Growing up in a family with five boys and one girl, Jim Kyte has always known what it means to be part of a team. The Kyte family was unique in their own special way: all the boys, including his father, Dr. John Kyte, were hearing impaired. Jim played hockey well enough to enter the National Hockey League in 1982-83 as the first legally deaf player ever to play in the league. Overall, he played over 600 games in the NHL for 5 different teams.
Since his hockey career came to an end, Jim has forged a new identity, reinventing himself as an academic. Before entering academia, he went back to school to get his MBA (finishing at the top of his class), and eventually became a Professor at Ottawa’s Algonquin College. Today, Jim is the Dean of the Hospitality and Tourism program at Algonquin.
Your Father, who was also deaf, always told you that being deaf was just a handicap and not a disability. Explain how that advice helped inspire you through both your hockey and business careers.
My father was an excellent athlete and enjoyed professional success as well. He was the Athlete-of-the-Half-Century at St. Francis Xavier University and then went on to McGill University for Dentistry. He was a living example of what hard work, dedication, perseverance and a positive attitude could accomplish so he was an outstanding role model for me and my siblings. He inspired us to have high goals and not be afraid to fail because the honour was in the attempt.
The core tenet is we all control our own “ACE” card. We each control our Attitude—it’s our choice to be positive or negative. We choose how we react to our environment and what we say. We each control our level of Commitment to a goal—it’s our choice how we spend our time, buy into a system or strategy, and decide to persevere. We each control our Effort—it’s our choice on how hard we work. If you play your ACE and do not reach your goal, you have done the best you can and there is absolutely no shame in this kind of failure. I have applied this philosophy to my whole life. I am not afraid or embarrassed by failure. I learn from it and adapt.
Growing up with a hearing loss has many physical, emotional and mental challenges. What were they for you? Did your brothers experience the same challenges?
Life is not easy. In fact, it can be downright harsh at times. Everyone must build what I call physical, mental, and emotional ‘calluses’ to succeed. You build these calluses by failing early and often. These calluses build resiliency, real self-confidence and authentic appreciation of success.
My brothers and I were constantly teased and taunted at school but we learned quickly to have a sense of humour and not take ourselves too seriously. If you laugh it off, instead of them laughing at you, they start to laugh with you. We also had to deal with people who constantly doubted our abilities. They were literally blinded by seeing our hearing aids and couldn’t see beyond them. When somebody tells me I can’t do something, a little voice in my head goes off saying, “Oh yeah? Just watch me” – whether it was to play in the NHL, be a public speaker, be a newspaper columnist, get my Masters, be a Professor or take on the role of Dean. I’ve always taken inspiration from quotes and one of my favourites is, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right!”
I never dwelled on the question, “Why me?” because it’s wasted energy and doesn’t change anything. I accepted the fact a long time ago that my ears are lemons but I’ve been blessed with other great tools and skills that I use to compensate. I wear my hearing aids, read lips, and sit at the front of classes, meetings and presentations. I also advocate for myself by asking people to move their hands away from their mouths, to repeat themselves and to speak clearly and loudly. Too many people simply do not ask for help because they are either too shy or don’t want to impose so they literally suffer in silence (pun intended).
Belleville ON, a city close to where you grew up, was home at that time to the province’s only residential school for the deaf. Was the possibility of being sent to that school a motivator for you to excel early in life?
Absolutely! I didn’t want to leave my friends and family in Ottawa. I’ve come to know Belleville as a very nice place but for a six year-old kid it may as well have been Mars populated with horrible aliens. My mother advocated on our behalf with the school board. She became head of the school’s PTA and fought to keep us integrated. I firmly believe this was the “TSN Turning Point” in our lives. As long as we did well academically, we were allowed to stay in Ottawa. As a result, my brothers and I are considered “orally deaf” because sign language is not our primary mode of communication. I even went through eight successful years of French immersion because my mother insisted I be given an opportunity, which was against the school board’s initial wishes.
Did you find academics as a career choice or did it find you?
It was mutual. I have always been intrinsically motivated to work with young people starting with helping out at hockey schools, volunteering within my community and then having my own hockey school for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids. One receives great satisfaction from watching students walk across the stage at convocation and seeing how much they have grown during your time with them. Teachers can have lifelong impact on their students.
Many of my NHL peers have struggled with their post-hockey career. We look for the next thing to replace the void in our professional lives and transition to a new identity. Through my public speaking and writing, I was offered an opportunity to be involved with the development of a new postgraduate program in Sport Business Management at Algonquin College. I saw this as a very special, tiny window of opportunity that may never come along again. I jumped through head-first and never looked back.
Tourism has experienced continued growth, becoming one of the fastest growing economic sectors in Canada. Why do you think the tourism and hospitality sector is so important and is there a continued future for it?
Economically the tourism industry is huge. According to Tourism HR Canada the sector is an $88.5 billion industry employing over 1.7 million people in Canada and accounting for 1 in 11 jobs on the planet. The Tourism sector is also one of the main drivers in celebrating and maintaining culture. Showcasing our beautiful country and celebrating our diverse cultures makes us proud to be Canadians.
As for the future, robotics is having a huge impact of some industries such as manufacturing but the impact will not be adverse in the hospitality and tourism sector. Technology will certainly play a role in improving front-line service and the ‘shared economy’ is creating upheaval but the tourism sector will still be a powerful driver of socio-economic progress.
Both the WTTC and Tourism HR Canada are predicting a skill shortage of about 240,000 tourism jobs by 2035. Opportunity abounds in this sector!
What were you able to leverage and transfer as a former professional athlete later in life as a father (to 3 sons), husband, newspaper columnist, academic and business leader?
What organization wouldn’t want to hire people who have: a proven track record of conscientiousness; the ability to work in a team environment; excellent time management and prioritization skills; and the ability to perform at the highest levels under stress? Every successful athlete in a professional-calibre team sport has these innate traits, which are portable and sought-after in every industry. I have been fortunate in receiving the opportunity to showcase these traits in other areas besides sport.
It’s a parents’ job to provide their children with the traits and skills to be successful when you are no longer here. There is also the need to impart the importance of the social contract by giving back to your community. Our three boys have grown up in a supportive but demanding environment. I’m very proud of them.
Who has shaped your leadership style and how has it changed over the course of time?
Both of my parents had an enormous impact on my leadership style. My father was my role model in showing me that I could accomplish lofty goals and my mother was my role model is showing me the importance of advocacy. I try to lead authentically and my integrity is paramount. At the end of the day actions speak volumes.
Fundamentally my leadership style hasn’t changed too much over the years but I’ve read many books and articles on leadership. One quote that has stuck with me is from Kimberly-Clark’s former CEO, Darwin E. Smith. After an incredible career, he said: “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job”. Bottom line: never rest on your laurels and continue to learn every day.
Are people born with leadership skills? Or can they develop them through mentors and role models (such as professional athletes)?
Everyone is born with the capacity to lead but it remains dormant in some people. With training, mentoring, and exposure anyone can be a leader. I firmly believe leadership is not a position or title. Leadership is an action. Someone volunteering his or her time for a charity is a simple act of leadership. They make a difference. In this sense, Mother Teresa was a great leader.
However, those in leadership positions in organizations must successfully invoke change. This requires a combination of leadership and management skills. A leader needs to confidently set the course (what), clearly explain the vision (why) to get people to follow (who) and execute (how, when and where). The larger the organization the more complex the task.
Last question: What do people mostly get wrong about you?
I may be deaf but I’m a good listener.
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