Anyone familiar with Engage Me knows that we’ve been featuring the Executives After Hours podcast by Dr James Kelley.
In the podcast, he interviews CEOs, VPs, and business leaders from around the world. But what about Kelley himself?
We decided to turn the microphone (so to speak) on Kelley. In a wide-ranging interview, we got the lowdown on his journey, his perceptions on how workplace cultures differ around the globe, and what the podcast has taught him about workplace leadership.
Kelley was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. “These days, it’s where you move to if you’re a hipster,” he told us wryly.
Back then though, Kelley was focused on school and waterpolo. His achievements in both earned him a place at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
A year in though, and he was missing his high school girlfriend (at the time, he thought he was destined to be with her forever).
Upon reflection, Kelley admits that it wasn’t all about love. “Looking back, it was about fear,” he said.
Without any real qualifications, he ended up selling cars. It was a fork in the road and, looking at the people around him, he realised it wasn’t the best path for him.
“I had that movie moment where you flash forward and I saw my life going one of two ways: jail or death, and I chose the third option”.
He called his mother immediately and announced that he was going back to university. Relieved, she readily agreed.
In 1997, he graduated from Dayton with a Bachelor Degree in Communication, having also captained water polo team to a national collegiate water polo championship in 1995.
Adult lessons, learned the hard way
If Kelley thought graduation would make life easy, he was sorely mistaken.
After some time at Nationwide Advertising Services (a subsidiarity of McCann Erickson), he was hand- picked to launch its 41st office.
It was, he admits, far from easy. “I was 24, I had no idea what to do, how to sell, or to manage people, and my supervisor was in Dallas,” he told us.
From there, he moved to BSA Advertising in San Jose office to take up the position of Branch Manager. However, due to the economy, the office was eventually closed.
After a few months pottering around doing odd jobs (a period he describes as the most relaxed of his whole life), Kelley took up an MBA at Wagner College, coaching the women’s water polo team at the same time.
However, in the final tournament of the season, Kelley admits his immaturity was on full display when he quit the position in the middle of a game. Kelley describes this as “one of my bigger regrets, because it hurt a lot of other people and I lost a lot of people’s respect.”
Finding his way
At the end of his time at Wagner, Kelley had no idea what to do. And so, like many people in their 20s trying to figure out what to do next with their career, he moved to Japan to teach English.
But Kelley, fast approaching his 30th birthday, couldn’t help feeling that was in the ocean in a rudderless ship.
“I called my mother in tears, feeling like a failure and she said ‘James! James! JAMES! SHUT UP! Pull yourself together and move on. Life will be fine”
Like every good son, he heeded his mother’s advice.
After a little time back in the States, working for software provider Columbia Ultimate, Kelley started hanging out with people who were doing their PhDs. That made him realise something profound.
“People who do PhDs aren’t necessarily geniuses, they’re just the people willing to work the hardest”.
Ready for a new challenge, in 2006 he embarked on a Masters and subsequent PhD at the University of Western Australia.
It was there that he met his wife and Kelley really began to feel like he’d come into his own.
After completing his PhD, Kelley moved back to the States, where he worked as an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for the best part of seven years.
At the same time, he launched an independent consultancy, before finally moving to the UAE, where he finds himself now. However, Kelley, who is never satisfied with status quo decided living abroad with his wife and four kids would be the next great adventure.
Life in the UAE
As well as being Assistant Professor of Marketing at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, Kelley has launched Brave Endurance, a consultancy that specialises in assisting organisations in gaining a better understanding of their employee’s well-being.
Since moving to the Gulf country, he’s noticed that while things are moving rapidly, there is still some way to go.
“The UAE is about five or six years behind in a lot of ways,” he told us.
One example of this, he told us, is that there’s too much focus on physical wellness rather than treating it as part of a whole, alongside mental, emotional and financial well-being.
“When you focus on physical wellness,” he told us, “you’re primarily capturing those who are already engaged in physical activity.”
Ironically, one of the big challenges he’s found when it comes to motivating for employee engagement in the UAE is something that’s generally viewed as one of the country’s biggest strengths.
Because the UAE has such a large expat population, the management in most companies tends to come from a wide variety of countries.
That means they come from different backgrounds and have different ways of doing things, making communication difficult.
Leaders who get it
That said, there are certain leaders who understand the real value of employee engagement. And according to Kelley they approach things very differently to the ones who don’t.
“The ones that don’t get the bigger picture,” Kelley told us, “are the ones who ask about return on investment”. The ones who do get it meanwhile, “understand that value on investment is more important”. He is not implying ROI is not important, but when it comes to corporate well-being the trajectory towards success is 36 to 48 months out.
The latter tends to be the kind of leader who Kelley speaks to on Executives After Hours. Launched as a rebrand of the Brave Endurance Corporate Wellness podcast in August 2016, the show is focused on learning more about executives’ personal journeys. This personal experience, Kelley notes, is important because it tends to have an impact on their leadership styles.
According to Kelley, the insights gained on the podcast have been incredible. “You can learn a lot about an individual when you ask them about their personal crucibles.”
Perhaps the biggest learning though has been that the most successful business leaders are the ones who realise that their employees are people and not an I.D. badge.
The best leaders, he told us, are the ones who “are compassionate, relatable, self-aware and honest with their employees”.
“Sure you might get the odd person who always has ‘drama’ in their lives, but on the whole, employees will give more to bosses who care about them,” he added.
Have a listen to some of the latest podcasts from James below: