August 25, 2020
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.
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…
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.
So what does your day-to-day look like? How would you describe the role of a CEO at a non-profit?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
So, where do you see Amil’s career going? If you look to the next few years, what do you see for him?
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.
What’s one of the biggest takeaways for you when you reflect back on this experience and the process of hiring Amil?
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.
Why is it so important for businesses to start to thinking about diversifying their employment and their hiring approach?
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.
What inspires you most when you look ahead to the next few years and think about what Aspire can accomplish?
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.
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?
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
Alright, Jim. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time today.
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.
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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