S1. Ep. 2
A Responsive Leader


August 25, 2020


22 minutes


Amplify Inclusion Podcast


Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.

“If we’re asking companies to do it, we should be willing to do it too.” A responsive leader takes ownership and acts in order to move a mission forward. Aspire CEO Jim Kales discusses the importance of living the vision, his choice to hire an individual with disabilities as his Executive Assistant and why other leaders should do the same. This episode is part of the Season 1 Series: ‘Workplace Transformation Starts Small’. Listen now or view the full transcript below. 

This episode was produced by Aspire Inclusive Solutions and engineered, edited and mixed by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo.

Full Transcript

00:00:03 Clare 

Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare Killy, Director of Inclusive Solutions at Aspire.  Thanks for joining us as we share real stories and conversations about the power and  importance of disability inclusion. This week we continue our series focusing on key  aspects that support disability inclusion and the idea that work place transformation  start small. At Aspire, in our work with countless businesses and organizations, we’ve  found that creating an inclusive workplace often requires a leader with both the  willingness and passion to rethink, reframe, and reinvent. I recently had a conversation  with Aspire’s CEO Jim Kales to examine these aspects of leadership and how they  relate to inclusion. We also discussed his experience hiring and working with his  executive assistant, Amil, who was featured in episode one. Jim spoke about his  decision to hire an individual with disabilities and why other leaders should do the  same. 

I started off by asking Jim what initially drew him to Aspire… 

00:01:13 Jim 

So thanks, Clare. Yep. I am Jim Kales, the CEO of Aspire and I’ve been in that role for  about thirteen years. So, I was at the time, CEO of a much smaller organization called  Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lake County, and you know I was looking to grow my career  and I saw this opening at Aspire. I’d actually heard of Aspire when I was Director of  Communications for United Way of Metro Chicago. You know, I was intrigued by this  idea of working with people with disabilities. I remember coming in to meet some of  the people we serve and was just totally overwhelmed by the warmth of the greetings  that I received and I also sensed that this was an organization that was in transition, had a lot of great potential, but was having some struggles. So financial struggles, team  struggles, marketing struggles and I like a challenge and I thought- okay this  organization has all the pieces and all the building blocks. Maybe I might be the leader  that could help take the organization to a new level of success and it’s been a great  journey. It’s been an incredible journey and I’m proud of what the team has done over  the past thirteen years.

00:02:29 Clare 

So what does your day-to-day look like? How would you describe the role of a CEO at a  non-profit?  

00:02:36 Jim 

I feel that the CEO has a distinct role and part of that CEO role is to really see things  from a bird’s-eye view and to step back and say where is the organization now? Where  is it going? Where could it go? And I really enjoy that that aspect of saying – How do we  make the most of what this organization can be? Another really important part of a  CEO role is really listening to your team, listening to the people you serve, to make  sure you’re on the track of that vision and then it’s also partly is helping to lead people  in the direction of that vision- inspiring people. Part of the CEO role really is being a  storyteller. I think it’s important to be able to step back and really help share that story  both for the team, the people you serve, families and beyond that- the Aspire  Community, to tell that story of who are we and where are we going and that to me is  a really important role of CEO. 

00:03:37 Clare 

So when you think about Aspire, what comes to mind in terms of some of the biggest  challenges and then some of the things that you’re most proud of? 

00:03:46 Jim 

You know, I think these are challenging times and right now more and more is  demanded of non-profit organizations today. We’re asked to do more and more and in  many cases rightly so- by families, by the community- the expectations are very high  and yet the resources we have to do that with are very limited. So I think you’re trying  to do as much as you possibly can with as little as you have. There’s a book that I like  and I’ve shared it with a lot of our team members called ‘A Beautiful Constraint’. The  book is really about how do you see those constraints you have actually as a beautiful  thing and a challenge and I think you know, we’ve gotten very good at finding free  ways to do things, finding ways to lean on partners, volunteers, donors. Resources are  out there, but you sometimes have to be creative in how you find them. But I think  that’s also the great opportunity is finding a way to rally the community together and  to rally the team together and make it happen. 

