Leadership Through Likability: John James Maximizes Efficiency and Values Every Employee

John James, President and CEO of Foxwoods, prides himself on his passion for his job, and his ability to manage people through the inevitable changes and challenges of business. But he has a leadership tip that anyone who’s ever held a job might like to hear more often:

“I think it’s very important to be likable,” he says. “Nobody wants to work for a stringent boss who they don’t like. I think you can be very likable and firm at the same time, and respected.”

“I think it's very important to be likable,” he says. “Nobody wants to work for a stringent boss who they don't like. I think you can be very likable and firm at the same time, and respected.” Click To Tweet

When James took his post in July, he had big shoes to fill — the shoes of a very likable man, Felix Rappaport, who led Foxwoods as its President and CEO from 2014 to 2018, before his untimely death in June 2018 at the age of 65. The sudden news and transition resulted in an emotional and logistical upheaval for Foxwoods. While devastated, the team responded the only way they could — by moving forward. Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler stepped in to serve as interim CEO.

“With his passing, we have suffered a major loss,” Chairman Rodney Butler said in a statement last summer. “Felix’s passion for modernizing and growing Foxwoods, as well as his friendship, mentorship, and humor touched everyone who worked with him. We are confident that Felix’s legacy will live on as we continue to push forward on the vision he set.”

In addition to running Tribal government operations, Chairman Butler oversaw operations at Foxwoods, one of the largest casinos in the United States. A full year would pass before Foxwoods would secure another industry veteran to lead the Tribal gaming empire. 

James’ appointment at Foxwoods began the latest chapter in his 25-year journey through the Tribal gaming industry that has seen success after success. He came to Foxwoods after a five-year stretch as Chief Operating Officer for Morongo Casino Resort & Spa located in Cabazon, California. Prior to that, he was CEO of Gila River Gaming Enterprises. 

Naturally, James has been in positions where being liked wasn’t a job requirement. But as we’re picking his brain for secrets to great leadership, we notice that he keeps returning to this idea of being personable to his employees, of motivating them with a soft touch.

“The old saying goes, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated,’” he says. “But I’ve taken it to another level. I really want to treat others the way they want to be treated. And the way you go about that is through dialogue, getting to know them, each and every day. I never judge a book by its cover, but I keep reading the pages in the book, to understand what that book is about. And the more and more I do, I find that there’s a special thing about a workforce. …They’re very unique and lovable. And I treat them as they want to be treated.”

Don’t misunderstand him, though — he may espouse a kinder, gentler personal style, but he’s serious and precise when it comes to figuring out business solutions and keeping the business running efficiently. “Two things,” he says. “Number one: I’m not worried about being right — I’m more worried about being effective. And number two: I focus on cutting the shortest distance between two points in the organizations, to get the maximum efficiencies, through planning, organizing, coordinating, directing, controlling, staffing.”

He also warns against the prevalent CEO tendency of meeting-itis. Holding gathering after gathering, long confabs with wide-ranging agendas, can actually prevent a team from doing all the grand plans they’re discussing. “At the end of the day, it’s the execution of those plans that really matters,” he says emphatically.

The view from James’ desk, though, always returns to the people — the measure of a leader, after all, is not what the leader does, but what the leader motivates the people to do. “It takes a team of people to drive toward a vision,” James says. “Obviously the tone is set at the top for a leader, and that’s primary, but it’s not fun when no one’s following that lead. So it takes a lot to ensure that each and every person in the organization understands that they’re a very important ingredient in the success of this business.”

John J. James, Foxwoods Resort Casino President and CEO, was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by​ Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our 2019 Leadership issue.

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