In 1998, Eric Boles found himself afloat. It had been four years since he was let go from his dream job as an NFL football player, and at age 28, he found himself lacking identity and direction.
He was still smarting from his experience in professional sports and he had no idea where his career would go next.
Then Boles had his aha moment.
“I was at a United Way function, and there was a gentleman, Bob Moawad, who was speaking on the importance of attitude and leadership,” the CWU Athletics Hall of Famer said. “He talked about competence and belief systems and how those things come together.
“I realized that it was my struggle when I was playing—I had the confidence that I could get to the NFL; I didn’t have enough confidence to stay there,” he continued. “Instead of my confidence increasing my competence, my lack of confidence negatively impacted my competence.”
But even beyond that insight, Moawad—who died in 2007—gave Boles something else: a chance. At the end of the United Way event, Moawad mentioned he was a Central Washington University alumnus.
“After the talk, I immediately went up to him and told him I was very interested in what he was doing,” said Boles, a 1991 CWU graduate. “He began to mentor me, and that’s where it all began.”
“It” is a career as a globally recognized leader in executive coaching and training. Boles worked for Moawad’s company, Edge Learning Institute, for several years, and eventually founded his own business, The Game Changers Inc., in 2010.
Through his work with the Lakewood-based company, Boles helps organizations implement the principles of team dynamics, leadership, and peak performance that he learned from his pro football experience.
Boles has partnered with multinational corporations like Dunkin’ Brands, Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, Hasbro, Kraft Foods, USAA, the U.S. Air Force, New York Life, and the National Association of Realtors to impart his holistic approach to performance management, helping more than a half-million professionals accelerate their careers.
Through it all, Boles has remembered the two main principles engrained in him both by Moawad and his time as a CWU student and football player: 1) To grow others, you have to grow yourself first; and 2) it’s all about relationships.
Since he founded The Game Changers 13 years ago, Boles noted that workplaces have changed—a lot. The pandemic brought an explosion of telework opportunities, and the growing millennial and Gen Z workforces have different expectations around work-life balance and values alignment.
What also has changed dramatically is the vital role leaders play within their organizations.
“Everything rises and falls on leadership,” Boles said. “During my playing days, I saw the difference. It wasn’t always the most talented teams that won. It wasn’t just competency; it was chemistry. There was a synergy between the players on winning teams. It’s the same in business. That synergy is dictated by the culture, which is completely influenced by the leader.”
Boles doesn’t blame the shift in workplace cultures on the pandemic, but he admits the past three years did help accelerate that change. As part of The Great Resignation in 2021, more than 47 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although it wasn’t talked about as much before a couple of years ago, that trend was already underway, with voluntary separations rising nearly every year since 2009, the Harvard Business Review reported.
“The pandemic proved that people have options, and that hasn’t always been the case,” Boles said. “It has challenged businesses, employers, and leaders to realize how important the connection is with those they lead.”
Leaders need to hold themselves to the same standard they hold their employees to, or higher, he said. He believes his purpose is to coach, train, and inspire leaders throughout the world to unleash their potential and the potential of those around them.
“It begins with unleashing their own potential,” Boles said. “My ability to properly influence those around me has a lot to do with bringing out the best in myself. I don’t have to be a great leader or a perfect leader, but I do have to be a growing leader. That creates space for the people around me to grow as well, and that growth gives them the ability to flow over obstacles.”
Boles’ training curriculum—which follows a “lean, practice, teach” model—offers two separate programs to help leaders develop their skills: “Moving to Great” and “Lead with Purpose.” Boles and his staff teach the leaders, who then turn around and educate their own teams. The two programs have proven to be highly successful in the U.S., and they have been translated into eight languages for use around the world.
“When a leader has a growth mindset, it makes a positive impact on everyone around them,” he said. “Wherever there are people who need leadership, those qualities matter.”
Boles admits that nothing he has accomplished in his career would have been possible without the power of relationship. And it all started with his first visit to Ellensburg in the late 1980s.
Boles, who grew up Tacoma, visited Central with a group of high school friends who were recruited to play football—and he remains grateful to this day about his decision to become a Wildcat.
“It wasn’t me who was coming in as a recruit; it was my buddies,” he said. “I came in with a really tight group of friends, and we built that group at Central, and remain really close to this day. That’s what helped grow me so much: the powerful relationships and friendships I made there.”
He firmly believes that strong, authentic relationships are essential to finding success as a leader, and that message is at the root of a lot of what he talks about with his clients.
“You can’t do life in isolation; it requires authentic, vulnerable relationships,” he said.
Boles recalled one connection he made during one of the first training events that launched his executive coaching career. He had the chance to train a group at a YMCA in Tacoma, and among the participants was the wife of a Starbucks executive who ended up asking him to train a group of their leaders.
“The currency of everything is relationship,” Boles said. “You have to find ways to add value to others and use the help that’s provided. I had to get comfortable asking for help. What I’ve been able to accomplish all comes down to building great relationships.”
Boles says people tend to get hung up on the idea of networking or mentoring, but, most importantly, he recommends keeping it simple.
His advice for students preparing to launch their careers is simple: start talking to every single person who is actually doing something you might be interested in.
“Just find one person you admire. Hear their story. Ask them questions. Ask them, ‘If you were sitting where I am right now, what would you do?’” he said. “If you had to get to where you are right now in half the time, where would you start?’”
Those relationships don’t just benefit the student; they also benefit the leader.
“Leaders are grateful to have someone to pour into. I want others to learn from my experience,” he said.
Likewise, Boles encourages his fellow CWU alumni to respond to students who reach out for advice.
“I am a big believer in those who have gone first pouring into those who are coming up. I am not giving back, I am giving what I owe,” he said. “We’re not supposed to hoard our experiences, our knowledge, our connections. We’re supposed to turn around and pass it forward.”