Sometimes, the only one holding us back from going the right path is ourselves. That’s why it’s important to learn how and why we need to get out of our own way. Ericka Kelly is a best-selling author, professional speaker, executive coach, and trainer. She was also the 17th Command Chief Master Sergeant for the Air Force Reserve Command and the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of the Air Force Reserve. In this episode, she joins Ben Baker to share her story of growing up in the face of adversity, being in a traumatic abusive relationship, and now becoming a voice and a helping hand for others going through the same things. Listen to her inspiring story of overcoming and be moved.
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Why We Need To Get Out Of Our Own Way With Ericka Kelly
[00:01:23] In this episode, I am saluting the military once again. I love our military veterans. I want to be able to support them whenever I can. I have got Ericka Kelly. She is a retired Master Sergeant. She has got an incredible story to tell, but we are going to talk about why we need to get out of our own way and create our own opportunities. Ericka, welcome to the show.
[00:01:46] Ben, it is so amazing to be here. I love how you love your readers. I love how you connect with everyone. I am humbled to be in your presence.
[00:02:00] The show is about you and them. It is not about me. Whatever I do and whatever I try to do, it is not about me, my glory, and me looking good. It is like, “How can I help my audience tell a story? How can I add value to my audience?” For years, that is what I have been doing with this show. I always try to find and say, “Who can I bring on the show that is going to give a different viewpoint and lens for people to look through and be able to sit there and go, ‘I never thought of it that way?’”
You and I met through LinkedIn. I cannot even remember who we met through, but I love talking to you off the air. I loved our conversations. I said, “I got to get Ericka on the show,” because you, over many years, had two careers simultaneously. That was a real dichotomy. Why do we not start there, and give people a little bit of a brief about where you came from and where you are now? Let’s also talk about how we need to get out of our own way to create our own success.
[00:03:04] I am going to walk the history back. I am now a business owner. I love coaching, training, and speaking. One step back is the two careers that you talked about Ben, in which I was able to serve in and out of active duty in the Air Force for 32 years. That is a long time, everyone. I was there for 32 and a half years. I was able to navigate that specific career from being a very scared, timid young 22-year-old.
That is how old I was when I went into the military, shy, “Do not look at me please, because you are going to break me,” all the way to being a ground medic, Air Evac medic, and then, as I progress into the ranks, retiring from that amazing career as a Command Chief Master Sergeant for the whole Air Force Reserve Command. It is incredible if you connect the journey.
[00:04:09] Did you end up being responsible for 70,000 to 80,000 people in the end?Start trusting the Yeses versus the Nos. Click To Tweet
[00:04:15] It’s around 74,000 enlisted. I had the privilege of being the advisor to my commander, a 3-star general. I was in a group of beautiful individuals, enlisted and officers, where there were 4-star generals in the room that would say not just to me, but to the other enlisted, “What do you think, chief?” What an amazing opportunity to share your thoughts from the perspective of someone. You say, “Share a little bit of your story.” Someone that is an immigrant to the United States came here when I was twelve. If I look back at how I grew up, I grew up eating ants. I grew up with no water. I grew up with no electricity, a dirt floor, and playing in the mud. That is my background.
I knew how to read and write, but that is about it. Electricity was a new concept for me when I came to the United States. Looking at that background and then looking at being the advisor to 3 and 4-star generals and other peers and being the top enlisted, is an amazing journey. That is the military side. On the law enforcement side of the house, I started working under the Department of Justice, but after September 11, the Department of Homeland Security was created. My agency got moved over to Homeland. I was transferred to Homeland in the Department of Justice. I served for 27 years as a Special Agent.
[00:06:01] You had a full-time career within Homeland Security. Most of the time, you were a reservist within the Air Force.
[00:06:09] It was amazing. I got deployed. I got to see the world. I got to take care of people. I got to thank the United States for allowing me to be here. I also got to serve in law enforcement. It was a different perspective, Ben. In law enforcement, the cases that I worked on were, in the end, human trafficking and human smuggling. When I ended my career with Homeland, I was working in Internal Affairs. Sometimes people go, “X me out. Internal Affairs? Boo, Ericka Kelly.” Everyone, hear me, please. In that office, I had the amazing responsibility to uphold the integrity of the whole agency to upholding the integrity of every single person that worked the same batch that I had and the same credentials that I was using.
