player. But it was really a fraternity. I said, heck with the trappings and heck with what other people might have thought I should have done, this is where I'm going.

And I've stayed very close to those guys, ever since. But I think the two experiences, three experiences really, the reflection back on Palmer park and the rapid change of that community. The getting to a physical feeling like I was the other side of the tracks, even though was varsity athlete, those kinds of things, and going back home, and then getting to Virginia and rushing and pledging Pi Ep as opposed to Phi Gamma, were I think pretty seminal because it was really about the people knock the trappings and an understanding of people in different walks of life, coming from different perspectives, different cultures. It gave me a sensitivity to it, even though, particularly in terms of ethnicity, these were still pretty monochromatic places. I think that was an underpinning that helped me to better understand. 

Mahan Tavakoli: And it's obvious that many of those values have stayed with you through your community involvement.

But before we get to that, just curious, how did you end up in executive recruiting, which you spend most of your professional life? 

Lyles Carr: Well, it's a quick story. I was very, at a young age. I was very lucky to get with an organization that did specialty restaurants. And I happen to be in the management team that I did an entrepreneurial rack weighing on a college, but then I drifted into this leading specialty restaurant company.

I was fortunate to have gotten visible recognition for creating one of their very hot properties, and that moved me into consulting. And at the age of 25, 26, I was helping organizations create theme restaurants and nightclubs. In the 1974, 75, Studio 54 era, and yes, I did know this all around the country.

We ended up putting the first disco tech into Austin, Texas of all things. But that wasn't family friendly. It really wasn't a way to go. I was driven as we're going a hundred hours a week, developing these properties. And I just, said, I'll give you back all my shares in the property, but I've got to get out of this.

And my dad had gone on to work for my now partners, Bill and Brian McCormick. He had founded or co-founded what was at the time, the one time, the third largest stopper, which housed in the region of the Washington area. And then ended up fighting it out with the SEC to a tie at the Supreme court over things that they now insist that they believe in full financial disclosure or those kinds of things.

And the SEC thought that was intrusive at the time, but he went broke in the process and had gone in to see Bill and Brian just looking for a job. And they pointed to a desk and a phone and said, try it out. And he became one of their first big producers. I wandered into the office one day and said, I just can't continue to have a family life and be in the hospitality world.

And they said, well, you see that desk and that phone that's on it. And we'll give you a nominal draw against a commission, and that was 44 years ago. So that's how I got into it. It was just by happenstance. And my father said, you can actually do this. 

Mahan Tavakoli: And that entire industry executive recruiting has changed drastically since you started.

Lyles Carr: Absolutely. And there were major executive search firms back then, but it was still the permanent placement business for the most part across the country. They were just evolving from applicant paid fees. The organization we went with initially was the franchise, the largest permanent place organization in the country.

It was entirely employer paid. And our office was the leading office in the country out of five or 600 offices for two years running. But we realized that that was a permanent placement agency and we'd evolved into something else that was at the time called contingency search and has evolved since.

And whether it's retained or can change, it's sort of a matter it's executive search and we do a lot of both. And so 1981, I guess we spun out and became the McCormick group. I was one of the account executives and over time was successful and somewhere along the way, Bill and Brian said we ought to be partners.

And here we are. 

Mahan Tavakoli: And Lyles, you have been successful both at executive recruiting and you have been superbly successful in terms of your community involvement and activities. I'm going to link to your bio in the show notes. The 15 plus apps and partnering People can read more about your background, but it is absolutely incredible when I look at all the awards that you have won in the region and even more important than the awards, whether it is President of Leadership Greater Washington, to President of Jubilee, support Alliance, to founding board member of so many organizations from workforce organization for regional collaboration, leadership, Arlington act for Alexandria, Virginia, early childhood. I think it would take the rest of the podcast for me to just list the many organizations you have helped found in the community, which is why I'm going to link to it for people to see it for themselves.

The question I wonder though, is what drives Lyles Carr and what has driven Lyles Carr for all these years to contribute to the community through all these different means and organizations? 

Lyles Carr: Well, I don't think it's so much being driven, as followed, I think it starts with my parents.