00:04:51 Clare 

So this idea of rallying really reminds me of the mission and vision of Aspire. How has  that vision become ingrained in you and how would you communicate it to others? 

00:05:04 Jim 

The vision of Aspire is a community where people of all abilities live learn and grow  together. And I think that vision is as vital today, even more vital, actually, and more  and more companies and schools and organizations have really internalized this idea that yes, people with disabilities should not be isolated. They should not be  segregated. They should be fully included in every way and embraced and given the  opportunity to be a part of every aspect of our society and our community. You know, I  mentioned when I first came to Aspire thirteen years ago, there wasn’t that kind of  central organizing vision and I think once we developed that vision, it really gave us a  sense of where we going, what should we be doing more of, and maybe what should  we be doing less of. The best example I would give of that was the sheltered workshop  that we had run for thirty or forty years where we had people with disabilities putting  together parts and piece-work at the workshop in Hillside. And when we looked at the  workshop from that lens of that vision- it was failing and we were not including people  and people were coming into that workshop at age twenty-two and they were still  there at age seventy. So, I’m really proud that we worked to create a new model, the  Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Career Academy to create a new path for people with  disabilities to get training for an industry, whether it’s to work in a hotel or a hospital  or a fitness center and to get simulated training but then get out and get into the  workplace because that is a vision and the vision is not just helping them- helping that  person with a disability to get a job in the community- but helping that community  work place to embrace people and to see that Together, We’re Better. When you come  into Aspire at any of our locations, you’ll see that vision written big on the wall and  part of the reason is to remind us every single day: are we doing everything in our  power to live that vision? And sometimes we have to course-correct. Something we’re  doing is not pushing us towards that vision and we always have to be asking that  question. How are we individually creating a community where we create inclusion,  where we create a welcoming space for everybody? And that really got to me asking  my own question, just like I’m asking every all these other companies to hire  aggressively to really look at including people with disabilities when they hire, we at  Aspire also needs to be pushing the envelope on hiring diverse candidates – and that  really pushed me when I was doing a search for a new executive assistant to think  outside the box. 

00:07:50 Clare 

Yes, I’m really glad you brought that up. So you recently acquired a new employee on  your team, your executive assistant, and you actually worked with some of our own  programs at Aspire to fill that position. So, can you speak to how you made that  decision and the first steps you took to kind of get the wheels turning? 

00:08:13 Jim 

You know, I really tried to learn from our experience cause we’re leader in the  Midwest and really in the nation in terms of helping companies find great talent that  happens to have a disability. And you know, in seeing what our teams were doing at  the Career Academy through our Community Employment Program. Again, I think we  need to ask internally: what are those positions at Aspire where we should be looking  for a wide range of talent to help fill positions? So we started to think what are some of the aspects of that job and really to do what the community employment folks  would really call a job analysis and who might be some of the candidates that could be  really good at that? So we began over a process of time working with the Life on My  Own team and the Community Employment team to start identifying candidates and  then working to actually test candidates on some skills because, like with our  corporate partners, we don’t see the work that we’re doing in placing people in jobs as  charity work. We see this as competitive employment where we are finding really good  people that are the best possible person for a job. And so that’s when we identified  Amil as a candidate for the executive assistant position and we brought him in to see  how he would do on a range of things and he blew us away, because his technical skills  were much higher than mine. And I’m like, this young man has a lot of talent. This is  somebody that I could learn from. So it was a beautiful thing to be able to find him and I really give the team credit for being thoughtful in which candidates they brought to  be interviewed for it, and it’s been an extraordinary process. 

00:09:59 Clare 

So what was it like when you and Amil first started working together? How did you get  to know him and what does your working relationship look like now? 

00:10:07 Jim 

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and not just him but his family, he has an  extraordinary family. And he’s shy and so it’s taken time and we’ve worked together to  really get to know each other. We’d be in the same workspace where we’d be talking  back and forth and I would show him different things we wanted to do. It was hard  because we were really getting into a groove of working together and then COVID hit.  So we had to really develop the technique of working via Zoom, working via Microsoft  Teams, and while continuing to build our relationship. We’ve gotten to know each  other so much more and I’ve been coaching him on not just how to be the best  possible executive assistant, but also, as he’s been doing more presentations to other  parts of the Aspire team, on his speaking skills, his presentation skills. And he really  takes feedback really well and he’s a quick learner. So his progress has been incredible. 

