How many times did you hear the phrase “mind your manners” as a kid? There’s a good reason for that: manners, simply put, are important.
Donald G. James, author, speaker and a 35-year veteran of NASA, recently published a book about about the topic, merging life lessons and career experiences with the timeless wisdom he learned from his mother.
“My mother used to always say, you don’t know where people have been; you don’t know their story and their history,” said Donald on the Leading With Nice Interview Series. “You don’t know what’s driving them. And so being respectful of that doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or think it’s right. But you have to at least respect that they have a history that’s worthy of getting and understanding. So I call that presence listening, and I practice that.”
Donald decided to make a career at NASA after the tragic Challenger accident in 1986. The loss of teacher Christa McAuliffe and her six fellow crew members, and the tremendous outpouring for the nation’s first educator astronaut, persuaded Donald that NASA was one agency that could inspire students to be explorers.
He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He received a graduate Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and completed an MA in International Economic Development from the American University in Washington, D.C. Donald also studied economics at Cambridge University, England in 1975 and attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program in 2004.
Donald joined us on the podcast to discuss all things Ps and Qs and how, more often than not, exhibiting good manners during a job interview can be the tie-breaker in a hiring decision. Check out the episode below.
My mother used to always say, you don’t know where people have been. You don’t know their story and their history. You don’t know what’s driving them. And so be respectful of that doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or think it’s right. But you have to at least respect that they have a history that’s worthy of getting and understanding. So I call that presence listening, and I practice that.
Good day and welcome to the leading with Nice Interview series podcast. My name is Mathieu Yuill, and we want to help you inspire others, build loyalty and get results. Now, if you’ve been listening for a while, you often hear me say, I’m so excited for today’s guest. But the truth is, I am so excited because we only do 26 of these a year. We can really pick and choose who we bring on to share stories with you. And I was just sharing with today’s guest how I only want to do things that are awesome.
And so I’m Super excited now when I came across Donald James, I was like, Is this real? Because Donald has two things that are true about him, that I was like, this is an amazing combination. The first is he has a full career at NASA, and he didn’t work in the cafeteria. Just to be clear about that, we’ll dive into a little bit of what he did and how he did it. But the thing that really captured my attention is Donald is the author of a book called Manners, and the subtitle is Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t.
And I was sharing with you before we started that when I came across this, I actually had a Stephen Covey moment, whereas Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. And the thing about his book is that you read it and you’re like, oh, this just makes sense. When I read a bit about Donald’s book and synopsis, I was like, yeah, this just makes sense. And when I asked him about it, it was just something so natural to him. And he had to get this out on paper.
I just want to preface this whole conversation with that. And I think you’ll find that a lot of this just makes sense. But isn’t that interesting? These things that are common knowledge also often aren’t so common. So anyhow.
Donald, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to the show today.
Thank you, Mathieu. I’m truly excited to get to know you and have this conversation, and I appreciate it.
Now, my content manager always gets mad at me for putting a time stamp, some stuff I’ll say, oh, it’s like this day and time, and he’s like, oh, we can’t listen to this a year and a half from now, so I won’t do that. But I do want to put some geography because you’re in California, right? That’s where you are today. That’s right. Yeah. And so how long have you been stationed there?
Pretty much most of my life. I grew up in the capital of California, which is Sacramento, Sacramento Kings of the NBA.
We all know that.
I went to school in Los Angeles, undergraduate, and then I went to graduate school in Washington, DC. But then I moved after I started with NASA in 1082. After a while, I was able to transfer back to California to one of our centers in Northern California. And I’ve been here ever since.
Can you give us your high level LinkedIn profile? Like, what kind of responsibilities and jobs did you do at NASA?
Yes. My field was primarily external relations and education. So my job was to interpret the cool work that NASA did for the public, whether it was through working with news media on television or whether it was events for the public. And then about halfway through my career, I shifted in the education because NASA has a large investment to inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers. And so I spend most of my time managing programs to do that, whether it was internships or scholarships or school activities or onsite activities.
And then that took me up to my last job, which was associate administrator for education for the entire agency. That was my dream job. And I still pitch myself thinking, wow, I actually was able to do that. That’s pretty cool.
You must feel some satisfaction in all the private space exploration work being done today.
Absolutely. It was a big goal of NASA to inspire what we call the space economy, which is to inspire entrepreneurs and private industry to get involved in space activities and all the domains. And the main driver was that when NASA decided to retire the space shuttle, we needed a way to send our astronauts to the space station without having to buy seats from the Russians on their Soyuz aircraft. We wanted to have other means of doing that. And so we played a big role in the spacexes and the blue origins of the world.
And now they’re coming to fruition. It’s very exciting. And the space economy, I think, is just going to grow. And a lot of people are going to get involved, sort of like aviation. The early days, aviation was pretty much a government run thing. And then private industry figured out how to get involved. And I think in 25, 30 years, you’re going to see a lot of people going to space and doing a lot of interesting things.
Okay. This is what I’m talking about. I could easily do another hour on that. But more important to me than getting me into space, which is definitely on the bucket list. That and having a salad for lunch. Those are two things I hope to do in my lifetime. More likely I’ll go to space. But I want to talk about your book because, oh, man, especially as we do more work online. It’s so important, and manners will take you where brains and money. Won’t you talk about how it helped in your career?
But this book is also like a living tribute to your mom, which Mary Elvon guessette, James, which I love. So can you just tell us I’d love for you to encapsulate her as a person beyond just the lessons who she was that gave you such a strong sense of this today?
Yeah. So my mother was reared in Atlanta, Georgia, which is in the Southern part of the United States. And if people know that area, the south has an interesting history and American history. She was an only daughter, quiet, spoken, studied French, and that’s when she became a French teacher and an English teacher. But I think the thing that is important is and I know if you’re listening to this, you don’t know necessarily what I look like unless you look me up. But I’m an African American male, and I have a brother and my mother after she divorced my father in the early 1960s, essentially reared two black men in the 60s and 70s, which was a tumultuous time in the United States.
And one of the things she was always concerned about was obviously our wellbeing as most mothers are. And so my mom really insisted on making sure that we engaged our world in a way that wouldn’t cause us harm or would actually elevate us. And to her, your manner, how you showed up in the world was really important. And that was a big deal for her. And the thing that I’d like to emphasize, and we can certainly get into this a little bit more is that manners, as I have defined it in the book, is much more than just politeness and etiquette.
And the please. And thank you. Those are important. I do that. And I appreciate things that are given to me. And I say so I always write handwritten thank you notes to people who gifted me like my mother taught me. But I think manners is very three dimensional in a way, it’s much broader than that. And so when I thought about how was it that someone like me who was I mean, I wasn’t a straight A student, Mathieu. I was okay. I was kind of BA minus, depending on what kind of year I had.
But I made it to the highest echelons in the United States government. I mean, I was one step away from the President of the United States, President Obama. In this case, the man that I work for was appointed by President Obama. And so there’s a lot of smart people at NASA, and I was certainly smart enough to do the job that I was assigned to do. But the fact is, I didn’t have a string of degrees and awards and things that I was okay. But there are other people who are, like, off the charts.
And so the question was like, how did I do that? And I really realized that it was because of what I learned from my mother fundamentally. And then the experiences that I had that people wanted to help me and support me. And then I learned the things I needed to do. And I think ultimately, that’s how I was chosen. And I like to submit a lot of people are chosen that way, whether it’s an interviews or whether it’s a promotion or even as a mate for a partner.
You know, people don’t really care about all your degrees. If you’re a good person, they might look past the fact that you didn’t go to Harvard, right? If you are a decent person. So if you’re not a decent person, they might say, Well, that’s not good enough. So I submit that how you are as an individual and all its complexity matters. And I think that’s what mattered to me. So I got that from my mom and to some degree, my father and other were ways. But my mother was the one that showed me through her actions in her manner, too.
