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HR in the Car - Episode 18: "Mutually Inclusive"

Being passionate about what you do is a critical part of success. When you listen to Khamel Abdulai, you’ll hear just that. We get to learn about why Learning & Development is so important to organizations, and how leaders will know they’ve really made an impact on their teams. His approach and style of connecting with people are part of what sets him apart, and we always leave our conversations wanting more.

About Khamel

Khamel Abdulai is the Senior Director of Talent Development at Excelsior University, where he oversees training and professional development initiatives. Khamel also works with partners across Excelsior to support Excelsior’s strategic objectives, change management, and employee engagement. He’s also been an instructor at the College of St. Rose and is an active supporter of several local non-profits, including serving on the Board of the Albany Center for Economic Success and the McNulty Veteran Business Center – organizations that support the creation of entrepreneurs and business owners.

Khamel was born and grew up in Ghana, and moved to Albany, New York, to complete a bachelor’s degree in geology. In addition, he is also a graduate of the College of St. Rose’s Huether School of Business. 

Recommended Resources:           

  • The HBR Manager Handbook
  • The Harvard Business Review (site and periodical)
  • The MIT Sloan Review (site and periodical)
  • Any book by Clayton Christensen


  • This one, of course!
  • HBR Ideacast
  • TED at Work

Contact Information:

Khamel Abdulai
Senior Director of Talent Development
Excelsior University


Voiceover: Welcome to HR in the Car with Miriam Dushane and Tom Schin of Alaant Workforce Solutions, where exciting HR professionals and business leaders share laughter, insider stories, and maybe even a few tears about HR in today's world. Buckle up for the best half hour of your week.

Tom Schin: Well, Miriam, here we are again, another fantastic episode of HR in the Car in front of us, and today's guest was somebody that you and I got to hear speak at a local HR meeting for CRHRA back over at Pioneer, I believe it was.

Miriam Dushane: Yep, Pioneer.

Tom Schin: Hearing this guest talk about learning and development and engagement and him, along with a couple of the other panelists there, Susan Hollister and Paul Kelly, it was fantastic to have Khamel on, and the chance to bring him onto the podcast was exciting.

Miriam Dushane: Yes, I totally agree. When we saw him talk, he talked so much about culture and learning and development and how it all really plays into one another. So I'm really excited to have him on. I think this is our first official learning and development person on the podcast, so that's exciting too.

Tom Schin: We're thrilled to bring in Khamel Abdulai from Excelsior University. So welcome to the show.

Khamel Abdulai: Thank you. Longtime fan, first time guest. I've been dying to say that. It's a pleasure to be here today.

Miriam Dushane: Longtime listener, first time caller.

Tom Schin: Well, that's awesome. No. Obviously, we've known each other for a little bit and have a lot of mutual friends, but we heard you speak at the CRHRA event back in September of '22, and we talked a lot there. It pointed out to us, I'm like, we have to get Khamel on the show talking about learning and development and workforce development. You just had some great insights and such a different lens that we said, Definitely got to have you on." So thanks for joining us.

Miriam Dushane: So Khamel, share with us first, what is your role at the university?

Khamel Abdulai: So at Excelsior University, my role is- One of the things that I'll just say upfront is I always hate leading with my title because I think titles can sometimes say very little. But my role is primarily around supporting the organization's organizational development and change management needs. So primarily around training, learning and development, leader and manager support. Then I think a healthy 40% is other tasks as assigned by my boss.

Miriam Dushane: Oh yeah.

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah, so I think that's the main thrust of what I'm responsible for, just essentially supporting a culture of learning and development.

Miriam Dushane: Excellent, and that's with the staff and faculty of the university, not necessarily the student side of it. Correct?

Khamel Abdulai: Correct. I should say that there's more of a bias towards the staff side. One thing that's interesting about Excelsior is we have a semi- decentralized learning and development infrastructure. So we work collaboratively, but we have another stakeholder whose primary focus is around faculty development.

