The Best I Ever Worked With …by Torin Ellis
I’m going to take the liberty of remixing this draft since I’m not responsible for showing up each day in a workplace with other highly capable, creative and talented people. That said, I will remain true and highlight five (5) people that absolutely deserve mention in who I am today. Three (3) from my past and two (2) from the present. One additional note, this was fun because one of the questions I’ve always told candidates to ask is “if you could hire anyone to be on your team, entertainer, executive, politician or sports figure, who would it be and why?” This writing challenge allows me to assemble my starting five (5). Let’s get to it.
Mr. Simmons would not allow me to rest in achievement or fear. He always challenged me to push for more. Mr. Simmons taught physical education at Stiles elementary school. I was athletic growing up having played baseball, basketball, football and track. I was pretty fast. I had raced and beaten everyone within the school except for Cory Hund. He dusted me. I was embarrassed and felt like my young world was shattered. How in the world did this White boy (no malice) beat me in a 50 yard dash. Mr. Simmons was the first and only Black male teacher and he used the moment to talk about being knocked down and getting back up.
I grew up in the Midwest with my formulative years shaped in Davenport, Iowa. A place where there were very few Black people, hence the descriptors in the above paragraph. I was 14 years old and extremely disrespectful to my teacher, Ms. Cherry. What made it worst was that my mother was an instructor at a school down the street. The event resulted in my last session of corporal punishment also known as a beating. With a belt. Then a session in the backyard with my Father. My decision ended with a lesson in respect. Ms. Cherry sought to understand why I acted out in such a manner.
She sat with me every day for a week challenging my behavior and reminding me of the future I had access to. High expectations. Somewhere along the way I determined two things to be of importance – traveling the world and making money. What about college some asked. No interest my response. In my future was an invention that would change the world. Still working on that (smiling). I landed in the Air Force using the rational of it requiring the shortest basic training for the same level of pay. Subjecting myself to the harsher routine of the Army or Marines for $600 per month made no sense to me. Plus, I was already tempered and tough.
Drill Sargent Cook
Which is where my third motivation enters – Drill Sargent Cook. About five weeks into basic training, I did something (VERY MINOR) that resulted in extending my time for additional weeks. Sargent Cook summed it up to my being stubborn and that my decision making would cost me dearly in life. He decided that setting me back might break the resistance and temper I had towards authority. Side eye, if only I had listened/responded accordingly. I eventually made it to my duty station but even that was filled with twists and turns with authority and self-discipline. In 1990, I was kicked out of the military (general under honorable conditions).
My last two persons of interest have made the most impact professionally. The first is Harold Mills. I learned of Harold back in 2007 while reading an article related to our industry. One call led to another which resulted in a personal meeting (March 2008). The day of the company he led, Zero Chaos, had just moved into a new building. We exchanged introductions, talked about the industry, an idea I had and mentorship. Something I’d never had. At the time of meeting, Zero Chaos was doing around $3/400MM in revenue. We had a great meeting and while Harold declined the role of mentor, he did offer to stay in touch because he liked the way I thought about the space.
By the way, Harold suggested that In addition to my idea that I consider starting an RPO. At the time there was a void of representation in the space and that he felt I had the tool bag to build something special. The economy crashed. I worked to keep my head above water and abandoned any thoughts of pursuing new concepts/projects. I just wanted to avoid the loss I had experienced in 2001. Fast forward to 2012 and Zero Chaos crossed the $1B revenue mark. l wondered aloud as to what would have happened had I sat with Harold a few hours per quarter.
Up to this point, I’ve gone in sequential order. The last person entered in 2007 as well. I would draft a newsletter every Monday. Roger Madison, founder of Izania, would read my posts and comment from week to week. He’d do this over time until finally reaching out and connecting. From that moment, he has been one of my biggest advocates, a sounding board, fountain of inspiration and knowledge, and more. Some of my best offerings in the people space are a result of conversations I’ve had with Roger. Whether eating popcorn and drinking wine from South Africa or long exchanges via phone, he has been a pillar of support.
When I lost my father in June of 2009, Roger surprised my entire family by showing up to the funeral. To this day, I have no idea how he knew the when and where because I never told him.
I think about each of these people, the then circumstances and the part they played in adding depth and shaping my character. I think of them as I stand on stages and deliver narration around the importance of inclusion and representation. I think of them as I remind colleagues in the space that mistakes and bouncing back are part and parcel of progress. I think of them when people say that I am wasting time with D&I.
As we exit this pandemic, address racial and social injustice, I’m stronger because of them.
Thank you to Torin Ellis for sharing The Best I Ever Worked With with the Brainfood Tribune. On Twitter or Instagram? Follow Torin there