If there was a false allegation, through the investigation, I was able to give credibility back to that name. When you are going through an investigation, it is not an easy thing. For me as an agent to be able to prove your credibility, give you your name, your title, and your position back, how amazing is that? If you are violating the law, if you are using the badge, or if you are using your credentials to take care of people, play people, be greedy, be selfish, and commit crimes, why not take that away from you? Why not uphold the integrity of what we have worked to serve and protect? I thought I was not going to like it, but my last assignment in the Office of Professional Responsibility was amazing.
[00:08:10] To go back to the fact that you are an immigrant to the United States, the people that I know are immigrants that go into service base, whether it be military, police force, or law enforcement, tend to have a very strong connection to this country. You have a strong connection, a sense of honor and protection, and to sit there and say, “You have been given a gift of citizenship.”
With that, there is responsibility. With ultimate power comes ultimate responsibility. I am paraphrasing Spider-Man. It is looking at the fact that we need to take a look at it as individuals and as members of a group to sit there and say, “There is great in whatever we do. There are also the not-so-great. Each one of us has the responsibility to lift everybody up and to do our best.”
When people look at internal affairs of anything, whether it be the police department or the military, you need to look at that and say, “These are the people that are crawling down somebody’s life.” Sometimes, it needs to happen. Sometimes, you are the person that is giving somebody their life back.
My question to you is what led you to that? What led you to take on and say, “I am at the end of my service career. This is going to be my last thing within Homeland that I am going to do based on my retirement ages.” What led you to sit there and say, “This is the position that I want to finish on to be able to sit there and say, ‘Of all the things that I have done, this is the culmination of this career and enable me to go out with my head held high.’” What brought you there?
[00:10:02] It’s a combination of things. I served in different squads and sections of Homeland. I worked in gangs, human trafficking, human smuggling, and others. A whisper goes by and says, “They need people downstairs in Internal Affairs.” I am like, “Not me.” My supervisor then says, “They need people, and I am sending you.” Remember how I said, “I thought I was not going to like it?” I went because they needed people. Someone saw potential in my own values that I showcase on the worksite that they knew that I was going to be a good asset to that office.
When I went downstairs, and as I am learning the role, I realize how important it was. I realized how the core value of the Air Force of integrity first, my own personal value of always being persistent, always being resilient, and always proving to the world, to you, to whoever sitting next to me, that I can add value to my environment. All of those things had been combined. I was able to finally say, “This is good. I like it here. I want to finish my career with the understanding that, in uniform, I am upholding integrity, and in a suit, I am upholding integrity as well.” It brought everything to my core.
[00:11:59] In some ways, that gets us right into getting out of our own way. You, like a lot of people in your place, there was Internal Affairs, as you said, “Not me.” You are sitting there and going, “Why would I even think about this?” There were a lot of things that your supervisors saw potential in you and thought that you would be an asset from the fact that you had been in gangs, in prostitution rings, and that you had seen all the different parts of Homeland security. The fact that you had come from Guatemala and speak foreign languages, you could be a real asset to Internal Affairs and provide a different voice and point of view.
You were the person that was sitting there going, “I do not think that this is right for me,” but somebody else saw your potential. What took you out of your own way? Was it the fact that you were sent or did you fight it? Was it something that you said, “Do not make me go,” or was it like, “I can see the point of view. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can see the value of doing this?”
[00:13:06] It is interesting that you are asking me this and that we are talking about getting out of my own way. In reality, everyone is getting out of their own way to move forward. That is exactly what you said. I have internal programming. Whatever people put in me before I could say no and reject it, I have programming in me that if something happens, my brain automatically goes to negative. My brain automatically finds a file and goes, “That is not going to work. Not you. You are too small. Did you forget you are a woman? Did you forget that you are weak?” I am, and some of us, are our worst critics.One of the things that help you help others is to be vulnerable. Click To Tweet
My environment reinforced it. The human culture, Hispanic culture, at least from the family tree that I come from, if you are a female, you need to be quiet. You need to serve. I do not mind serving, but a different role. It is very traditional. As a woman, as I grew up, I needed to learn how to clean a house properly. I needed to do laundry properly. I needed to cook properly because I needed those things in order for me to find a proper husband. When I say, “What about if I want something else?” I want my own career. I was fighting my own family. I was fighting the traditional side of my culture.