Miriam Dushane: Gotcha. Very good.

Tom Schin: How did you come into that role? I remember you'd worked at Apple long ago. How did this role develop? I know you've been at Excelsior for what, seven, eight years now. So tell us a little bit about that story.

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah, so it's a journey of fortunate incidents. As you know, I worked at Apple. The time that I left Apple, I was in retail management. I have to say, it's a really rewarding and fulfilling career. But I'd always wanted to be in higher education. So the role that I joined Excelsior in was a workforce development support role. It meant that I got to meet our students, primarily working with our partners, and trying to create opportunities for corporate entities to develop learning opportunities for their employees through college credentials, so to speak. I did that work for almost a year and really enjoyed it.
But I participated in a leadership development program, and I did this project. The project was around learning and development. At the end of the project, I thought, you know what? This is fascinating stuff. I know very little about it, but I really want to learn more. I'm wondering if there's a way to learn by being in the role.
I was very fortunate that a role was made available, a role opened up. I applied, I was fortunate enough to have been offered the role, and that's where the journey began.

Tom Schin: I love hearing how people came into where they're at right now, and it sounds like you're in a great spot and really thrive in what you do on a day- to- day basis.
Is there a highlight moment that you look forward to each week as you go in, either virtually or in person, in working with the staff and working with the team there?

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah. I have to tell you, so one of the things that I have come to really appreciate is actually being physically with my coworkers. The last two years, we had to unlearn what it means to be in a workplace and then relearn a whole new way of doing things. As we could safely return and begin to think about hybrid and apply a hybrid work approach, I always look forward to the days when I am physically on site interacting with colleagues. Because I think John Kuznia, one of your guests, said this a while ago, that a lot of learning happens in- person in physical spaces. I look forward to those interactions with my colleagues because then I can truly understand where there are opportunities to better support them. But then also, just to learn as much about the organization in terms of what's taking place that week. So that'll be my highlight is being on site.

Miriam Dushane: One of the things that I think companies are looking at right now is ways to trim expenses, especially as we continue to be, frankly, in uncertain times. One of the things I always worry about in that space is a situation in which a company looks at their learning and develop and goes, "Yeah we're going to pause on that, or we're going to put that on the back burner because that's an expense, that's an overhead expense that we could probably live without." Talk to us about why that's not a good idea and why it's so important to include learning and development in the fabric of your culture and your organization.

Khamel Abdulai: I think when we get to a future state where organizations exist on behalf of machines, supporting machines, and led by machines, then this conversation wouldn't matter. But I think organizations are primarily composites and conglomerates of people.
If you are a leadership stakeholder and you're thinking about the kinds of things that enable success in your organization, employee success, engagement, participation, inclusion, belonging, customer retention, all of those things require constantly evaluating whether or not today's skillset's applicable tomorrow.
I think a lot of organizations get that, but I think that the issue then becomes when people are looking at the broader set of priorities, it's often easy to just say, we can trim back training a little bit. But I think inherently we all get the importance of training and learning and development. There's a lot of conversation and buzz around what it means to be a learning culture.
We also know that in the last few years there's been a lot of, rightfully so, talk about what it means to be in an inclusive space. Let's be frank. Those things require us to unlearn a lot of things and reengage with what might be new ways of looking at things and new ways of doing.
I'm probably not the best evangelist in terms of advocating for this because I'm so close to the work. So it's hard not to get maybe a little bit too passionate about it. But I think the bit of advice that I would give to organizations is the attributed costs are not as great as people think. I think you can be creative at thinking of supporting your employee learning, development, engagement initiatives without necessarily assuming that it's going to be cost- prohibitive. Oh, by the way, those things are really mutually inclusive, learning and development and engagement.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. Just so you know, there's no such thing as being too passionate about something. I applaud you that-

Khamel Abdulai: Hear, hear.

