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The Power of Authentic Leadership and Work-Life Balance with James Christensen

Join me, La'Vista Jones, as I delve into an inspiring conversation with James Christensen, the CEO of Gateway Bank. We explore the power of work-life balance and authenticity in creating a thriving work culture. James shares his personal journey of realizing the importance of finding balance after experiencing a dark period in his life. Discover how prioritizing self-care and embracing vulnerability transformed James' leadership style and positively impacted Gateway Bank's performance. With valuable insights into building relationships with customers and supporting your team, this podcast episode is a game-changer for leaders seeking personal and professional growth.

Go to Show Notes here.

Here is the transcript:


Welcome to another episode of BOSS™ Talk. I am your host, La'Vista Jones, and today I am joined by my guest, James Christensen. Welcome, James, to the show. Thanks, La'Vista. Great to be here.


I'm so excited to have this conversation with you. But before we get into it, a little bit about James. James is the president of Gateway Bank, the only community bank in Mesa, Arizona. And under his leadership, Gateway has grown to consistently be one of the highest performing and highest rated financial institutions in its peer group. James is also very active in the local community and was named Mesa Citizen of the Year in 2023.


He is a fierce advocate for small businesses, marginalized groups, and people in need. From one-on-one meetings to presentations and podcasts like this, James enjoys educating and inspiring diverse audiences to improve their financial health and overall well being. So with that, again, James, welcome to the show. And are you ready to share with the listeners how you are walking out your BOSS™ Talk? I am.


I don't know if I can live up to the introduction, but I'll do my best. Well, I mean, it's all about you. These are all true things, so I think that you'll be fine.


Before I became a full time entrepreneur, my career was in banking. So I have worked in banking from the retail side all the way through to the corporate side of banking, but never have I actually had an experience with a community bank. So can you tell us really, what is that and what makes Gateway different from maybe some of the more commonly known, like, box chain banks out there, like a Chase or a Wells Fargo? What is it about Gateway and what is the difference with it being a community bank? Sure.


Well, first of all, officially a community bank is anyone that's under 2 billion in assets. So it's the smaller subset of banks across the country, I would say. What makes Gateway different is its local ownership, local decisions. We live, work, and play in the community we're at. So it's not unlike some of the times when you're having tough times, the large national banks or the regional banks will pull out of areas that are having extra difficult times, which obviously in ‘08, ‘09, and ‘10, Arizona fell into that category.


It's kind of fun to be in 2023, and in 2007, everybody's like, oh, it's too bad you're in Arizona in 2023. You're like, you're so lucky you're in Arizona. It's nice to have that swing. But I really think it's about the biggest piece is about building a relationship. So if you've been with one of the large banks, you may have a contact for a period of time, or they have what they call relationship bankers, which is too bad because it kind of ruins the word…our customers, our team, and we definitely call ourselves the Chairs of Banking.


Once you've been in more than once or twice. We'll know several people are going to know your name when you walk in. And it's just that personal connection that we know you, we know your family, we know your business, and as you scale up or go through ups or downs, we're there with you. So that's really a big difference between a large or a regional versus a community bank. Got it.


Thank you for that explanation. And so I know that we have had an opportunity to talk privately right. About your point of view of work life balance, which can be kind of like a trendy thing to talk about, but I would love for you to just kind of share with the audience how your point of view around work life balance has evolved over your career. So it's funny, I just hopped in on a thread on work life balance early in the week and there are some folks that were using it as if it was more of a recent term. And I'm like, well, they've been talking about work life balance since I started in banking in the 80s, so it's not brand new.


And I would say for me it's been about face on work life balance. So I would have said for decades that I made fun of work life balance, at least when it came to me, that I'm just like, there's no way I can be successful and do both of these really well. And I'm just like, you have to push, you have to push, you have to push. There's no way to get that balance. My balance is that someday I get to retire and I don't have to do this anymore, is kind of how I looked at it.


And after some life changing events several years ago, for me, I'm like, what I didn't think was I wanted for all my team, but I didn't think was possible for me. What I saw was when I started getting that part right, my whole team was where it's kind of like when your dog picks up a sense that you're stressed. You know, I think the team.


You. Know, he's still James, but he's on edge and is kind of riding the line right now and that definitely puts the team in a different place. When I started getting that work life balance right, I would say everything changed at the bank, which has been not what I expected. I thought if I didn't put in those hours, there's no way we could grow. Well, we grow faster once I have balance.


And I remember there were a couple of us, it was like you'd brag at the end of the year who left the most vacation on the table. Now I don't leave any vacation. And for me, I'm back to enjoying what I do. And I was going from a point where I probably need to be done because this is just too much, too stressful, too everything. And my career has definitely been prolonged because you kind of get that rejuvenated feel.