I love I’m not sure if this is a phrase you’ve been coining for yourself, but it should be your second book. It should be called How You Show Up. We did a brief talk about your work at NASA. How did you show up at NASA? Put yourself in the feet of the people who were observing you for the first time? What were you intentional about? How did you show up in a way that was thought out or maybe that you had purposely built into who you were?
I love the question. I haven’t really been pushed on that, but I think that’s the heart of the matter. First and foremost, I approached meeting people with a high degree of curiosity. I was always curious about people and what matters to them. It was important for me to get to know their name and get to know something about their family. And I would ask about that because it turns out people love to hear their names spoken. They love to know that people are interested in their family.
I made a point consciously, even if I was sure that I knew something to not act like I knew something and everything, because there’s a lot of times when I was just so certain I was right about something. And it turns out that wasn’t necessarily the case. So I learned to meter that. I also learned to try to understand the culture that I was in. So NASA is a big agency. Many people aren’t aware that there’s ten field centers around the United States, and NASA headquarters is in Washington, DC.
And even though I’ve visited NASA headquarters throughout my career, I never worked there until my final job. So literally the first day that I walked into NASA, I think after I got my badge because you had to get a badge. I went to see an old friend of mine, somebody that I worked with, like, 30 years prior. And in fact, the funny thing is, he didn’t even know that I had gotten this job, and I’m sitting down saying, Well, so what do I have to do to stay out of the doghouse here?
I was asking him about the culture and who I need to get to know and talk to. And it’s sort of like the kind of rules that you’re not going to get a rule book when you first walk into NASA, they don’t hand you a book that says, okay, this is what you have to do. You have to talk to what I call my intelligence operatives. And I always cultivated an intelligence operative and say, okay, what’s the real deal here? And halfway through the conversation, why are you asking me these questions?
Well, because I got the A job, the Associated Ministry job. He’s like you did. We hugged and cried that I got it. But that’s kind of how I approach things to me. It’s a matter of respecting the organization and the culture that I go into, because things might be a little different, right. And I’m an outsider, even as an American. And as a NASA employee for 30 years, I go to a different part of NASA. I’m an outsider. It’s different when I went to the Marshall Space Flight Center, right.
That’s in the south, in Alabama, and they do things different there than they do at the Glenn Research Center, which is in Cleveland, Ohio. So I approach. My manner is to understand the people and the culture, and it’s mainly because I’m just interested. But it also turns out it helps me avoid potential problems and mistakes. And I think people understood that. I’d like to say that I’m a good listener, and my listening skills have evolved. I look at listening in three ways. There’s hearing, right. Our kids are masterful at hearing you.
They could be doing five things. Did you hear what I said? He goes, yes, dad. And then they repeat verbatim what you said, right.
But you’re not sure they’re totally with you. And then there’s the so called active listening where you practice the art of saying, okay, Mathieu, what I heard you say is and then you paraphrase what you said, and I’ve tried to take it to the next level. What I call presence. Listening. Presence listening because a sense of presence is about the full body experience of connecting with a person where you’re actually listening to things that are not spoken. You’re paying attention to body language. You’re trying to understand a bit of context and history.
Like my mother used to always say, you don’t know where people have been. You don’t know their story and their history. You don’t know what’s driving them. And so be respectful of that. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or think it’s. Right. But you have to at least respect that they have a history that’s worthy of getting and understanding. So I call that presence listening. And I practice that. I practice that when I walk into new organizations, and I practice that now, whether I was successful all the time, I’ll let my colleagues be in touch with that as we do more online conversations.
One of the arenas I’ve been investigating is how do we communicate just as well online as we did in person? Because obviously, we have so many more points of input in person. If we aren’t going to have those, are we going to give up all those ways of receiving information? If so, can we increase our capacity in our hearing and scene? For example, I remember reading a story about a wrestler who had lost a leg. And so the interviewer asked, oh, did you go down a weight class then?
And he said, Well, actually, no, I actually was the same weight because my body just made up that mass elsewhere. And when you look at somebody who has a physical disability like their deaf or blind or whatnot oftentimes studies show that they are heightened in other arenas. Right. So as we do more online.