When I say I needed to get out of my own way is because it is not that I rejected everything that they were saying, I believed it as well. I needed someone like my supervisor. I possibly needed someone like you that saw, “Is it not true that sometimes we see someone else’s potential before they see it themselves?” I needed you, Ben, and my supervisor to go, “Ericka, I see you doing this.” I needed to get out of my own way to trust that individual, not be stubborn, and not say no. I do not know how many times I needed to believe in your belief in me before I could feel that the ground was stable and I was standing on a good foundation. I needed to trust someone ahead of me.
[00:16:21] A lot of that must have been hard for you because you were in a position, whether it be in the Air Force or within Homeland Security, where you were a minority. You were a small woman. You come from a foreign language and are a new immigrant. You are not the typical recruit within either Homeland Security or the Air Force. You came into a situation where walking into the United States was the first time you had electricity. There were a lot of things that were new to you and were not conventions for you. You need to learn how to cook properly. You need to learn how to clean properly. You need to learn how to take care of a husband.
Those were the things that we are expected to use. Certainly not learning how to either jump out of an airplane or shoot a gun or all the other tasks that you did over a 30-plus-year career. My question is when you got into those positions at the beginning because you said when you got into the military at first, you were timid, quiet, and shy, did you have people that were mentors at the beginning that allowed you to come out of your shell and believe in yourself because they believed in you? Was it through trial and tribulation building self-confidence in yourself as you see yourself, “I did not think I could do this. I did it. I can do this?”
[0017:43] I wish that I could tell you that I had a good foundation. I had some, but this is what I did. I was 22 when I went into the Air Force. I was lying to my family and my friends. The lie was that they thought that I married at twenty and that I was happily married and that everything was good. That is how I wanted people to see me. I had this shield, and I was reflecting a specific life.
[00:18:16] Did you actually get married?
[00:18:18] I was married. Let me back up so I can showcase the magnitude of how the Air Force saved my life. When I walked with my brothers and my mother to the United States, I was twelve, and that was the first time that I spent with my mother because she had abandoned my two brothers at the age of five. Here I am in a strange country, Mexico, walking with this strange woman. I am the oldest of the three, trying to protect my brothers. I come to a country that was not too welcoming to us. It was very cold, has language barriers, and the culture. That was a big deal. I saw myself homeless at the age of sixteen in the streets of Las Vegas.
My mom had enough of my rebellious, primitive self. She pushed me out. Here I am at sixteen, trying to survive. The way that I was able to survive at the age of sixteen was I met this individual that I thought was going to be my anchor, savior, and protector. I ended up meeting him at sixteen. He was 32 at the time. I am marrying him at the age of twenty, but during that time, there was a lot of conditioning. I do not know if you remember when you were sixteen. I barely remember when I was sixteen, but I remember making bad decisions.
[00:19:45] I left home at seventeen, so I understand what you are saying.
[00:19:50] Here I am with this individual that is very violent. I did marry him, but I did not see any red flags because of my background, how I grew up, and everything else. The beatings and abuses were normal. I remember I believed some of the labels that people gave me. When I went into the military, I did it for pure survival. I did not do it like, “They are going to pay for school. I am going to become an Airman.” I did it to get away from a predator. I did it to get away from someone where the violence was escalating to move him from killing me any time soon. When I am shy and quiet and do not want people to pay attention to me is because if they pay attention to me, they are going to go, “That is that broken in pieces girl. She does not belong here. Get her out.”