00:11:10 Clare 

Can you give some examples of things that you did to help make sure that Amil would  be set up for success when he started this position? 

00:11:18 Jim 

You know, I think again, it was such a good experience to work with Amil because it  puts us in a good position to learn. Doing this internally and hiring people with diverse  talents internally is really good because it teaches us how to do this for other people and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this, is modeling this behavior. You  know, he was working at our headquarters pre-COVID. 

So really, taking him around to meet every single person in that building so he felt comfortable. Introducing him to different people so when lunch time came around he  would know who he was interacting with. So I think we really went out of our way to  create a welcoming space for him, to introduce him to other people. We also had his  parents- his dad and his step mom- come in for a tour of the Shannon Center, our  headquarters, so they could understand the context in which he was working. I think  that family piece is really important and something I would encourage our corporate  partners to do, as well. They came in and I think they got right away that this was a  special place, this was a special opportunity for him, but it was also helpful for me to  get the context of his family background. And it’s interesting, you know, when he  brought his dad and step-mom around for a tour, he really went out of his way to  introduce them to the people he had become friendly with here at Aspire and I knew  when he was doing that that he had found a home here. 

00:12:45 Clare 

So, Jim, what we’ve seen is that fear of the unknown is often something that holds  leaders back. Can you relate to that? Did you have any fears yourself?  

00:12:57 Jim 

I did have fears. This was somebody who had never been an executive assistant  before, hadn’t worked much before. And we had tested him and we knew he had great  capabilities, but just because of the unknown- I’ll be honest, I was scared and I didn’t  want it to fail. So it was a leap of faith. It was a leap of faith taken with some solid  foundation to it. But it was totally worth it because what he has taught us- again, he  has brought a level of skill and a freshness to this task. Sometimes, you know,  somebody has done a job eight times before that can be good, but it can also be bad  because they feel like they know the job already. He’s doing this like he’s doing it off  first time and he has an excitement to it and really an eagerness to it. I tell you the one  thing that I’m really proud of, you know, I have worked on this method of how I  organize my email inbox and he and I came up with this method together called the  ‘EO Method’ or the Email Organizing Method and I developed a few pieces of it and  then he really perfected it. And I’ve been working at Aspire 13 years and I’ve tried to  get other people interested in this idea of email organizing and he’s the first person to  really take to it in such a keen way. So he’s created this whole training method now,  he’s been training all of our other teams at Aspire with the goal of ultimately training as many as 200 people on this email organizing method. What an adventure that’s  been for him, but what an adventure for other people. Here is someone who is an  Aspire participant, so to speak, who has a disability to be teaching everybody else this  method of how to stay organized with your email inbox. I think that’s one of those joys  you have to see that that’s really the Aspire vision coming to life is that we’re really  showing that we’re focused on the abilities that people have and that we’re trying to  show that everybody has something to offer in our world, and maybe that has  something to offer that we don’t have and that’s really powerful.

00:15:10 Clare 

So, where do you see Amil’s career going? If you look to the next few years, what do  you see for him?  

00:15:18 Jim 

I think the world of him and I think he has a lot of potential for further growth. It’s  been really awesome to see him taking on a leadership role where he’s taking a project  which is essentially teaching 15 or 20 different teams at Aspire how to better organize  information coming into them. I could see him taking on more leadership. I think his  presenting skills are getting better and better so I could see him doing more with  public speaking. I think we’re going to find roles for him to grow his role here at Aspire  and if ultimately that leads him beyond Aspire, that’s okay. You know, when someone  grows beyond a position at Aspire, if it’s part of growth, that’s always something to  celebrate. So I’m excited about his future. 

00:16:09 Clare 

What’s one of the biggest takeaways for you when you reflect back on this experience  and the process of hiring Amil?  