Miriam Dushane: ... you ... Yeah. That's why we do what we do. If we weren't passionate about it, how boring would our lives be?

Khamel Abdulai: Hear, hear. I agree.

Tom Schin: Well, it's always so fun. I've heard Khamel speak in a couple of different instances over the years, and he's one of the most engaging presenters. Going to give kudos to you, Khamel, because I know I've seen you at Excelsior and elsewhere, and everyone is always almost flocking afterwards to get more time with you. "I want more. I need more information." So it's a testament to how excited you are about this. I've heard you talk about the metric side of it and so forth. It's really a testament to how much you believe in what you're doing and how you're able to carry that out. My next question really revolves around tips for organizations that are facing that struggle with where to balance this L& D conversation, and how long does it take, and what's the tipping point where they're actually feeling like they're making an impact? I don't know if you have a story from working with the staff from when you got into this role. Where was that tipping point? What did it feel like so people can know what their success looks like?

Khamel Abdulai: Great. I was talking to a colleague just earlier this week. In 2016 when I started out in this role, we were going through an incredible amount of restructuring. My VP, Mark Howe, the the VP of HR, and a couple of us were thinking about what's the natural starting point for a good learning and development approach? Where do you start? Because you could start in a bunch of different places. Paul Kelly, whom we all know, was a part of the work.
The thinking was that to do this well, you have to start with managers. They're going to give you leverage. Once you get them speaking the language, then it's easy to have them be partners in influencing and shaping this culture. So that's where we started.
Now, naturally, one of the things to remember is that in a higher education setting, the notion of learning and development is often shaped by the academic process. I remember when we started doing this work, a couple of the academic stakeholders were very skeptical about this. They felt that this workforce development approach wasn't necessarily something that they believed in or thought would have ultimate end result. Some of them didn't feel like they wanted to participate in that because they're academics.
Recently, I was talking to a colleague who's an academic stakeholder, and we were talking about how one of the tools we use around self- awareness and self- development is DISC, the DISC assessment. He was talking very practically about how he uses DISC to manage his relationship with his own supervisor and his own leader.
Then that's when it clicked for me is when you hear people using the language and the theories or the frameworks that you are hopefully working collaboratively to put in place, when you start hearing that echoed back to you, then you know you've probably gotten a foothold. But I also caution people not to assume complacency when that happens. That's just people getting interested, and then the real work begins after that.
One of the things that I've learned is that at the beginning when you're starting this out, there'll be missteps, there'll be resistance, there'll be trial and error, there'll be a lot of feedback, there'll be a lot of strongly- expressed views. It's important to make space for that because inasmuch as we might have a sense of what we want to do, it's important to realize that for this to be successful, it's got to be collaborative and it's got to be shared. So allow yourself that time and give yourself the space to allow people to buy into it. So that's the first thing that I would say.
Then the other thing is in terms of how would you know that it's successful, I think be clear on what the goals of your learning and development approach are and try to be realistic. Ultimately, are you going to see, for example, significant cultural shifts in a short amount of time? You probably are not going to have that, but you might begin to see things like people feeling like they're having better conversations with their managers. You might begin to see things like people are using frameworks and tools to be able to manage some thorny things like conflict, and then maybe even thinking about how they might communicate better. I think work with your internal stakeholders to be clear on what's a realistic return in a realistic timeframe and adjust as you go.
I hope that addresses the question, Miriam.

Miriam Dushane: It absolutely does. It's interesting that you said it that way because oftentimes, and we see this even in our recruiting world, that leaders want a magic bullet. They want it to just be impactful immediately, and they can check it off the list. I'm guilty of not having any patience myself when it comes to certain things.

Tom Schin: Never.

Miriam Dushane: I can relate to the leadership side and the understanding of why they feel that way, but I embrace the methodology and the realistic approach that people need to have to do that. But, like you said, it's just like with everything, you have to have measurable goals, and you have to make sure you're setting those expectations up front. Then everybody will cool their jets, so to speak, and let the process take shape and let it organically grow and evolve as the person who's doing the learning and development continues to massage it and grow it and manipulate it for the organization and the culture that's there.

