Pushing Past Your Mistakes With Dave Melville
It’s not about how many times you fall, but the number of times you get back up. It’s about pushing past your mistakes and coming out the other end with a better perspective. In this episode, Tony Martignetti is joined by Dave Melville, the CEO and Founder of The Bowdoin Group. This award-winning executive search firm helps businesses find the right fit for specific leadership and strategic roles. Dave explains how more than having a high IQ, it’s the ability to learn from mistakes that make a successful leader. He details areas and opportunities where your biggest mistakes can lead to your biggest successes and how you can become proactive in achieving that.
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Pushing Past Your Mistakes With Dave Melville
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Dave Melville. He is the Founder and CEO of The Bowdoin Group. For many years, local venture capital and private equity firms, as well as the growth-stage startups and large enterprises have all relied on The Bowdoin Group to meet their executive search and team build-out needs across the life sciences, healthcare and technology industry. Dave is also active in local organizations focused on education and basic human needs, such as Life Science Cares, Hack.Diversity, Health Equity International and Nativity Prep School. It is my honor to introduce him to this show. Welcome, Dave.
Tony, it’s nice to be here.
We’re thrilled to have you on. I am looking forward to sharing you with my readers and revealing your story to see how did you come to this place where you’ve been able to make such an impact in so many industries and not just on the industries but on people’s lives. If you think about each person you’ve been able to put in the right place, that’s a big impact and we’re looking to see what drove you to get to that place.
I’ve enjoyed reading your show. I love knowing about the gifts that people have. I don’t have any gifts when I break them down, but one thing I’ve been very lucky at is I’ve been surrounded by a lot of people with great gifts. It’s been great that they’ve helped me along the way and I’ve been able to reciprocate when I’ve had the opportunity.
It’s very humble but you do have a gift. Part of it is bringing the right people together. There’s something about that that we’re going to unpack as we move on to the story and we’ll talk more. As you have already read on the show, what we do here is talk about what’s called flashpoints, the points in people’s stories that ignite your gifts to the world. We’re going to give you a space to share what you’re called to share. Along the way, we’ll do some checkpoints and see what’s coming up for themes. Where do you want to start?
I grew up in Bedford, MA. I was the oldest of five kids. My parents had five kids in about 6.5 years. What’s important growing up was the example that my parents set for me and my family members. We think of all the things going on and all the struggles the world’s facing is right in our faces. My parents were involved in that back in the ‘70s and continued it all the way through until now. They’ve been very active in things like providing equal opportunities, housing and education for people regardless of their race or ethnicity. They set a great example to us and our family members of understanding where you fit in the world and what your responsibilities are.
It sounds like a house of love because five kids are a lot. It takes a lot to raise that many kids and bring them up in that environment where they care about people. That’s why I accentuate that’s love. Tell me more. What happened along the way?
I had a good upbringing. When I was younger, I was one of those kids that sat in the back of the classroom, mediocre and didn’t excel at anything. It was very easy not to notice. By the time I was a junior, I had started to think, “Maybe I'm not going to get to where I want to get to,” although I didn’t know where that was. My parents let me repeat my junior year. I went off to prep school. I finally started to apply myself and think about stepping out and taking chances in the world. That began a chance where I started to figure out who I was that I could make an impact in things even though I didn’t have any obvious gifts or anything that impacted anything.
When I got out of school, I went to Procter & Gamble. I was lucky I had a great trainer, mentors and friends that I made there that I’m still friends with. What they did was taught you how to do things right, respect what you do and yourself. They demanded excellence in everything that you did and they taught us, “If you’re not taking things seriously, you’re not respecting yourself.” It ingrained in me and many of my other friends and teammates over there that, “If you’re going to do something, do it right. You have one shot. Keep working through it.” I sold cookies and Pringles in Boston. It was my territory and a very different city back then. I got exposed to a lot of things that I hadn’t been exposed to in Bedford, MA which was still a great learning opportunity for me as I drove around through all of Boston.
I then wound up getting into the search business which my dad had been in and did that for a while. A big turning point was I worked for a company called Carter Mackay. My boss at the time is Steve Susman. I loved working for him. He’s a great mentor. He was 38 years old and died suddenly of a heart attack. He had a pregnant wife and it was a complete disaster, as you would imagine. It shook everything that I thought about. It was at that point where I knew, “Steve had been a safety net and now he was gone.” That’s when I needed to think and talk to my wife about, “What is next?” Then we decided to go out and start The Bowdoin Group.
