James Ellis
Director of Employer Brand, Universum

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

Reading. Or drawing, but mostly I was born with a book in my hand. I would read books over and over and over again, staying up late just to read more.

2. Did you have a favourite teacher at school? Who was that person and what did they teach you?

Mr Campbell in 10th grade (which seems a little late in one’s academic career to find a great teacher, I know). He got to me just as I was about to start thinking I was an idiot because I didn’t understand algebra (at all). I assumed I was smart (see: reading all the time), but I was being thrown by high school. Nothing seemed to work like it was supposed to. I was suddenly thrown in with other smart kids and they were walking through their material and I couldn’t grasp anything. Then I hit 10th grade geometry, the class everyone assured me was the hardest math class, and I was terrified. But it all made so much sense. The concepts were insanely easy to grasp. I could navigate fairly complex ideas quickly. Two months in, I was correcting the teacher. A few times he would let me re-teach an idea to give other students “another way of seeing it.” It renewed my faith in myself.

3. If you could write a brief note to your 13 year old self, what advice would you impart in it?

It’s going to suck. For a very very long time. But then it won’t. Also, anyone around you who acts like they know what they are doing know much much less than you do. Oh, and Liza Long has a crush on you, you idiot.

4. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

Dude, all of them. But really, the new years weekend in 1999 where I went to Charlotte? Yeah, I messed that up and it triggered a whole mess of brand new dominos in a whole new direction.

5. At what age did you become an adult? What happened, and how did you know?

34. It was the first time I felt like I could make decisions for myself, that I could make choices about what I wanted, that I had any kind of agency. Before then, I was drifting from job to job and relationship to relationship. Then I got drunk on new years, realized I was throwing my whole life away, got a tattoo the next morning (my first), and decided I would take control of my own destiny.

6. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

Eating better and not thinking exercise is the worst thing in the world.

7. What do you think is true that most people think is false? What do you think is false, that most people think is true?

Most people want to be told, they don’t want to learn.

8. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what lead you to change your view?

That the internet would solve things. That the best brains would bubble to the top, that more information and perspective would support empathy and change. Man, was I way off…

9. What are the three books that you would unhesitatingly recommend to others? Why?

Moneyball (it’s not a book about metrics, its a book about winning a rigged game) The War of Art (once you decide you’re an artist, you need to be an artist) The Art of the Possible (reminders that you really can do and be anything)

10. Name a well-known person you admire and explain why you hold them high esteem?

Tom Peters (he’s on my own personal Mount Rushmore with Richard Saul Wurman, Seth Godin and Cindy Gallop). He made a living wading out into conference rooms filled with highly-paid “important” executives and yelled at them for an hour about what morons they all were.

11. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the top three things that would be useful for them to know?

Pretend I’m autistic. Be clear and unsubtle. I’m not autistic, but my brain is always running 110% and I’m always distracted, so I almost miss subtitles,

12. If we were to go and speak to people who don't think very highly of you, what do you think they would say?

I mean, you’re probably right, but what was the instigating issue?

13. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

That I’m an extroverted narcissist. They assume because I talk all day and love to stand in front of crowds I must get off on it. They don’t know how insanely exhausting it is, but the reason I do it, is its the only time I can put 100% of my brain into the “now.” It’s like a kind of meditation. And since most people are terrified of being in front of crowds, they don’t get it.

14. What personality trait has got you in the most trouble? What kind of trouble does it get you in?

Thinking being “right” was enough. Trying to prove an idea instead of listening and empathizing.

15. What is your untrainable superpower?

Pattern Recognition. I’m a drummer, so I see patterns in everything. I can’t stop it.

16. On what topic would you never make a joke?

My favorite comedian has a bit how there’s nothing off limits, provided you do it right. That said, I’m not a professional comedian. So yeah, racist and sexist jokes are off limits.

17. Have you always had the same political beliefs? If so, why do you think you have held them so long? If not, what event caused you to change your view?