I am standing in this room in which, for the first time in my life, the Air Force said, “We see potential in you.” Everything from that point back was, “No.” Mind you, I had to test and say, “I want to.” There was something in me that was driving me. I get it, but it was that recruiter that I do not even remember his name that said, “You can be in the Air Force.” It was the first time that I am like, “You want me?” “Yes, if you want to.” I am in basic training. I talk about this quite a bit. I look at the chaos, and the other girls cried. I am like, “This is cool.”
I talk sometimes about crying myself, but not crying like, “What am I doing here?” I am staring at that metal bed with a green wool blanket, tight. I am looking at that bed, at the chaos, and at the instructors. I am thanking God that I am there and that I am not being beaten up, and after I get beat up, my own husband is going to rape me. When I talk about the Air Force and getting out of my own way, I started trusting the yeses versus the noes that people were saying and the noes that were in my heart that were full of scars. I held on to the yeses. That took me 27 years of law enforcement and 32 years of military service and being able to be a coach and a trainer owning my own business.
[00:22:47] It is a heck of a story. We all have a past, but some of us have more than others. We are all a product of our past experiences. Who we were enables us to be who we wish to become if we are able to sit there and go, “I can rise above and beyond.” Some people can, and some people cannot. I applaud you for that. My question to you is, over your career, you saw other people that may not have been in exactly the same situation you were, but could also not get out of their own way. How did you help them find ways over, under, through, around, or whatever when they could not see a path to light themselves?
There is always adversity in our lives. A lot of times, we do not see it ourselves because it is normal for us. We are living in chaos, and we cannot see that there is a better way. How did you help and how do you help other people find their way from the darkness to the light and be able to get out of their own way and build their own success?The magic is that if someone feels stuck and you share something, and in that sharing, they see themselves in that story and go, “I can make another step forward.” Click To Tweet
[00:23:56] One of the things that have helped me help others is to be vulnerable. The story of my first night in basic training is not the story that I told for a few years when I entered the military. When people would ask me, “What made you go into the Air Force?” I would say, “It’s because of education.” I would say the political answer.
I would say what I thought people needed to hear, not the truth. As I am protecting myself, if I look at my core in those years, I am full of shame. I need to hide it. It is that criticism. I am afraid of people, “How did you end up with a bad guy? How did you end up homeless? Did you walk to the United States? Who are you? What do you mean you are not sophisticated enough to?” You fill in the blank.
I had all kinds of feels until I studied peeling the onion back. This is what I realized in both worlds, working with women that were trafficked, children that were kidnapped, all those crazy things, and also the Air Force. I realized that what people were looking at was a title. They were looking at a Senior Master Sergeant, Chief, or Special Agent. The rank, the title, and the position made people look at me. It makes us look at leadership in a specific way. If someone is in a dark place and is looking at someone only by their title, position, and rank in the military, we are missing out if that leader does not expose the truth to their people.
The minute that I started saying, “My life was not easy. Let me tell you a story,” I would say, “This is how I grew up. This is what happened when I was a teenager. This is what happened when I was a young woman. This is why I went into the Air Force. This is why I went into law enforcement. In law enforcement, I was sometimes the only female in. This is what the guys would say. This is what I had to do in order to always take the high road.” The minute I started sharing the truth of my life is the minute that individuals started whispering in my ear, “Me too.”
I remember this young man. I share my story of how I ended up in the Air Force. Afterward, he comes over, young, 1920, and he says, “I am going to go home and tell my mom about you.” I am like, “Okay.” He is like, “I spent almost my whole childhood hiding from my father because my father was like your husband. In order to survive, my mom had to hide us for years. Now, I am in the Air Force. I want to go home and tell my mom your story.” He felt empowered to not be ashamed of his mom’s story. He felt empowered to share how powerful and courageous his mom was in his life. That is being transparent, Ben.
[00:27:34] Your humanity is your superpower. It makes you relatable. It makes you empathetic. It makes you someone that people can sit there and say, “If it happened to them, it is okay that it happened to me.” Everybody has this thing. They hold onto this chip on their shoulders and say, “I am not good enough because I had some experience in my life.” The experience could not be anywhere as near as horrific as the things you went through, but we all have chips on our shoulders and the feeling of not being good enough because of experiences we have had in our childhood. If we can sit there and be able to emulate people, “This person is relatable because they are as human as we are.”