There are a few things that you mentioned that I wanted to unpack a little bit. First of all, this P&G mentality of like, “Respect yourself and put in that effort,” it sounds like planting seeds of overachievement and you are putting that like, “Go out and get it done.” At the same time, you have the softer side of understanding that it’s not about just respecting yourself but loving yourself and knowing that there is an element of being not just driven but also respecting that you need to have time and be able to be okay with yourself. Is that something that resonates with you as you were in that moment?
You’re a much more sensitive guy than I am, which is good quality. I’m probably not as reflective as you on the reasons, which is why you’re a great coach. You’re able to dive in on these things. It’s about respecting yourself, others and what you do. It’s about understanding that you don’t have a fixed time on this Earth. Why would you waste it and not try to make an impact on something? At Procter & Gamble, they didn’t let you make excuses for anything. It was like, “Congratulations. You got the job. Now you are very replaceable. It’s time to step up.”
You have a fixed time on this earth. Why not try to make an impact?
Understand your humanity. I have my own experience. I worked at Gillette, pre-P&G similar vein experience. I’m almost beating into, “You’re not special. You have to keep on working hard to make that happen.” Your boss died at such a young age and having that type of an impact shows you how fragile life is and how you have to go after the things that you want. I know that you make it sound so easy like, “We started the Bowdoin Group,” but it wasn’t that easy. Tell me the first few years that you started Bowdoin. What was it like?
We didn’t have much money because this wasn’t something that was planned. My wife and I bought a house. We’re talking about doing this and the story may end with us losing this house that we just bought. When you’re newly married, your first house is a big deal. We talked about the commitment it would take and the strain it would have. Fortunately, my wife was very supportive and open to giving it a shot. I was on my own for the first part. It’s hard being on your own and trying to do something. That’s not the way I’m wired. It wasn’t my skillset being on my own. There were many moments to give up and of, “You should have or I should have?” That’s when you have to make these pivot point decisions for right or wrong. It’s going to come out in a way that’s appropriate but it’s exceptionally difficult.
Was there like a North Star that you are always pointing yourself towards as you were in those early days? I know you have to make money to help your family but was there more than that was driving you in that particular endeavor?
First of all, I’m not motivated by money when I do these personality profiles. I’ve established that I’m not, which isn’t necessarily a good trait for a business owner because businesses have to make money. It’s not necessarily a selling point but when I’ve tried to do things for money, I have failed at those things. I wish I could do things better to make money. Life would probably be easier if I could just hone in on that but it’s not the way I am personally wired. When I have done things in my life to make money, it failed. I naively thought that maybe if the company would make a difference, somehow it would be fun and that other people would find it fun, then we’d have a great team. That’s what kept me going. I didn’t want to go back to doing something that didn’t get me excited every day.
I’ve been in your office. The people that you have brought into your organization are amazing and they seem to have fun. It seems like you’ve created a dynamic culture and a great environment for people to be around. You’re being very humble the way you described this because there’s so much power behind what you do and led this team to be. It does come from you because this wouldn’t have been possible without you.
There have been a lot of people. We do the hard stuff. Our clients hire us to do things that are hard that they wouldn’t spend the money on it and there’s a lot of pressure because we work with smaller companies. They’re counting on us. Our teammates are operating under pressure. They need to do a good job for our clients. It’s so inspiring to see them working hard, the rewards we get from our clients, the people that we get jobs are satisfied and they make a difference. It’s awesome. We’re very lucky because most of the companies we deal with are impacting society in some significant way. They’re helping change healthcare and the way it was delivered, developing drugs, developing ways to get the finance system to get money to people in small businesses.
By the energy that you have there, that’s what excites you. It’s about what you can do with your skills that brings us to life. When people can wake up and have something to look forward to and put their gifts to work to make something positive happen, it lights you up. It’s a powerful thing. That’s in some ways what you’re doing, not just for the companies but for the people you work with too, which is pretty cool.
We all do it together. We’re very lucky because we’re in a people business. We are all in this together, trying to get to some common connected goal which is great.
What has been the most challenging part of building your business to where it is now? You said you had some moments where you’re like, “I questioned myself as to whether or not I should continue.” What was the most challenging part of your journey?