And when I'm on vacation now I'm on vacation, which I thought with a cell phone was no longer possible. But sometimes a cell phone stays in the drawer, so that's a good thing. Now, James, was there any one thing that really got you to shift your perspective on work life balance? Yeah, for me, it was radical. I mean, I was definitely the bug that hit the windshield when you're going 100 miles an hour.


And right before COVID started, I had a nervous breakdown and had just gone at it so hard, so long, had stuff personally, professionally, was dealing with, and just felt like, hey, I just can't do this anymore. I was to the point where I was ready to check out and be done with life, and just like, this is easier to me than continuing on going at it this hard. And fortunately, I have an amazing wife that pulled me out of the depths and took care of me really, honestly, completely took care of me for two or three months and about six weeks while I was out of work, another six weeks while I kind of got back to full speed. And for me, that was a moment where you just have a lot of AHA moments and you're like, okay, never let him see his sweat. There's no reason to cover it up.


My team sees me sweat and sees me when I'm happy. They see the ups, downs. When you're having so many of the phrases that I thought were just normal, like, if you're having a bad day, don't bring it to work. I'm like, well, it's part of your day, so if there's something you're dealing with that's going to make work too hard today, then take care of that first. Or if you just need to come in and talk about it, and sometimes that's what you need.


You just need somebody to listen to you for ten minutes or however long it takes. I don't know. I don't think we have to have a work life and a home life. I think we can just have a life, and they ought to blend together.


Unfortunately for me, it took a major life event to start seeing some of those changes. Nothing that my wife hadn't been telling me for years. But I just was so driven. And I'm like, for our shareholders, for my team, you're just carrying the weight that this has to work. This has to work.


And it does work, and it's doing well. But it's okay to when I get overly stressed out now my team is like, hey, I thought you said you weren't going to put any extra hours and you weren't going to do this. And your calendar is getting too heavy. And so I kind of feel like my entire team is my work wife now. Between them and my wife, it's like, okay.


They've drawn some pretty good boundaries for me. And from all that learning, then I've been able to work with my whole team on some of the things I've learned and that they're enjoying now. So I love one of the things that you said, right, that you don't have to have a separate work life. You don't have to have a separate personal life. You just need to have a life.


How do you think that you leading from a place of vulnerability, right? Like, as the leader, as the visionary for Gateway, and for the team coming in and showing that, quite frankly, you're a human, right? You have emotions, you have great days. You have not so great days. How do you feel like that like, seeing you just be real and authentic and vulnerable with just what is going on with you has impacted the team as a whole.


I, so I used to think that showing vulnerability well, I wouldn't show vulnerability. Let's just put it that way. And now I tell everybody I have plenty of my Brene Brown moments where I'm completely vulnerable, but I am careful with who I'm vulnerable with, and I'm perfectly comfortable with my team, and I don't see that as a weakness. I don't see having a bad day as a weakness. If I have a day where I'm not doing okay, then that's okay.


And it's just so many of the I just look at all the things that from my life, I made fun of, like work life balance, I made fun of. And when you watch a talent competition, they're always like, well, just be true to yourself. Just be authentic. And you're like, yeah. And then you're like, wow, that really is for me.


As I got back to who I really am, and when I'm living my work day, like, my home life and I'm authentic, I do much better. The bank does much better, and it's a grown up version of myself. Thank God that I'm not 17, but it's back to being one person. There's definitely not. I've been in so many meetings where they're like, hey, James, you have to put your work hat on. And I'm like, Well, I said, I don't think so.


And I said, but you want me here because of who I am. This is who I am. So I'm going to tell you if there's something I like or if there's something I don't like. I mean, there's a compassionate way to give a response, whether you agree or not. But I do think it's okay to just be who you are.


And the team has it's kind of that Southwest Airlines feel. So we dress very casual at the bank, but we all have unique personalities. But the one thing I will say at the bank is that we would all do anything for the other person, which I think is like that cushion backstop to know that, hey, my team has my back no matter what. And the other things, like the customer is always right. The customer is not always right.


Again, there's a compassionate way to tell them that. But what I found, I definitely follow the model that you take care of the team and the team takes care of the clients. I think as long as you fully have their back, they'll bend over backwards for our friends and customers. But yeah, it's just been a total all those cliches have been tossed out the window over the last three and a half years and I didn't realize how much that held me back. That's so, um, I've had my assistant, my online business manager, Tanika on the podcast a couple of times.


