James Ellis

Director of Employer Brand, Universum

1. 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 (I mean, I was always reading, so… I must be smart I guess?), but when I got to high school, I felt completely thrown: Nothing seemed to work like it was supposed to. I was grouped in with all the other smart kids and they were walking through their material and I couldn’t grasp anything. It was as if everyone I knew took a one day class to learn Mandarin and started speaking it every day and I had no idea what was going on. 9th grade was an absolute lost year. When I hit 10th grade geometry (the class everyone assured me was the hardest math class) 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 minor mistakes the teacher was making on the board. But the trick was that Mr. Campbell realized that I needed this kind of boost to keep hanging on and he gave me more and more runway and freedom. A few times he would let me re-teach an idea to present “another way of seeing the concept.” It renewed my faith in myself. Not that I was any kind of genius, but that I wasn’t the idiot I was starting to myself I was. Great teachers do more than transfer information, to enable growth and the ability to know one can grow.

Mr Campbell……he got to me just as I was about to start thinking I was an idiot

2. 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. How do you not see that?

3. 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.

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

There’s so much “predetermination” thinking in the world, and I really don’t understand it. We look at a career and we think, “I’ve been in accounts receivable for fifteen years, so I guess I’m stuck here.” or “That guy went to jail, so he’ll always be a criminal.” Getting past racism and sexism (as if we all could that quite so easily), we see strange miracles every day and yet

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

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Everything thinks this is a book about baseball, which it is (in the same way ‘Catcher In The Rye’ is about cutting class). Some people see it as a book on metrics, which it sort of is, but really, at its heart, it is a book about doing the impossible, to have the will to bend every unspoken rule in order to give yourself a chance at success. The world is a deck stacked against us. This is a book that shows that you really can win a rigged game.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

I feel like I get funny looks when I tell people that work is art, that when we stand up and try to build and achieve things without instructions or any other kind of “paint-by-numbers” process, we are artists. But firmly believe that to be true. So if we’re artists, we need to maybe learn some lessons from “real” artists on the pain of making art. You’ll find that the journey of writing a novel is akin to the journey of writing a strategy deck from scratch.

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander, Benjamin Zander

The best books are the ones that help me unlearn a bad lesson. And this book does that about a dozen times. From freeing yourself from the tyranny of what grade you think the teacher is going to give you, to reminding you that it’s all invented, to playing piano with one butt cheek, all the junk in your head is what’s keeping you from doing amazing work. Clear it out.

6. 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 and nuances in personal interactions.

7. 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. When I start, my goal is to always leave everything on stage. I want to be the employer brand speaking equivalent of Otis Redding pouring his heart and soul out on stage in song, overwhelmed by the emotion he’s feeling (See: this pic). People assume it comes from being desperate for attention, but really 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. But the end result is that it is exhausting. The second I finish a presentation, I need to stand in the corner by myself and listen to music for a bit just to put myself back together. I mean, yes, I’m a loudmouth, but I’m not a narcissist about it. Probably.

8. 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.

9. 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.” And when you get to that level, where people are twisting themselves in logical knots and expending so much effort to let them stay in power for the sole reason of having power, you know things either have to get much better in a hurry, or they are just going to get much much worse.

10. 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 in any room or group I’m in. Ever.

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

A dark koi pond, where the orange of the koi almost glow. Koi are one of my favorite concepts. In China, they are symbols of determination: if a Koi lives to be 1000 years old Or if it swims up the waterfall, depending on the fable), it becomes a dragon. I’m such a fan in that kind of story that I had a koi tattooed over my left arm.

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

Two things: A massive roll of whiteboard paper (if I write things on the white board, I don’t have to keep them in my brain) and a strangely expensive coffee mug. I don’t know why I like this mug so much, but I really enjoy having it. That said, i’m a fiend for good headphones, so I always find myself trolling boards for insanely prices sets I’ll probably never buy.

13. 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

Richard’s a true polymath. He’s written books on architecture, redesigned phone books, tourism, TV criticism, design, he invented the TED conference, and he’s the modern father of information architecture. When asked how he was able to learn all those things, he once said something about how he was better at being dumb than anyone he knew, that he could ask dumb questions until he truly got to the bottom of an idea and understood it.

Tom Peters

Tom invented the concept of “business books you’d actually read” forty years ago. Since then he’s written another dozen more and spent his life being a loudmouth, telling highly-paid business leaders how badly they are missing the point. He’s funny, he’s read every book ever (I’m certain), and has more than once called me an idiot (in more kind terms) on twitter.

Jasmine Bina

I am fascinated with Jasmine. She is absolutely, without question, one of the smartest brand thinkers of our day. Her articles are deep. Her podcast episodes are complex (especially when she’s asking questions she doesn’t know the answer to, and is clearly grappling with as much as any of us are). I really don’t understand why she’s not more famous and would love to hang out and talk with her.

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

Try again. No really. If no one got seriously hurt, why not just try it again? No one learned anything doing something once, so if you’re going to fail, learn a heck of a lot on the ride.

15. 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. I quite literally think in metaphors (which is also how I learn, which probably says as much about me and my head as anything). I once had someone who worked with me write down all the metaphors I said in a meeting. It was an intense list, and I pretty much made all of them up on the spot. I remember my favorite was, “You asked for a horse, but you got two guys in a horse costume…”

16. What hiring heuristic do you generally go with?

Are they willing to grow? All my best hires were people who were like compressed springs, waiting for someone to pull the pin and let them expad, grow and get better.

17. 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. Who cares what ATS you have? Who cares if EB reports to TA or comms? Who cares what job boards you post on? The industry gets stuck on the little details of problems and we are missing huge changes around us. What happens when AI doesn’t just accepts applications, but I start building AI to apply to jobs for me? Wo cares what recruitment marketing platform you have when you aren’t telling an interesting or differentiated story? In the last four months the entire consumer world has flipped upside down, but we haven’t made any changes to how we market jobs. How is that possible? The rest of the world is changing on a hyperspeed level and I still see conversations around “do you ask for cover letters or not?” and “do you reject candidates when they don’t send a thank you note?” Lunacy.

18. 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 the entire world of work and I don’t know that it can really be “solved.” The concept of a business is that it is a group of people trying to accomplish something they couldn’t as individuals. It is a legal concept to allow people to combine their labor and thinking to create more value than the sum of the individual parts. To think that anyone looks at women, blacks, asians, muslims, jews, gay, queer, trans, disabled or any of it as lacking the skills it takes to add value to the company simply because they are that way blows my flipping mind.

19. 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. That’s not the same as going into a forum or emailing a bunch of people and asking for the answer. You’ve got to go find the answer and figure out how to implement and execute it in your own world.

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

Madison Butler, Andrea Hurtado, Allison Kruse, Holland McCue, Charu Malhotra

Thank you for James Ellis to taking 20 Questions With the Brainfood Tribune. James is host to the singularly unique and brilliant The Talent Cast – a must listen for the EB / TA community

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