There are many challenging parts. From a personal evolution standpoint of what I needed to do to be better a CEO or leader was I had come to grips with my own deficiencies and I still do. I point it back to I had a belief that if I didn’t pretend I was great at everything, which is obvious I’m not, it is naive in hindsight. I had to put on this show that I knew stuff or I was capable. This is where a coach like you is great at. I had a great coach, Mike Noble. He passed away from cancer. It was a heroic battle. He did a 360 on me and we were all getting it done in our company. I’m like, “Why can’t everybody else do it if I’m not going to do it?” He took every comment that everybody wrote about me to show me every single comment, which I don’t think is common in the culture. Usually, they conflate them in some way. I looked and was like, “Everything that I knew I wasn’t good at, everybody knows.”
Just because you’re smart, doesn’t mean you can learn from your mistakes.
I showed it to my wife and she’s like, “Some are good things.” I’m like, “Look at all the stuff.” She’s like, “Everybody knows it.” I went back to the office. I would call people and have them read in front each and every comment. They'd start to read it. They’d laugh and go, “I wrote that one,” then they get bored. I’m like, “Do you want to finish it?” They are like, “No. We already know this stuff.” I’m like, “Why are you even here if you know this stuff?" They’re like, “We want you to get better.” To me, that was very empowering and I still struggle with it.
Mike Nobel and coaches like you helped me come to this. First of all, it's a huge relief. This act I’m putting on isn’t fooling anybody. That’s not even close. You don’t need to spend energy on that. You don’t need to worry about not being perfect because they already know you’re not but they do want you to help and improve, that they do expect from you because they are part of your team and you are the leader of the team. They expect you to get better so they can get better. To me, that was a powerful moment because it begins a cascade of all these other decisions that came easier to make and seek feedback, change the culture of our company to become more open.
As I became more open and willing to be wrong or seek being wrong, then everybody else did. That’s why I was so lucky to have team members that are able to trust and support me as I was growing and continue to grow. It is the same thing. The journey is never done. In this society, we’re going through all the societal changes. We have to rethink about our own biases. We, as a company, need to think about it and get in the same spot. Our teammates are letting us all grow and evolve together. It’s a hard thing when you’re in a leadership role, for me anyway or maybe for some to come to grips with like, “I’m not expecting to be perfect.”
The way what you described is so much more common than you could ever imagine in this element of having those blind spots you’re not seeing the effect you’re having on people and then when you start to see that, it creates a shift in you. First of all, it’s great to see the people believe in you. They follow leaders for a reason. There’s something about you that was making them want to continue to see you get better, have you at the front of this organization and work with you because otherwise, they had options. At the same time, that realization that you don’t have to put on a show or pretend, many leaders go through that challenge. I’m glad you brought that into space here.
It’s a struggle that we all face. You see leaders with tremendous confidence like, “I wish I was like that,” but you don’t know you’re tremendously charismatic. That’s just being around people that have the same mission as you because if everybody doesn’t, then it starts to all break down at least with us, because we’re in it together.
You’re not necessarily doing the day-to-day operations. You are now leading the organization. You have people who are involved with the searches to the extent that they’re interacting with people. Are they reading the signs and seeing people coming in for a search? What are the challenges you’re seeing with these people that you need to overcome with candidates coming in? Do you ever have a challenge with them not seeing themselves the way that they are truly being?
I’m still involved with critical searches where my expertise is. We have other people that are better than me in the day-to-day, which gets me to do better at the searching. This is what freed us up as we’ve continued to grow. Because we have stuff that we think about all the time, when you do studies, there’s a baseline that you need an IQ to be successful on the job. In every job, you baseline IQ. To be a neurosurgeon, you need a higher IQ than to be the CEO of a search firm. It’s factual.
Once you get above the level IQ, baseline IQ doesn’t help you that much, and then who becomes more successful? It’s the people that have the ability to rapidly learn from their mistakes. Those are the ones that emerge in the end. I always thought they were tied together but they are not. Just because you’re smart, it doesn’t mean you can learn from your mistakes. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite because when people assume you’re smart, you’re afraid to make mistakes because then you’re exposing yourself. What becomes obvious when you’re looking for leaders and skilled people is their ability to learn from their mistakes. When you’re seeking feedback, you’re learning more rapidly. None of us wanted to seek feedback when we’re not doing well.