How can we heighten anyhow that’s aside the point that’s a good exploration, Mathieu.
Right. Well, yeah, I’m interested in leadership communications, right. Anyhow but nothing about me. The other thing you said that I wrote down because I can’t write this down enough. And I first heard a variation of it from a woman named Molly Fletcher, who is a sports agent for like John Smoltz and a lot of Atlanta Braves. And whatnot? And she said trade defensiveness for curiosity. Listening is at the heart of a hungry learner. And that is what you said. It just a lot less words. That is a lesson we can’t hear often enough and really understand.
And I really love the way that if you’re listening today and you’re leading a team, one thing I think you can reflect on with them is what Donald said about each of your leaders, that you’re leading or in your team to reinforce that they don’t know the person’s story. And here’s a guy that had to reach out to the whole nation and beyond that the world in talking about NASA’s work, and he holds his dear to him. So if in his role, he felt it was important, surely, for us making widgets in our factory, it’s something we can do.
I love that. I just want to re emphasize that.
Listen, moving along again, I have some questions that we’ve talked about before, and I want to make sure I get to them before our time is up today. So you talk about your career being influenced by the upbringing and the lessons your mother taught. You can you tell us maybe one or two lessons and maybe a story of how that played out maybe just kind of give us. I love to give people practical applications. So let’s talk about a lesson and maybe an example of that lesson playing out.
I’ll give you one. And then if you want, I can give you another one. They’re both what I would call sensitive and difficult. I know that listeners by now must think, oh, he’s this wonderful guy that just does really great stuff and all that. But believe it or not, there was a time in my career about ten years ago where I actually thought I was going to get fired for something incredibly stupid that I did. I exercise very poor judgment and pro tip number one, you could be very good at manners and still exercise poor judgment.
And yet judgment call could cost you your job. And this was an example where I did something. The details aren’t that important. But let’s just say I got called on the carpet. And the director at the time of where I was working was kind of an interesting kind of classic guy who was known to be a bit volatile if things didn’t go his way. And his deputy, who in a way was fortunate because he was a friend of mine. So the deputy, the number two person at the center, was a friend of mine.
We were actually roommates many years ago. I took them in when his wife left them, and so he always felt happy about that. That came into play a little bit later on in this story. The bottom line is the deputy King. My friend came down to my office and asked me about something, and he was really worked up and said, the boss wants to see right now, drop what you’re doing. And so I got marched down the hall. It was like going to the gallows. I thought, oh, my gosh.
That’s how I felt. I was trembling, and I thought, I’m really in due now. So I go into his office and he just launches into me about what was I thinking? What was I doing? And he went on to scoriating me for what I did. And while I was there, there was two things that I remembered, and I don’t know if it came from my mom or how, but I know this was like a trained reaction. One thing I learned is that when you’re the subject of a one way vitriolic admonition from a superior, the last thing you want to do is interrupt that person’s because they’re angry.
They’re venting. And he was angry and he was venting. So you don’t want to interrupt to try to defend and say, but because I had a defense, it wasn’t a good defense. But I actually had a story that I thought if he understood, he would say, okay, well, that makes sense. But this wasn’t the time to do it. So what I did is, first of all, I stood in front. He was sitting down at his desk. I stood in front of him. My body was completely square to him.
It wasn’t at an angle because your body language can tell you a lot about what your intentions are like. If my feet were aiming out the door, it’s sort of like saying, I just can’t wait to get out of this. But I wanted to make sure that he knew I was completely with them. And I looked at him. I didn’t give him the death stare. Go ahead. I just soft locked on him. But I looked at him, and I waited for him to what I called crescendo in his anger.
And you can kind of tell when someone is about to run out of gas and they’re venting, at which point I employed the second thing that I learned, which has magically just made a huge difference. And I was 200% sincere, and I looked at him and I called him by his name. So I used his name and I said, how can I make this right? I’m very sorry that I caused this. How can I make this right? And there was something about that. He completely shifted.