And one of the things that I appreciate about her is even though I'm the boss, she helps create this safe space when we have our meetings or things like that, that I don't have to come to those meetings posturing like, I always have everything together, right? I have a life outside of running the business. I have relationships, I've got my son, I've got all these other things. And so sometimes I'm not always this sunshiny person coming into those meetings because something is on my mind or something is stressing me out.


And it's just knowing that I don't have to be on during those meetings. I have somebody that I can be safe with and share. Like, hey, this is maybe what's preoccupying me, or this is what has my attention right now and I need to focus on this and then I can come back and take care of X, Y and Z and just like the flexibility that she brings to those meetings as well. So I know how important it is to have that kind of safe space with those that you work with. It's so important to be able to just be yourself.


It's easier that way too, I think. Instead of having to kind of put on, or like I said, be on all the time, it's just I can just be me. And we still get done what we need to get done, but we're still just us.


If you look at our picture of our whole team, we just had headshots done not too long ago and then team pictures taken and we had fun. So we definitely had a photographer that knew we were a little bit crazy and willing to have fun and do some different things. But when you look at the picture, you're like if you pictured all of us at 17, 18 years old and be like, this is the group of people that is going to end up being each other's ride or die and working together and putting them together, it certainly would have been one heck of an eclectic group. But it is interesting. I was listening to another podcast with Erykah Badu, and she was talking about she made a comment and it's one every once in a while you have to scratch your head and think about it for a little bit.


And one of the things she said was, you attract what you was. You know, at first I'm like, that's a little harsh. But then if you really are your authentic self, that is what you're going to attract. Not to say that everyone you meet in life you're going to get along with, there's going to be the right fit, but those interactions are going to be ones where you decide, hey, this isn't somebody I'm going to spend any of my juice with. This is a hard pass in the first 60 seconds.


I know that we don't have anything in common, right? But I do think I've always had some cool friends to lean on. But over the last three and a half years, the network of people that I've met through podcasts, through just other friends, through any kind of different meeting, have met such cool people that are of like mind and we all do things a little bit differently, but we all are trying. I would say the one thing is you're all trying to leave the world a little bit better place and make it a little bit better place while you're here. And to me that fills my cup and that's what gives me the energy and the juice to get up in the morning and go do my thing.


I love that. I love that quote too, that you attract what you deserve. That's really good. So I want to talk to you about some of the just unique ways that you have been able to embed self care into the culture at Gateway. How did this happen?


Right? Because when we have talked, you've shared some very unique things that you and the team do. So how did this come about and what impacts have you seen with the team now that there is that culture of prioritizing self care, really as an entire team. I would say the last couple of years is when it's really blossomed for us. I've always had an open door policy and it's like, hey, if there's stuff you want to do, come tell me.


And I just kind of thought having that open door policy made the culture good all in itself and it doesn't hurt, but it's just a piece.


So there's people there's outside professionals and people that I'm like, hey, these are folks that I've met that I think could do some really cool things for the team. And I would say the first one of those was Kathleen Gramzay and she's got a company called Kinessage and we started working with her maybe 15 months ago. We work on Mindful resilience for the whole team. The Kinessage is really working on movements and things to relieve aches and pains without meds. So that was kind of our foray into something a little bit different.


And then since then, we work out twice a week. I have about a third of my team that works out with me after work on Tuesday and Thursday. And then now because of Kathleen, we brought in a yoga teacher and we have yoga on Monday nights and have almost all the team for yoga, which is great, probably 75, 80% of the team. And now we're going to have nutritionists come in and spend a series with us. And then everybody's always throwing ideas now, hey, these are things we'd like to do.


And it makes me laugh because I'm like, I remember early in my career when you'd have weekend events or after work and people are like, I guess it's work, we have to do it. And our team is like, man, why don't we do this next? This would be cool. And it's just all of those activities you learn, but talk about bonding, especially you're doing yoga or you get in some vulnerable positions and you're letting some stuff out and you can't help but bond as a whole team. And all these things that if you would have told me when I took over, I got lucky enough to be a CEO pretty young in my career.


And when that first happened 27, 28 years ago versus now, if you'd have told me what I'd be doing a few decades later, I'd have been what? No way. There's no way that works. Yoga. Yeah, but you know that mental health piece, the stronger mentally the mental health strength of my team is, the better we perform.


We've always had very little turnover anymore. We pretty much don't have any because it's just a good work environment. It's not just me, it's everybody. It's how everybody treats everyone else. But then it's doing all these things that make us feel good.


But also, I just think it's so cool now when we have one of these events or, like, yoga session and somebody sends out a thought to the whole team afterwards, like, hey, this came up to me and may come from a person you're like, man, I thought you were when I first met you several years ago, I thought you were pretty shut up and tight. And that's a pretty deep thought. And it's like not only is it a cool thought to share, but the fact that you would even share it with the team and feel comfortable to do that I think is awesome. That is cool.