It’s a hard thing to get used to until you’re comfortable with it. Leaders come in all different types of people. Unless they are rocket science brilliant that created a technology that nobody else understands, the majority of leaders need to learn from their mistakes. The one thing I wish when I was younger was to be more open to seeking information, feedback and not feeling defensive about it. I could have accelerated in a lot of things. That’s what we see people missed. They can get to a point but can’t break through because they can’t reset themselves.
We’re going through your story, but it’s about telling the right story that shows them as being okay to learn and grow from their mistakes and not make excuses for things that didn’t work out. I’m sure that shows up a lot in the way you guys work with the client.
We have to be open to it. I have two daughters in their twenties. We, as parents, have great Millennials that work for us. The Gen Z years are coming in. They are amazing people. A lot of them have been sheltered in their lives, like I have the ability to shelter my kids. It’s hard when you’ve been sheltered to come to grips with some of the setbacks or expose yourself to a situation where you’re going to fail. It’s how do we all continue to push ourselves into those situations where maybe failure will happen to some degree but we can learn and adjust from it.
If you’ve been set back at something, you will get through it. It will reset to something better.
What are the lessons that you have learned that you feel people need to know whether they are going through a search or want to start a company and afraid to make those leaps?
I know there a lot of people now that are going through searches and that unexpectedly lost their jobs or wound up in a bad situation. I would say to them, as frightening as it is that it almost inevitably works out for the better. If you’ve been set back, you will get through it. It will probably more than likely reset to something that’s better. Be aware of what’s going on around you. If something has changed and you need to pivot, don’t cling to the same spot. Pivot and find a way to do that. That’s hard and it will be painful but once you do, I know it will work out better for you. We deal with them all the time. People calling are friends, relatives, candidates. It’s very scary but it will work out as long as you are open and willing to pivot. You will be, but it’s just a question of working through it.
It reminds me of the advice you were getting back in the P&G days, “Don’t waste that opportunity to get out there and make something happen to you. Pivoting and continuing to move in different directions allows you to stay in motion and create something as opposed to feeling like you’re a victim of the situation.”
I was at a conference at Cleveland Clinic and there were a group of venture capitalists talking. One venture capitalist that was still the most senior guy around and had been in the industry forever said that he would never invest in someone starting a healthcare tech company that didn’t have a personal mission attached to whatever disease they are trying to cure. That’s what he invested in. The journey is difficult that unless you have this personal mission to it, at least in health tech, he said, “It's unlikely you’re going to succeed anyway. If you don’t have a personal mission, there’s no way you’re going to succeed.” I would say to people that are starting a business in your career, try to reflect on what motivates you, not what society says should motivate you. It’s easy for us to say, “Society says I should have an awesome house and make above X. That will make me happy.”
It may or may not. It’s very easy for us to use the same scorecard that society puts on us. Probably in your journey, you also may want to do other things than just your business. Be a parent, volunteer, a coach or whatever that may be. What is motivating you in your life? If you come to grips first, it’s hard and it continues. This is why people like you, Tony, exists to help with that journey. If you can come to grips with that, then the bad days don’t become bad as much because you’re doing something for something that you believe in and then you’ll keep going. That doesn’t need to be a business but whatever that is you’re choosing to do, it makes the bad days okay.
It makes me think of many things like I’ve got a book called Am I Climbing the Right Mountain? I love the whole idea that I’m laying out in there because it’s about that people spend so much time going on this path that they think they’re meant for. They get to the top sometimes and realize, “Was this worth it?” What you described to me made me feel like you got to figure what motivates you along that path that can make it all come to life.
That’s your total life. It’s not just your work. It’s where you want to sit. It’s hard to say, “I love 20% of my life.” You have to try to get everything together and it will never be all perfect at one time but maybe for some people it will be. It becomes worthwhile if there’s some additional meaning to it. Usually, when somebody gets an easy setback, an easy wall gets put and they stop at the wall because there’s not enough mission focus in my mind.
Speaking of mission focus and having it towards something that lights you up, you do a lot of work with all these organizations like Life Science Cares that are geared towards making an impact, not just in your organization but outside of the community. I wanted to speak to what drives you in that area? What are the things that you care most about in terms of causes?