The anger went away because what he heard, I believe, was I was contrived. I apologize for causing I didn’t apologize for what I did. I apologize for causing him to be mad about what I did. And that was a subtle distinction because it’s sort of like if I’m late, I don’t say, well, I’m sorry the dog ate my homework. I am sorry that I caused you to have to wait for me because the apology is about the impact that you’ve had on the person. So I apologize for my impact on him as the leader of the organization.
And then I said, how can I make this right? And so then we became partners in undoing the mess that I had made. And there was nothing really to undo. And within ten minutes, Mathieu, he shook my hand and said, you know, Don you really are doing a great job. And I appreciate that you’re on the team and thank you. And that was it. I didn’t get fired and I walked out and I was like, wow, but I had to completely open my heart and be completely prepared to accept whatever was going to come my way without trying to defend anything, because it was in many ways indefensible.
So that’s what I would say as an exact example. If you messed up, it could be with a partner. It could be with whether it’s a business partner, a marriage partner, or it could be with a subordinate, or it could be with superior. How can you make this right.
Dude, that’s a Ted talk we need. That is a Ted talk. We need not like, I don’t need to know about mosquitoes or cool new robots or anything. This leads into the next topic I wanted to talk about, because when you said death stare. I just thought about my kids when I have to talk to them about getting their homework done, brushing their teeth, not speaking rudely to their friends on Fortnite online. And just when they sit down to get some trouble and they just give me that death stare, this is not going to be a good interaction.
So let me shift here because a lot of our listeners, I’m a dad next to being a husband to my wife. It is my favorite thing. And I’ll talk about you and your kids all day. I love hearing about your family. So a lot of the clients we work with, I get to know about their kids and their spouses and whatnot so I’d love because your lessons work in business. I remember, like, years ago, and this is not my original thought. But I remember going to a workshop on business ethics and my dad because I was a young man at the time.
My dad was like, how was it? I’m like, dad, it feels off because I don’t have business ethics. He’s like, what? Oh, my gosh. I’m like, no, I just have ethics. Yeah, it’s not business. So when you talk, the stuff you’re talking about isn’t just good for business and you’ve alluded to it. It’s good for your life as well. So let’s talk about I’d love you to take out one thing for parents. So these leaders who are parents or maybe also their adult children that don’t have their own kids yet, but still have parents that are working and active in their life.
What’s one kind of lesson that you think might be helpful in the raising of kids?
I’ll start with this in the book that I wrote. Mathieu, I forgot how I framed it. I said, the last thing you should do as a parent is to plop a copy of my book in front of your teenager and say, Read this. It’ll help you. It’s not going to work. No kid. Nobody wants to be told what to do. I’ve had a lot of parents. Oh, I bought all these books for my kids. I said, Well, please be careful with what you share. I appreciate you reading it.
So it’s really quite. Maybe it’s oversimplified. The best thing a parent I think can do is to model the behavior for their kids. And one thing I’m very proud of. My kids are 28 and 25 now, and sometimes it brings tears to my eyes to see how they show up, because most of how they show up is because of how they’ve watched myself and my brother, who was my collaborator on the book and other members of my family. And they are doing that. And I see examples even today.
I saw a great example. This happened with my daughter. And so modeling the behavior is the most important thing. So I would say to parents, work on your manners, improve your manners and be consistent with your kids. I tell a story of a young man. I wrote my book in a lot of coffee shops before the pandemic hit, and I was in one once, and everybody was buried in their cell phones and all this stuff. But I was sitting behind a young man who I assume was his daughter was on the other side.
The daughter was facing me, I assume, was her dad had his back to me, and he was a young guy. I had tattoo all over him, but he was with his daughter. I’m like, wow, that’s really cool. He’s hanging out with his daughter, and I thought, wow, that’s what parents should be like. They should just be engaged with their daughter. Then I got up to throw away a piece of trash, and I was totally deflated, because when I got around on the other side of them, I didn’t realize he was buried into his cell phone while his daughter was talking to him and playing with him.
And at that very moment, I wanted to say, do you realize that you’re communicating to your daughter? That what’s on your phone is more important than her.