My belief in letting people choose for themselves has always been there, but now it is somewhat tempered. There are too many people who reject facts (something I couldn’t conceive of 20 years ago), who simply can’t see that other people are, in fact, “people.”

18. In the last few days, what news has given you most cause for alarm? In the last few days, what news has given you most cause for celebration?

Jesus. Pick one. Minneapolis? Trump clearing trying to stage a slow coup? Covid? They all work.

19. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What did you learn from the experience?

Almost always. I almost never feel like an insider. Ever.

20. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Walking around without a mask of some kind. It will be part of all teh clothes we buy soon.

21. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

Good headphones are amazing. I spend way too much on them, but I love them.

22. What’s your desktop/mobile screensaver? Take a screenshot and attach it to your answer!

Koi pond. Koi are one of my favorite. In China, they are symbols of determination: if a Koi lives to be 1000 years old, it becomes a dragon

23. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why?

Two things: A massive roll of whiteboard paper (if I write things on teh white board, I don’t have to keep them in my brain) and a strangely expensive coffee mug. I don’t know I like this mug so much, but I really enjoy having it.

24. What is your most prized possession? What’s the story behind it?

Nothing really comes to mind.

25. Cheese or Chocolate? What kind?

Chocolate. I’m a sweets guy. Dark, milk, white, don’t care.

26. If you were to own a bar, and you could design it how you wanted, what would it look like?

It would feel like a big living room, the music would be great, but it would never be loud enough that you had to shout to be heard. Also, all cocktails.

27. If you were a giant mega Monster, what city would you rampage first? Why?

Florida. I’d make a big saw, and cut it off and kick it towards Africa.

28. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

Strategist. Otherwise, I’m probably pretty delicious.

29. Which fictional villain do you find yourself sympathising with most? Why?

We are our own best villains.

30. If you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

Richard Saul Wurman, Michael Lewis, Jasmine Bina

31. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

Try again.

32. Can you give a work example of a lesson you had to learn the hard way?

I’ve been fired quite a few times, and only once was it not deserved. Mostly I get fired for not reading the politics of the room as they shift: I end up getting stuck on an idea and continue to push it even though it is starting to annoy people. I don’t know how to “go with the flow”very well.

33. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

Metaphor development

34. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

Grad school

35. Tell me about that one project that was a total off-the-rails disaster? What was your role in that shitshow?

Website redesign/architecture. The web software company was using me to come up with all their new product feature ideas, but still charging me for their development. They were billing us like crazy and I didn’t realize it. I was sure I was going to get fired. My boss had to bail me out and negotiate a solution. Totally my fault, All naivate.

37. Who was the best person you ever hired? Why were they so good?

Melinda at the agency. I could smell that if I brought her on, she’d live and breathe the job and wouldn’t stop until she was an expert. I was right.

38. Who is the best co-workers or collaborator you’ve ever worked with? Now is the moment to give them a shout out - who were they and why were they so good?

I would love a real collaborator, but I think I’m a pain to work with. I’m a nerd for what I do, and I think that pits people off.

39. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

Are they willing to grow?

41. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

Years and years on and we’re still having the same damn conversations and the same damn fights going nowhere. it doesn’t feel like we’re evolving.

42. What’s one industry challenge you don’t actually think will ever get solved?

D&I. Which kills me. Discrimination (systemic and specific) is a cancer on work and I don’t know that it can really be “solved”

44. What changes to our industry would you like to see post-Covid19? What changes do you think we will see?

Work where you want to work how you want to work. Also, let’s have fewer 30 and 60 minute meetings. 5 minutes is often plenty.

46. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

Someone’s already answered almost any question you have. Go read and see how other people solved it. Then learn from them.

47. Aside from your parents, name one person who has had an extraordinary impact on your career. What did they do and what did you learn from that person?

A former HR Director who agreed to mentor me and helped me get into HR. I owe her so much for that amazing turn of events to a profession I absolutely love being part of.

48. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Elena Valentine, Andrea Hurtado

Thanks to James Ellis, for contributing to The Recruiters Tribune. Connect with James on LinkedIn and Twitter

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