Tom Schin: I've also heard that trigger point, when you hear them repeating the language that you've been discussing with them, they will tell ... I have found in my past that once you hear them touting the success, "Hey, I tried what you said and it worked," and it's not always going to work, but when they say it worked and they have a little bit of energy or excitement about them, then you know, okay, I've got you on the hook now let's continue it. Let's keep feeding this and keep taking you down this path because they're excited now. Then they realize, oh, there's all this new information that I could put into my toolkit.

Miriam Dushane: I'm curious about that though. When it comes to the programs and how you develop it, do you do it more as a series? I refer to stuff as microburst training, where it's very small nuggets of information fed over a period of time to make it easier on people that are on the other side of the table. What's your philosophy, or how do you have your program structured? I'm sure it's different based on different subject matters and things like that, but tell us a little bit more about that methodology.

Khamel Abdulai: Excelsior's tagline is, what you know is more important than how you learned it. The whole idea is that we learn things in different ways. One of the things that's really important to us is that there are multiple ways to learn. I have to credit a colleague of mine who's on the academic side who from the very onset talked about, "It's not just the content delivery that matters. It's are you creating space for people to practice and to interact with what you are presenting in practical terms?" So depending on the subject, as you noted, in some instances we might take the microburst approach. One of the things that we try to do is around learning and development that is what we call self- led, so it's something that somebody wants to acquire as a skill for their own benefit, we typically try to make that as easily accessible as possible so that at least that initial interest can be sparked. Then obviously, some learning deliverables that have to be a little bit more structured. So we are clearly a higher educational institution, so we need to be able to meet accreditation standards. In those cases, whatever we might develop and provide is going to be a little bit more robust. I do want to make a side comment here. Another thing that was really important for us, and this is something that I would offer up as well, is ... This is where the work gets ... Sometimes it's more mundane. But it's around providing clarity around everything. One of the things that we felt was important to do was to have for folks a clear way of understanding what learning and development at Excelsior means, because it could be different in another place of employment. So for us, what does it mean to go through training? What does professional development mean? What's the institution's commitment to you in terms of the time that it makes available? All new hires who join the organization go through presentation orientation that includes that. Then the other thing is also what we try to do is to work with internal subject matter experts in a way that's comfortable for them so that they might lead a conversation or maybe lead a learning opportunity. For example, we have a founding director for our Center for Social Justice, Dr. Pascoe Aguilar. One of the things that he's so good at is being able to create spaces for really meaningful dialogue. That's been a great way to get people to assimilate some of the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion frameworks that we're looking to integrate into our culture.

Tom Schin: Love it. I find that it's important for those that practice, to do themselves, meaning I want to know what you're doing for your own personal professional development, so that way you're walking the talk. I'm curious what you're doing to carry that model with everyone else. It could be playing ice hockey or taking relatives out for meals that you get to pay for, anything like that.

Khamel Abdulai: Oh, yeah. That's a whole other podcast. It's funny. Also, I once presented at a conference on a colleague's behalf, which by the way, I highly recommend. It's not always the best idea to present somebody else's content, but there were a lot of lessons learned during that conference. But I remember trying to lead with a joke and saying, "I'm here to present on this subject," and I made a joke about those who can't do, teach. As a room full of educators, I don't think they found it to be funny at all.

Miriam Dushane: Oh, no.

Khamel Abdulai: Back to the how do you practice what you preach thing. I have great role models. My VP, my immediate supervisor is a lifelong learner, so we always discuss what's out there that we are interacting with that we should be perhaps engaging more with. So we always share back and forth if there's a particular educational opportunity that we're interested in. We try to get others to be familiar with that.
I'm a reader, so my learning approaches tends to be more introverted. I try to find books or articles on topics that I'm not familiar with, and I try to engage with them that way. Podcasts are also a great way to do it.
Early on in my career, in my HR career, I realized that I needed access to constantly refreshed thinking. I just made the personal investment into subscriptions into some publications. The MIT Sloan Review is a good one, especially for folks in more technical fields. Then obviously, the Harvard Business Review. So yeah, I'm a huge fan of those. Yeah.

Miriam Dushane: Me too. I don't know to the extent, but I know for me, I get a thing in my email every day. It's a management tip, or it's basically a relevant topic. For me, time is of the essence, a brief reading that I can get through quickly, get the understanding and the gist of it. Oftentimes, I'll share them with my team because I find them insightful. So I do love that one a lot too. I'm with you on that one.

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah. Those daily emails are great because- It's funny. I don't know if this has been your experience, Miriam, but I've found that lately I might get a prompt for a tip or an article, and it's just so timely because it's dealing with a subject that is probably being broadly discussed. So I've found the timing and the relevance of the articles to be very helpful.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, definitely.

Tom Schin: Think your phone is listening to you and providing-

Miriam Dushane: Well, that's what I-

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah.

Miriam Dushane: I was just about to say. Ears are everywhere.

Khamel Abdulai: Yeah. I like to think that it's just all of us in this world, in this space are kind of connected, and our minds think alike. That's what I tell myself.

Miriam Dushane: Yeah, keep telling yourself that because that ain't it.
So as we wrap up today, I first wanted to just say thank you again for joining us. This has been really insightful. As you were talking, I was just thinking about, well, we really haven't had an L& D person on talking about their experiences. So I just want to thank you for sharing a little bit with us and our audience because I think it is really helpful.
As we leave, we like to ask everyone what's in their roadside assistance toolkit. You mentioned the books and the reading that you do, but is there anything else that comes to mind when we ask that question that is your go- to to either keep you motivated or keep you on task, just helps you through getting through the daily grind of work?

Khamel Abdulai: Can I answer that question in a couple ways?

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. The more, the better. I love multiple answers.

Khamel Abdulai: If I answer the question the proper way, I would say that one of the things that's helpful to me is to have a couple of reality check people. One of the discoveries that I made for myself was that I needed to have people that I could process things with and through. For example, talking about somebody who is just starting out in learning and development, you have the pressures to be able to create and deliver a program that's going to resonate. At the same time, you're also looking to do it in a way that's inclusive and well- structured. So you're trying to balance time versus urgency and versus meeting organizational expectations. All those things are great. I don't ever want to cast them in a negative light. But it was helpful to me to have people who could be reality check partners, who could say, "Well , yes, this makes sense." Or, "Maybe you might want to look at it in a different way." Those are often people who have been in the field for a long time. My boss is a really good person for me in that regard. I think hopefully all of us have that relationship with our supervisors that enables us to fully extract as much of their knowledge and guidance as possible. Then the other is, of course, Paul that we all know, folks that I've worked with in various capacities, people who are not even in the field, but who bring, I think, hopefully a good balance for me. I try to pick people too who have a different style of thinking from me. Some of my colleagues within my HR team, I tend to have a slight blind spot sometimes around quantitative stuff. I know, Miriam, you're not a spreadsheet person as well. One of the people that I work with, am the closest with on my team is somebody who's very quantitative, and that helps quite a bit.

Tom Schin: So it's Khamel's council.

Miriam Dushane: Yes, it's the- Before you answer the second part of your question, one of the things that I think is really important, and you mentioned it, is you can run by and have somebody help you process things that is not in your industry or not in ... It's almost like this unbiased, clear look at something. I find sometimes the most helpful guidance I get is when I talk to, in my circle, someone who knows nothing about my business and knows nothing about the operations of my business, but they're a business owner too. They face similar challenges in completely different language, so to speak. But at the end of the day, they have the better insight because they're not biased by knowing the industry, what they do on a day and ... in- and- out basis. So I applaud that because I completely subscribe to that same principle.