That is very cool. So seeing the change and the shifts that you have made right as a visionary in bringing in ways to prioritize the mental health, like just the physical care of your team, I'd love to know what advice you would give to another visionary when it comes to prioritizing their own self care and the care of their team. Number one, I'd say the mental health of whoever's leading that team is more important to the rest of the team than they think it is. I see this pretty regularly where the team it's a good work environment, everything that's good, but the owner is the one that doesn't get the balance, the grace, the care. And when they do, it's not what for so long. You think as a CEO is like, well, that's selfish.


It's like, no, that's self care. And there is a difference. And when you can switch that mindset that, hey, it's okay to balance your life, there's times where you have to work a little harder than other times. But overall, if it's a balanced life and you enjoy what you do, your team is going to enjoy their job better because they're having fun with you. So what was the second part of the questions?


I get so locked up in that piece of it. No, it's good. What advice would you give to a visionary, right? You talked really about prioritizing their own mental health, right, to make sure that as the visionary, as the leader, that they're solid. So what advice would you give them when it comes to prioritizing self care then, for their team, those that are supporting the vision that they have casted, making sure that they have at least like resources or avenues to also take care of themselves.


So what's interesting so one of the ways I looked at it that was a little different way, so on health insurance, we cover every well, we pretty much cover all the benefits, 100% for the whole team. But I was going, okay, we spend about $15,000 a month on health insurance and there are some mental health benefits with that, but not really until it gets too critical. And I'm like, well, what if I spent a couple of thousand a month on mental health and self care in addition to that? I mean, literally a teeny tiny fraction of what I spend on health insurance. But what's interesting is the use on the health insurance drops pretty significantly when the team is feeling better and when you're just little things.


So when you're really down, even if you don't feel well, you're probably not going to go to the doctor. You're like, everybody's going to tell me something bad, I don't want to go. And you're feeling a little more confident and stronger. You're like, no, I need to take care of myself. I'm going to go in.


But then I think you also don't get to that physical health illness point as often. When the mental health side is good and the mental health side builds so much stronger team, health insurance is great to have. It's something we need. I mean, if something terrible happens, you certainly want it covered.


But I don't think many get to focus on the mental health side. And really as a comparison and a cost, it's a pretty minor cost, but a major change for the entire team. Yeah, I love that. And I think that if there is one thing that those of us that came through on the other side of this pandemic showed us is that mental health has to be a priority with all of the individuals around. The country and really around the world that spent so much time in just isolation and away from other people and just the weight of the world on their shoulders.


Mental health, I think, got a much needed spotlight in the world for us to take it a lot more seriously because it is so important. I actually just did an interview yesterday with a young entrepreneur that does a mental health conference specifically geared towards black women here in Arizona. And so I'm so excited for everybody to listen to that show and just see how they're able to plug into those resources that she makes available here in the Valley. Because, again, it's so important. Yep.


Well. And I know you don't cover any heady topics like entrepreneurism, miscarriage, divorce, anything. I love where you tap into. Because I think there are things that that's life.


And I think people carry stigmas with them, that if I did something wrong, that kind of defines who I am. And it doesn't. You learn, but I don't think it makes you a good or a bad person. But there's just so many things that I think we let weigh ourselves down. It's like, okay, these are the 100 bad things that I've done or that have gone wrong in my life.


And that's how people see me. And it's not and it's how you see yourself. And it's really changing that mindset. I'm a pretty big proponent of everybody having a therapist. And it's not just for critical care.


It's like, hey, just keep me healthy. It's my coach that's saying, hey, here's something we need to work on. I know we're really good in these areas now, but you can always get stronger or better. And I think just investing in your team, investing in yourself, it definitely pays rewards multiple times over. And I mean, the net effect at the end of the day is the company makes more money, does better, stronger, attracts more people.


That's a really nice side benefit. But if that was the reason I was doing any of these things, it would come through like that and it wouldn't be real. A thousand percent. A thousand percent. So, James, thank you so much for your time today.


Thank you for just being a guest and just sharing so openly. If you will share with the listeners how they can connect with you and or Gateway for any of their future banking needs. Absolutely. So our phone number at the bank is 480-358-1000. My email is and I'd love to chat with you.


Yes. So exciting. We, 31 Marketplace, my parent company, is now banking with Gateway Bank and so excited about that relationship. So for those now that are listening, make sure to check out the show notes at for any of the tips and resources that were mentioned during today's show. And I am confident that something about today's conversation has resonated with you and is challenging you to cultivate your own culture of work life balance to prevent burnout.



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