It’s the way we were raised and it was something that you did. I realize how lucky that I’ve been in life. We get a chance to see in our business the randomness of the world who can succeed and who doesn’t. What I feel passionate about doing is trying to get to a spot where everybody has an equal starting point and then they can do what they want but it’s impossible to say now that everybody in the society has an equal starting point. It’s not true, especially with a simple race or your skin color. Nothing else establishes where you start on this totem pole and what obstacles you’re going to face. That is unfair and wrong.
To be part of just trying to give everybody an equal starting point is important. It’s also exceptionally rewarding because you meet amazing people when you get to interact with people that you may not have come across in your day-to-day job. It’s also very humbling when you realize, “I’m dealing with somebody that has so many more obstacles than I have in life simply because of the skin color. Nothing else." It just the shade of their skin. It has given me a different starting point to operate than them and it’s very humbling.
My heart is warmed by knowing your story because I feel it. That’s something that is important to find a way to make it so that people can have that equal start. That’s going to be in my mind all day. We’re going to go to our final question which is completely off-topic but I like to ask it because it gets a good understanding of where did you come from in terms of your thinking. What’s one book that has had an impact on your life?
Can I do one personal and one business?
A lot of people have read this in high school. I would recommend reading it again because it’s pretty easy to read, but Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Basically, his theme is that there are so many things that we cannot control. He was a Holocaust survivor. He talks about how he survived mentally through it, who survived and didn’t. He’s a psychiatrist or psychologist. He talks about that the only thing we have control over is only one thing. That’s the way we react to a situation. Nobody can take that away from us. As long as we know we own that, then we’re free.
When things get hard for me, I reflect back on that book a lot or I read quotes. I’m not owed anything but I have the ability to react to a situation that’s in front of me. I own that alone. That’s pretty inspiring and grounding, especially in times when I know people are struggling just to think about what we own. When you know you own that then it gives you freedom as it did him even in the darkest of times. He was able to at least gain freedom in this worst of conditions. For a standard business book, Good To Great is still the Bible. It lays out the need to understand what’s happening, create a vision and rapidly evolve. It’s still just such great advice. There are books like Search of Excellence and other things that were largely dismissed over time but this one survived.
The only thing we have control over is the way we react to a situation. Nobody can take that away from us.
That’s such a great book to mention because I think about how sometimes you’re not ready for the message to sink in and how it relates to your life until further down the line. was one of those things where like, “You don’t understand having the right people on the bus until you have a company where you have to make sure that you have the right people on the bus in the right seats,” or the flywheel effect and how important it is to understand those concepts. I always think about that how sometimes you read it and you’re like, “That was a good book,” then you go back and you think, “Now I can see how that applies.”
The flywheel effect is something that we talk a lot about in our business and have to evolve to. When you don’t have any flywheel going at all, you’re like, “What am I going to try to do here?” The theory is like a flywheel. If you create a circular process as it gets going faster, it’s easier to continue to push. Over the past few years, we’ve focused a lot on the flywheel effect and it helped us. That’s a good analogy.
I could talk for hours with you on this and you’ve been such a pleasure to have on as a guest. I want to thank you so much for sharing all that you have, your story and insights. I also want to give you an opportunity to share where people can find out more about you. Where can they reach out?
On LinkedIn. I’m pretty easy to find. Every time I talk to you over the years has always been fun. Thank you for having me on your show.
Thank you, Dave. I appreciate that. I also want to thank the readers for coming on the journey with us. I hope you’re leaving with some great insights and that you are feeling inspired.
- The Bowdoin Group
- Am I Climbing the Right Mountain?
- Man's Search for Meaning
- Good To Great
- Search of Excellence
- LinkedIn – Dave Melville
About Dave Melville
Dave Melville is the CEO and Founder of The Bowdoin Group, an award-winning executive search firm that helps businesses find the right fit for specific leadership and strategic roles. He has over 30 years of experience and is the one behind the company’s strategic planning initiatives.
Dave believes one of the best things their company does is the way they help companies create positive change in the world. Companies in healthcare, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals are some of their biggest clients. Dave joins me to discuss how you can learn from your mistakes and become successful faster than someone who is naturally born smart. He shares where he learned to respect the work you do and explains how being a sheltered person can inevitably set you up for failure.
He describes some of the reasons why intelligence does not guarantee success. Dave also discusses why Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning greatly impacted his career.
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