My father was very engaged in the community, and in social causes, and endeavoring to help just individuals. And particularly, young people of color that he would try to help either individually or through organizations or groups. And my mother, really underpinning values.

And so they're instilling in me just basic values that are fundamental. They're sort of a foundation, I mean, I'm a practicing Christian. And I just had a quick story. I had been successful with us in the late seventies with the McCormick group in different specialty areas and we consolidated. I went, did management for a bit, but then after we consolidated, I had an opportunity to go back into practice, so to speak and take on a specialty.

And I did, I started our law and government affairs group. And I was successful in the initial year, but in the following year, things weren't going well. I didn't think, particularly successful at the office that led to some financial issues. Home wasn't as good. I wasn't the husband I needed to be. And sitting, sitting at my desk, in the office at about 10:30 one night, I looked up and by the way, looking up as a sort of a human affectation, because God is all around us, but I looked up and said, I need help. And I'm in it, and it wasn't a bargaining thing. It wasn't I'll do this if you'll do that, I just said I need help.

In three weeks later, the largest transaction in the history of the company, I think literally fell in my lap. And from there it just took off and the financial picture got better. The home front got better. I hope I became a better husband, at least. She's put up with me now for 42 years. Hopefully that's, that's ongoing and I had believed before. But, I need to follow sort of, so what do you want me to do? I find myself in places where I seem to be able to make a difference. I can connect two dots. I can introduce the right person to the right place or connect to organizations or see a place that needs help.

I mean, it's amazing. Dr. King said, it's amazing how easy it is to see what needs to be done. If our thoughts are first on others. I really tried to think about others. What does this mean to the other person? Not what does it mean to me? And it's like I say, I find myself in these places where I can see some leverage.

I can see the benefit could come from connecting those dots or connecting those people or organizations. And I don't believe I got there just by happenstance. Right? So it's interesting, I sort of preach or teach to professionals, to get involved in the community, but to be strategic about it. I mean, there are 9,600 nonprofits in the Washington region.

The last time I looked at it I saw a statistic and almost all of them are worthwhile and would be worthwhile people getting involved with, but okay. If I've got two organizations working on the same issue and one can give me a professional return, it can give me something to my business. I can then reinvest that return, whereas otherwise it's tough to continue well. And I believe, I do think that people ought to look at these things strategically, even though they want to do good.

But frankly, I never did that. I simply said, do you need me to do it next? Or I simply tried to become aware of what was happening around me and all of a sudden, because I was involved with the Virginia early childhood foundation and no one ever wanted to know about early childhood and because of my long engagement with Jubilee housing. 

When Jubilee jumpstart came along, which is a separate five O-1-C-3, but deals with early childhood, and they were evolving and somebody to connect some dots and bring in the right sorts of board members. And, I just, coincidentally, went to an event where Jubilee housing was being honored and talked to Jim Knight, the tremendous executive director of Jubilee housing about what they were doing in this early childhood thing. And some needs that they have, and I hadn't intended to go there. But all of a sudden there I was. And so I'm really a follower, I don't think I'm a leader. It's sort of, what do you need me to do next? It's been how I've been guided through these things, 

Mahan Tavakoli: Through what you call being a follower, Lyles, you have become one of the most well connected people in this region.

And for years I talked about networking and it's not who you know. It's who wants to know you? You're one of those people that everyone wants to get to know because you have been giving so much to so many people, and so many organizations. So what I wonder if you were to reflect back now as the successful, both a recruiter that you have been, a business person that you've been, and most importantly, the tremendous impact you've had on the community, many organizations and many individuals. If you were to give advice to a younger version of Lyle's, what advice would you give to that person? 

Lyles Carr: Well, I think first it's not about you. Nobody does these things on their own.

You need a supportive community around you. And it was me, it starts at home. My wife, I mean, you know, Sarah that manages a successful real estate career has her own list of causes watches over a sort of ever larger number of elderly individuals who somebody needs to care about.I realize that while I'm out there doing my professional or community thing, I'm going to be pretty much worthless around the house and, and still gives me tremendous support and encouragement and my partners.

