Eli Jones And The Business Of Transforming Lives
Nestled among the rows of books, awards and academic journals that fill the shelves and cabinets in Eli Jones’ West Campus office, a series of framed photographs give a glimpse of the people, places and moments that have shaped the life and career of the former Mays Business School dean.
Most of the pictures feature family: Jones’ wife, their four adult children — including two being handed their college degrees by their father — and 10 grandchildren. Another is with the business school’s namesake and longtime benefactor, Lowry Mays. Along the opposite wall, side by side, are Jones’ three degrees from Texas A&M: a bachelor’s in journalism, a Master of Business Administration, and a Ph.D. in marketing.
“I am in the business of transforming lives. That’s my own mission statement that God gave me many years ago,” said Jones, who was recently recognized as one of the business school’s outstanding alumni. “That’s what I’m here to do.”
Since deciding to step down as dean last year, Jones has fully embraced his role as a professor of marketing and the Lowry and Peggy Mays Eminent Scholar. He said this transition from dean to senior faculty member has given him more time to return to the kind of work he originally joined the profession to do — conducting cutting-edge research while working closely with doctoral students and teaching graduate and undergraduate students at his beloved alma mater.
As his students and colleagues know, Jones takes pride in passing on the wealth of knowledge he has acquired in the classroom, the boardroom and everywhere in between. As some of these students graduate from Texas A&M this month, they’ll be entering the world with plenty of Jones’ wisdom to guide them through their own journeys. Jones said if there’s one thing he hopes each learned, it’s that true success is rarely achieved by playing it safe.
“Step out of your comfort zone. Be courageous, be bold, be proactive about pursuing opportunities,” Jones said. “Take some risks.”
From DJ To Dean
As the son of two serial entrepreneurs, Jones learned the value of both risk and hard work at a very young age. One of four siblings, he was born in Houston and grew up helping with whatever business his parents happened to own and manage at the time, from a dry cleaners in Houston to a ranch in Somerville to a convenience store in Bryan.
By the time he was a student at A&M, he had already embarked on a career of his own, finding work as a disc jockey at local radio stations KORA, KTAM and WTAW, among others. Jones remained on the air during his time as an undergraduate, even landing a weekend gig at Houston’s KMJQ, “Majic 102.1.” He commuted to and from Houston every weekend as a junior and senior in college.
As a young man, Jones assumed a lot of responsibilities to balance, and at times, it seemed like it was almost too much to bear — especially as he contended with the unique struggles of being a first-generation college student.
“Texas A&M wasn’t as big as it is now, but it was still a big campus, especially for a first-gen to navigate. All of this was new,” Jones said. “That’s why I really empathize with first-gens, because I completely understand what that’s like. Many times, you can’t seek help from your family about academic work, because no one has gone through the experience.”
Despite these obstacles, Jones stuck with it. He said he was going to do whatever it took to build the life he wanted. “I learned from my dad — never be idle,” Jones said.
One night toward the end of a long shift at KMJQ, Jones had a visitor in the studio: a fellow music lover named Fern Walker. Their meeting was orchestrated by a mutual friend who was convinced the two would hit it off. Fern made it clear that she was no fan of the young DJ’s on-air persona, but as she talked with the real Eli Jones, she started to feel a connection.
The pair literally sang together until the sun came up, and from that point on, they were inseparable. They married and started a family immediately.
“I had to grow up fast,” Jones said. As part of that process, he decided to leave radio behind in favor of a job that would give him the means to support his growing family. And so he embarked on career number two: sales and sales leadership.
Once again, Jones started local, finding considerable success as an ad salesperson for The Bryan-College Station Eagle during the early-to-mid 80s. He also continued his studies at A&M, earning his MBA in 1986 before journeying out into the corporate world. Over the course of a long and successful career in business-to-business sales and marketing, Jones held jobs with three household names: Quaker Oats, Nabisco and Frito Lay.
“Along the way, I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching my salespeople,” Jones said. “That’s when I got the teaching bug. Also, I often referred to academic research in sales management to lead my sales teams. I thought maybe I should consider coming back here and getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic.”
In 1993, Jones did just that. He left his lucrative job to return to Texas A&M as a graduate student again, this time with his sights set on a doctorate. The transition into this third career was not without its challenges, but Jones said he was more than willing to give up some of the luxuries of his old life to follow this new calling.
“My family had to sacrifice along with me, coming from a big, comfortable home when we were in corporate and downsizing into a little duplex where we lived on one side and rented the other side in order to pay the mortgage,” Jones said. “That was a big sacrifice for my entire family when I think about it. My children left their friends to meet new friends in school.”
In 1997, Jones walked across the graduation stage at A&M and stepped into a faculty position at the University of Houston. But he didn’t stop there. After working his way up from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure to full professor, Jones was contacted by Louisiana State University. They needed a new dean for their college of business, and Jones was the right person for the job. After four years there, and three at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business, Jones got a call about an opportunity that seemed too good pass up: “Finally, I got the nod that I was able to come home and lead the very college from which I graduated,” he said.