There is no shield because of the badge, rank, or title. When we can relate to each other on a human level, we enable people to realize that they are not alone. When we can do that, we will enable people to sit there and say, “There is an opportunity. There is a way over, under, through, beyond this wall because I have seen somebody else do it.”
[00:28:45] That is the magic. The magic is that if I feel stuck and you share something, in that sharing, I see myself in that story. I can go, “I can make another step forward.” It’s going back to trusting people, people that see your potential before you could see it yourself. We work a little harder because we do not want to let them down. They trusted us. They are putting us their all credibility of, “I recommend.” I need to do good. I need to live up to that expectation.
[00:29:22] As leaders, we need to be able to give that to people, empower people, believe in them, and that we sit there and say, “I do not want you to do things exactly this way. This is what I need to be done. This is why I need to do it. Figure it out on your own. If you need help, I am here, but if not, I want to see the amazing way that you are going to find your way over the wall.” The more that we can believe in people, the more we can empower people, the more we can communicate why, and allow them to figure out the what and the how, and the more we are going to allow people to grow and be able to create opportunities on their own.
[00:29:59] How amazing it is to empower than set up people for failure because they are not ready. Empower someone to stretch out of their comfort zone for them to realize one more step toward their untapped potential.
[00:30:19] There is a net underneath them. They may not realize it, but there is always going to be someone there who is watching, that is paying attention, and who cares. If there is a slip and fall, not to judge, not to point fingers, not to yell, but sit there and say, “What went wrong? How do we fix this the next time?” That is where leadership needs to be. Ericka, we could go for another hour, but I want to ask you two quick questions then I am going to let you out the door. What you have done is amazing. People are going to want to read to this time and be able to get different nuggets out of it. The first thing is, how can people best get in touch with you?
[00:31:28] This is the last question I ask everybody. This is a question I ask everybody as they walk out the door. When you leave a meeting, get in your car, and drive away, what is the one thing you want people to think about you when you are not in the room?
[00:31:40] That I care, that I am there for them, and that nothing is personal when it comes to bad news. We can all present bad news. We can all present different points of view, but if I leave a room and people know that my compassion, credibility, and integrity are to protect them because they are the heroes, the people in that room are the heroes. For me to walk out of the room, get in my car, either push the button or turn the key, for me to reflect back on that meeting and for me to feel good because they know that I care for them, then I am good.
[00:32:27] That is so powerful. Ericka, thank you for your wonderful duty and service to the country. Thank you for your insights, for your passion, and for being you. I have enjoyed this conversation immensely.
[00:32:41] Ben, you are giving me an opportunity that I appreciate. I am truly humbled to be here with you.
[00:32:49] My absolute pleasure.
About Ericka E. Kelly
Ericka E. Kelly is a best-selling author, professional speaker, executive coach and trainer. In this position, she is a global professional where her leadership skills are utilized to add value and to develop companies in their effectiveness and production goals. She helps thousands of leaders to become better communicators, to establish trust, and credibility with others. Her coaching skills and mentorship allow individuals to realize their own potential and to achieve greater goals for themselves and the companies/organizations they work for.
E. Kelly was also the 17th Command Chief Master Sergeant for the Air Force Reserve Command and the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of the Air Force Reserve.
Under her role as a Command Chief, E. Kelly represented the highest enlisted executive level of leadership in the military. She advised the Commander on all issues regarding the readiness, training, welfare, morale, and proper utilization and progress of more than 74,000 civilians/enlisted/officer active duty and Reserve Citizen Airmen serving at more than 60 military bases worldwide. She also provided direction to the Reserve Forces and represented their interests at all levels of government, other military branches and in joint strategic and operational war-fighting environments.
In addition to her personal business and military service, E. Kelly has more than 27 years of government management and law enforcement experience. She serves as a Criminal Investigator for the Department of Homeland/Customs and Border Protection in the Office of Professional Responsibility. In this position, this position, E. Kelly was responsible for building relationships with local, state, and other federal agencies in order to manage criminal and administrative investigations.