I mean, Bill and Brian,  never really looked at me and said, shouldn't you be doing something else? It's never been whether what I do in the community has anything to do with business. No. Like I say, even though I preach to and teach, be more strategic, I haven't been,  and yet it's sort of, yes, bread on the water and it sort of floats back to you, but they've been not just accepting, but encouraging of getting connected and, and not just me, by the way, the company, I mean, we give people six days a year, paid leave to volunteer and try to encourage to do that or nonprofit group that does a lot of work with. The preferred rate and pro bono services for nonprofits, it's just a way to give back. And so my colleagues support me, so I think that's first, to understand that it's not about you. 

Second, I think you need to look at, that you need role models or mentors. Mentors, if you can connect them, if they're there. You don't necessarily look at somebody and say, you're my mentor.

I mean, Bob Lenos, for instance, was somebody I looked up to and for those who don't know, Bob basically zoned but best, and, and was one of the real leaders in our community, gosh, for a heck of a long time, not a lot of people know that he put up a lot of, a big chunk of money to help form leadership greater Washington. And I bet you can't find three people that know that, at this point, because, Bob, really built a community largely out of the limelight and that's the way he liked it. And in fact, he was trying to avoid it, I think over the years, Bob and I would occasionally have lunch and no agenda.

I just wanted to get to know him better to see how he was going about these things, he was terrific to share his knowledge and insights with me that Jim Rouse, and Jim Rouse, as you know, was very instrumental in Jubilee housing. The one award that I actually have on my shelf. I have no plaques, no words, no trophies. It is two panels, a small two panel stained glass award. The Jim and Patty Rouse award, with a saying from Isaiah about Jubilee on it that I have. And because I got it directly from Jim, he was the, he presented it that evening. As Jim on his death bed was despondent because he felt he hadn't done enough, that he hadn't made a difference to the poor, particularly in the US. 

And so to look at people like that you say, that's somebody that I would want to emulate. So I think that, and I think the whole idea of service I'm big on leading from behind. I don't, I'm not looking for recognition. Like I say, no plaques, no trophies. and I have been more than recognized. I mean, this interview is embarrassing candidly. The fact that I would be ranked or put in the pool of the other people that you've interviewed, because I'm happiest with somebody else getting the credit. That old soul, that it's amazing how much you can accomplish if nobody's concerned about who gets the credit.

And so I used to say I was a little, like, BASF, that little BASF commercial. I don't make the carpet, I make the carpet better. And so how can I help? And then just sort of be lost in the dim memory of time or something, or in the midst of time. And so I think, I think not worrying about getting credit for it, just getting something done. Thinking about the impact you have on other people, it's the networking's classic people. 

People often confuse networking and business development. They think networking is out there trying to promote yourself, it's not. Networking is what I can do for you without thinking about what you might do for me. It's connecting without keeping score. And yes, professionals ought to go network in places where there's the potential for a return at some point, but not from that person you're talking to that might necessarily. And so it really has to start with what can I do for them, what impact will they have on them, what impact would my decisions have on the people who it most affects, who probably have the least ability to respond or the least control. And we're seeing that in our society today. 

I mean, the focus on equity and inclusion is such a long time coming and we're starting to see it, but it's still so difficult for a person of privilege and let's face it, I'm a white male, who got a quality education and said success in business and have not had the experience of people. And, even with all the work we do at leadership Washington, and there's other kinds of things that you, it's still not the same, I can try to understand.

So I can't feel it. So I think, thinking first of the other people, that to me is a leader. It's not about the leader. It's about the people who they are sensibly leading. 

Mahan Tavakoli: And Lyle's one of the wonderful things about you is that I do a solo episode that I'm going to be releasing in a couple of weeks, that example is leadership. And there are a lot of leaders that talk about the right things, but they aren't living it. You are a true example of leadership because the advice you're giving for everyone that knows you most, especially someone like me to just know you for 20 plus years, is how you live your life. And that by itself says a lot. 

Lyles Carr: Well, and frankly, it's why, and I've accepted the awards I've been given. It's frankly, not because I'm looking for the award and not because I want to stand in front of people and have somebody applaud it just, I don't handle embarrassment well, and I find that just excruciating.