Jones took over as dean of Mays Business School in 2015 and led it for six years. During his tenure, the school celebrated its 50th anniversary and launched a variety of new programs and initiatives aimed at solidifying Mays’ place as one of the nation’s preeminent public business schools. By 2020, four out of five undergraduate programs at Mays were listed in the top 25 in U.S. News and World Reports’ annual rankings, and all three of Mays’ MBA programs made the top 20.
“To lead the business school from which I graduated was very, very special,” he said.
What It Means To Lead
For Jones, effective leadership boils down to three different but closely related concepts. Through years of study and practical experience, he has woven these concepts together into his own guiding leadership philosophy.
The first pillar of this philosophy, leading by example, is as simple as it is important: “In sales, for example, you’ve got to carry the bag before you’re able to lead people who carry the bag,” Jones said.
He saw the value of that approach firsthand during his years in corporate, going with his salespeople to call on customers and even riding along on deliveries.
“I think that is important because it helps one build trust with the team,” Jones said. “People can relate to you and vice versa.
“Similarly, as a dean, I never stopped working on research and publishing over the 13 years of being an administrator. I also taught as much as my crazy schedule allowed. I worked hard to do the same kind of work as my colleagues.”
He continued to prioritize this style of leadership by example while drawing further on his experiences in the corporate world to emphasize the second pillar of his leadership strategy: participative leadership.
“Sharing ideas, getting input and getting others to participate — that engagement of employees is a very important factor,” Jones said. “That works very well in academia because we believe in shared governance.”
During his time at the helm of Mays, Jones put that idea into action as the school worked to create and execute its 2017-2021 strategic plan, organized around a central vision: “to advance the world’s prosperity by being a vibrant learning organization, creating impactful knowledge, and developing transformational leaders.”
Jones made it clear that he wanted everyone to have a say in that vision, hosting town halls and other events aimed at collecting input from faculty and staff.
“In today’s leadership, you’ve got to be able to engage people, to get them to buy into a vision and be part of the visioning process, which is very important,” Jones said.
But the work doesn’t stop there. As Jones explained, a good leader is one who gives team members the tools, resources and support they need to make their shared vision a reality. Therein lies the third pillar of Jones’ philosophy: servant leadership.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about what I can do within an organization to fully enable people to do their jobs and succeed in their roles.”
For Dean Jones, that often meant going out and raising money to finance innovative programs and facilities. Under his watch, the business school surpassed its fundraising goals during the university’s recent Lead by Example capital campaign and even received the largest single donation in its history from the Mays family. Of that $25 million donation, $15 million was set aside for a new Business Education Complex on West Campus, with construction set to begin late this year.
The idea behind the new building is to create a space that accommodates new ways of teaching and learning, including plenty of room for students to collaborate on various kinds of projects. Jones said he will always be proud of the vital role he played in initiating this project from the brainstorming phase to hiring Bill Peel, executive director of Innovation and Strategic Planning, to shepherd the project, along with Interim Dean Duane Ireland, and other colleagues, who are bringing this vision to reality.
“I’m very grateful to these colleagues, the donors, and to President Banks for their strong support of this project,” Jones said.
“That’s leadership — to take something that’s general, just the kernel of an idea, and to build around it and create, and then all of a sudden it’s there. That’s exciting.”
At its core, innovating is a lot like creating music, said Jones, who can often be found playing the drums in jam sessions with friends and family. Just as musicians take disparate sounds and put them together to make something with a distinct rhythm and feel, he said a good leader must be able to take abstract thoughts and ideas and shape them into something concrete.
“We take something that doesn’t exist, and we create a pattern of notes. We find a rhythm, and when we all get into that rhythm, we make beautiful music,” Jones said.
Within that structure, there’s some room to take risks and try new things, he said. While it might not always lead to the most harmonious sound or the most desirable outcome, a bit of risk-taking is often necessary if one hopes to create something truly meaningful.
“If you’re going to innovate, you have to allow for some mistakes,” Jones said. “The thing that would disappoint me is if I looked back and said, ‘During my time as dean, we did very little. We stayed safe.’ I’m not that kind of person. I want to look back and say, ‘Wow, look at that creation. We did that.’”
And Jones is not done. In addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, he continues to share guidance with others through his new podcast, “Victory Groove,” and a recent book of stories and lessons about overcoming life’s challenges, “Run Toward Your Goliaths.”
Occasionally, he will receive a message from a former student or colleague thanking him for his years of mentorship. As he reads these reminders, Jones said he knows he is still on the right path.
“Every once in a while,” Jones said, “someone will send me a thank you note that reminds me that I am indeed in the business of transforming lives — and it’s working.”