I can’t say that I’m perfect in my own behavior, but we developed a habit in our family. We don’t have our cell phones at the dinner table, and that when I go into a place of worship. I don’t even bring it into the facility. I leave it in the car. And I say in the book, I said, If God wants me, she’ll get me. I just hope it’s not a one way summons. So that’s an example of what I thought was poor modeling. And I was fortunate that my mother surrounded my brother and me with very well crafted, well mannered men, African American men in my life.
So I just grew up thinking that that’s how you needed to be. I think she did that somewhat on purpose, but it was also just part of her brother community. So you got to work on your own manner and be mannerally with your children. My mother didn’t yell. She’s a school teacher. She never raised her voice. Never. I think I remember one time she raised her voice because I nagged her so much, and it haunted me the rest of my life. I think I must apologize 100 times later when I was a kid, that was the only time I remember her just kind of losing it because I was being such a knucklehead.
I want to build on top of that impact of the manners. I do my best not to cuss. Yeah, and I’m pretty good at it. And I worked with a woman. Sandra Ryan has her name, and she used to say, There are so many words in the English language, and all of them have an appropriate time and place, including swear words. But we just have so few appropriate times that when we use them at an inappropriate time. You sound stupid. And I was like, That’s a good lesson.
I learned that when I was in my 30s. And so generally I just don’t cuss. And there’s one day my kids were being really just whatever. And my wife had gone to work. I’m trying to get out the door, and I swore I was like, Would you stop shut the back up or whatever? And when they came home, my kids were all in time out, and I hadn’t told my wife anything. They’re all in time out. And I’m like, What’s happened? What do the kids do?
They’re like? Well, they told me you swore this morning. And so I knew if you had sworn that they had done something bad, it’s funny. That was literally 13 years ago. My oldest still talks about it. Yeah, it’s interesting. I totally did. You dude, like, you are preaching to the choir. This could be a three hour service for all I’m concerned. But listen, how can people find you? Where can they find your book? We’ll have a link in our description, of course. But if they’re for a run and they want to Google it or ask Siri or Google.
How can they find your stuff if they can remember my full name? Donald Gregoryjames dot com is my website, and anything you want to know about the book is there. Donald Gregory James. The book is on Amazon. It’s called Manners will Take You where Brains and Money won’t wisdom from Mama and 35 years at NASA. That’s the subtitle. So Manners will take you where Brains of Money won’t. I’ve learned that if I type Manners will in the Amazon search, then the full title book comes up because there’s a lot of titles that have Manners in it, but it’s an Orange book, and it has a picture of my mother and my brother and me as little babies on her lap, which is on the cover.
But my website is there. People can communicate with me through my website, or they can email me at Mannersvilltaq at gmail.
I welcome emails from people. I welcome people’s thoughts and ideas, so I look forward to expanding this conversation. I think that there’s so much in the world that could use a bit of mannerly attention. And like I said in the last quarter of my life, this is what I want to give this conversation and to expand it. Thank you for this opportunity.
Well, listen, before we go, you and I have a conversation today is actually the work of a lot of people. So I have to thank Cindy Craik. She does all the booking for this. Naomi Grossman helps me write the questions. If you heard about this on social media, you can thank Jamie Hunter. He’s our content manager. He got all this prepped. Austin Pomeroy audio editor who made it sound great, added the awesome music at the start. Geoff Anhorn is doing the video editing and making prepping all the content for social.
That way, Kerry Cotton is our account manager. She’s the one at leading with nice actually doing work. So while I’m doing this, I love watching our slack channel as she gets work done with clients. I’m so appreciative and Sam Forson did all the great graphic prep for this. So all these people contribute to you and I having an awesome conversation and allowing your such valuable message out through this channel. So I want to thank all too. And of course, thank you to you.
Don I want to underscore the listeners you heard with Mathieu went through chapter ten of the book is called Who Is on Your Team. And Mathieu knows who’s on His team because it takes a team to do just about anything, including to support you and proving your manager. So I want to commend you for those Acknowledgements because that’s chapter ten.
I do. Thank you very much. Thank you. All listeners see you in the next episode.