00:16:16 Jim 

I think this has reinforced my beliefs. You know, we say it- Together, We’re Better. And  we say that when we help companies hire diverse talent, including people with  disabilities, that it really makes the workplace better. It’s come alive, you know, in  hiring Amil. We’ve seen it. He has made our workplace and our team at Aspire so much  better. I mean, he’s literally teaching our team things, that if we had not hired him, never would have happened. I don’t think any other person would have been able to  come in and do what he’s doing. So hiring the right person for the right job and, you  know finding the right talent can make an incredible impact. And it’s made me even  more fired up for once the economy gets rolling again and once companies start  opening up to say, hey, please think of unique positions you may have that could be a  perfect fit one of our candidates – that it really will help transform your workplace and  be a rallying point for your workplace.  

00:17:16 Clare 

Why is it so important for businesses to start to thinking about diversifying their  employment and their hiring approach?  

00:17:23 Jim 

Yeah. I mean, I think there’s so much healing that needs to be done in this country.  And you know part of the dialogue there has been looking at- how do we make sure  everybody has a place in our companies and a place to grow and to reach the highest  levels of a company? And I think that one of the beauties of diversity inclusion and the  diversity inclusion movement has been getting us to see that people that don’t maybe look like us, or talk like us , or dress like us can bring incredible talents to the table that  may add something that we didn’t have on our team before. So that has a racial  dimension, a cognitive dimension, a gender dimension, and from our perspective at  Aspire in looking at the disability aspect of diversity – this is actually not asking the  company to do something from a charity perspective. This is asking the company to say you’re going to be getting something out of this. Your company is actually going to be  better because of this. And we’ve seen it again and again and again. And that’s the  thing about diversity and inclusion is when we exclude people, we’re actually missing  out and we’re actually missing out on talent. So I see this is a joyous thing being a part  of this movement and we relish the opportunity to have these discussions with  companies to get them on board. 

00:18:41 Clare 

What inspires you most when you look ahead to the next few years and think about  what Aspire can accomplish? 

00:18:48 Jim 

You know, in some ways the coronavirus challenge has been so hard for us because we  were doing so many great things right when this hit. We were having record numbers  of companies hiring people with disabilities. We were working with so many new  partners- schools, companies, organizations- to rally around inclusion. As we now  move into that new normal, I think there is an excitement here at Aspire of now that  people are getting more used to using digital tools and other kinds of things and  companies are getting more used to that, how do we embrace those technologies as  well, to teach inclusion, to teach what we know – and I think that’s an opportunity for  us. So I think we’ll be doing more digitally while we get back to placing people in jobs  and working with companies and other organizations to embrace our mission of  inclusion and working with the people we serve to give them a great life and working  with their families. So, I’m excited about the future ahead. I think the one thing that  we’ve shown through this coronavirus challenge is this team, this Aspire team, is really  very talented, very amazing group of people. From our volunteers, our families, our  Board, all the partner companies or organizations we work with- we have incredible  resiliency. So I think we’re very well positioned to be a leader, pushing this vision of  inclusion in the new normal in the next year going forward.  

00:20:21 Clare 

What would you say to other leaders that are ready to take that next step but haven’t  yet put it into motion? What steps can they take first?  

00:20:30 Jim 

You know, I think a first step is just being curious and saying wow, maybe this is  something that we should be doing. And I would first say to those CEOs or hiring  managers that the journey starts with just a single step and maybe it can be having a discussion internally to say- are their positions that we have here that could be a great  fit for a candidate from Aspire? So, I think it starts small. You definitely have to step  outside your comfort zone a little bit, because the rewards are immense  

00:21:03 Clare 

Alright, Jim. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time today.  

00:21:09 Jim 

Thank you! 

00:21:11 Clare 

I’d like to thank our CEO, Jim Kales, for taking the time to share his personal  experience. Join us next time as we explore yet another aspect of workplace inclusion the power of partnerships. 

(light music) 

00:21:25 Clare 

Next week, we’ll hear from the owner and an employee of The Bazaar Inc., a local  business and partner of Aspire. Until then – please rate, review, and subscribe to  Amplify Inclusion and learn more at aspirechicago.com. 

This episode was produced by the Aspire Inclusive Solutions team and co-produced  and engineered by Subframe Sound.

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