On the other hand, it gives me a platform to call other people to action. To encourage people, to get engaged, and get involved. And at the end of the day, that's why you do it. But like I say, once I come off of that day, or alpha mind the podium, if there was a tangible award, a plaque or something, it goes in a box. And it's not going to be displayed because it wasn't about me. It was how can I use that opportunity, that's so box, if you will, to encourage others to get engaged. 

Mahan Tavakoli: So Lyles, being the wonderful leader that you are. Are there any resources for leadership or any specific things that you recommend to people when people come to you and say, want to become a better leader, want to aspire to be more like you Lyles?

What advice do you give them? 

Lyles Carr: The more like me is a hard part, but, find somebody that you think is living life the way that you want to live life. And if you receive them as a leader of leading the way that you would want to lead and try to emulate them. And if you can get to know them, there's nothing wrong with just calling.

And I did this with Bob Leno's and said, Bob, I just want to get to know you . And no agenda. I just like to sit down and talk with you. So I think that's first, I think it's interesting. 

David Rubinstein has come out with a couple of books recently that are conversations with leaders that are awfully interesting to look at. And then writers, who've done the biographies of our leaders since George Washington. But I think learning from the things Bob Rosen for instance, has done on leadership, so I think reading is important. And then I think, how do I experience this? The leadership groups, leadership, greater Washington leadership Montgomery, we've got a number of them in this region.

There are probably 500 across the country, and those are immersion things. Those are not just talking heads. That's how can we become experiential. Can you really try to understand if you haven't been there yourself. As it turns out because of my background in Palmer park and growing up, I have been closer to these things myself. And then some people might think, and involvement with people like Jubilee housing, they're eye opening. 

If you want an experience, go to the service on Sunday morning at Christ house, which is the convalescent home or convalescent center for homeless people, homeless men, really being referred by someone, be at a road health clinic, and watch them and their faith.  Frankly, it's invigorating. It's renewing. So, I think that, and so I think getting involved with those kinds of groups, I think trying to connect with people who aren't like us and trying to understand the whole diverse experience out there. 

Yes, things like meditation, I used to run. That was my form of meditation. There's something that gives you some alone time and whether it's prayer, whether it's meditation, whether it's yoga, that I think, that kind of thing is important. And frankly, like most people, I don't do it enough.

Mahan Tavakoli: And I understand you have a poem that you use as inspiration for yourself. 

Lyles Carr: Yeah, this is whether it's a poem or prayer. It's an anonymous author. And I'll just say it.

Is anybody happier because you passed their way? 

Does anyone remember that you spoke to them today? 

Can you say tonight in parting with the day that's slipping fast, 

that you helped a single person of the many that you passed?

Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said?

Does one whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead? 

Did you leave a trail of kindness or a scar of discontent? 

As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say, 

You've earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today? 

And that if I've got a mantra, That's it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: That is absolutely magnificent Lyles Carr and it's evidenced by all the great work you've done in the entire community.

On behalf of all the listeners of partnering and on behalf of the entire community that is better off because of Lyles Carr. Thank you very much for joining us on Partnering Leadership. 

Lyles Carr: You are overly kind. And I appreciate those again, overly kind words, but thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.

Mahan Tavakoli: Thank you, Lyles.

Lyles Carr

Senior Vice President of The McCormick Group

Lyles is Senior Vice President of The McCormick Group, the largest Independent executive search consulting firm based in the Washington metropolitan area. Lyles represents the company with business and civic organizations in the region and nationally. Within the firm, he provides strategic guidance on projects to McCormick Group consultants and their clients, while continuing his own active consulting practice. He works with client organizations in a range of areas such as compensation planning and negotiation, organizational development, and marketing strategies; but is perhaps best known for his representation of high-level government officials in their transition to the private sector and handling of searches for boards of directors.

Lyles believes strongly in civic engagement, having served on more than a dozen nonprofit boards and advisory councils. Numerous organizations have recognized him for his commitment to the Washington region. Among the honors are Leadership Washington’s Volunteer of the Year, the Sister Eymard Gallagher Award for Corporate Social Responsibility, the Golden Links and Leader of the Years Awards from The Greater Washington Board of Trade, and selection as a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine and to the Washington Business Journal “Power 100”.