Khamel Abdulai: My mother- in- law picks up our daughter on Tuesday mornings, and in the 30 minutes or so that our times overlap before I set forth to work, I might just have a conversation with her about what's going on at work. I've found that I get this crisp, unique, clear perspective about things. She's not in our space, but I've always found it to be really helpful and refreshing. I'm thinking, this year, I don't think I've ever formally thanked her for that. But you're absolutely right. People who aren't immersed in our space often have a way of looking at things that can be really beneficial to us. So thank you mama- in- law.

Miriam Dushane: Props to mom- in- law. Look at that.

Tom Schin: Are you going to tell her that you said that, or is she going to hear this at some point and realize-

Miriam Dushane: Keep it.

Khamel Abdulai: Let's make it a surprise, why don't we?
Then the other part of it. I think we all need a guilty pleasure that gets us through the day. I learned a long time ago when I worked in the crucible of retail management that I needed to find a place that had the right assortment of calorically- charged things. You know where I'm going with this. I would leave work on a really crazy day, and I would make my way to the nearest pastry counter. I wouldn't say anything. I'll just point at whatever it is that I wanted to have. I would buy it, and I would sit in my car in the parking lot, and I would eat it, and then I would drive home. Then I'd feel better. But I don't condone that.
But I would say whatever it is that's an outlet for you ... For me, a good cup of coffee goes a long way. I still like a good pastry if I can find one. What I've also found is the ability to just think that tomorrow is another opportunity to reset. That has just taken me through some very hilly terrain. I always carry my sense of optimism in my toolkit, and that and the directions to the nearest pastry shop.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. I love it. I'll have to ask you for some of your best recommendations for pastry shops, because that's singing my tune, baby.

Khamel Abdulai: Happy to do it.

Tom Schin: My mouth is watering right now.

Miriam Dushane: I know.

Tom Schin: You don't see it-

Miriam Dushane: Like oh, pastries!

Tom Schin: ... but there's this pile of drool.

Miriam Dushane: I have to use a lot of willpower to stay away from that stuff on a regular basis.

Khamel Abdulai: Not always easy, not always easy.

Miriam Dushane: No, definitely not.

Tom Schin: Well, Khamel, thank you so much for being with us here on HR in the Car. We appreciate your time and all your insights and look forward to our next chat.

Khamel Abdulai: Look forward to it very much. It's a delight to spend time with you both. I think this is a great thing, and I look forward to the next episode.

Miriam Dushane: Thank you so much, Khamel.

Tom Schin: I love talking with Khamel. I find his energy so infectious. For me, when I talk to folks that are in that L& D or engagement or culture space, it's just like, oh, you're drinking the Kool- Aid and you brought some with you.

Miriam Dushane: I totally agree. I really like his perspective. It's funny you said he has amazing energy because he does have amazing energy, but he is calm. He's just that calm, soothing ... I just could continue to talk to him all day. I really-

Tom Schin: Could be a radio DJ.

Miriam Dushane: He really could. He really could, but I love hearing his story about starting in retail management, where frankly you are really exposed to so much. What a great way to start a career before you get into HR. I actually highly recommend it because there's so many things you experience that you then can apply later on when you go into a career of HR. That's exactly what he's done is he's taken those past experiences and really worked with Excelsior to build out a really, really strong L& D environment for people to learn and develop in their careers and understand why not only it's important for them, but it's important for the organization as a whole.

Tom Schin: I love how he talked about the practice element, giving folks ... especially as he talked about giving the step- in presentation, giving people the space to practice what you're giving them. Let them make some mistakes. He didn't allude to that, but it's implied. But having that ability to put the thoughts to work, figure out what works in their own learning style is something that most folks don't consider.

Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. We'll post his information on the show notes on our website related to this podcast and links to some of the things that we talked about there.

Tom Schin: Fantastic. So come to alaant. com and read all about it, and we'll see you next time.