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Committed to staying hungry

Talk to Will Irey, the manager of regional facilities for T-Mobile in Overland Park, Kansas, and you’ll undoubtedly hear the observation, “You gotta stay hungry.”

In fact, you may hear it more than once.

You’ll also hear notes of irrepressible optimism, tones of humility and an energy that often accompanies people who are used to juggling a lot.

And Irey, for the record, has juggled a lot. Whether it’s raising three children with his wife, transitioning out of a nursing role into a career with T-Mobile, or earning his Bachelor of Science in Management at University of Phoenix (UOPX), Irey lives by the mantra that you can sleep when you’re dead.

In the meantime, he likes to bring what he calls “ginger magic” to everything he does. It’s why he infuses meetings with a sense of fun. It’s why he mentors junior employees. Irey simply exudes a love for humanity that’s central to his character. 

“I’ve always loved to help people,” he says. “That’s just my nature.”

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A born leader

A desire to help others formed the underpinning of many of Irey’s career choices. He decided early on to start at the bottom and work his way up, so he’d understand the ins and outs of every level. As a result, Irey has seen his fair share of leaders and managers. The two, he points out, are not synonymous.

You could argue Irey himself is a born leader. From the time his parents divorced when he was 7, Irey has taken on the role of both protector and provider. First, it was with his little sister, whom he remembers helping to get ready for school so his mom could sleep in after working nights. Then it was as a member of the Army National Guard, which he joined at 17 and served six years.

“I always tell people the best thing I got out of the military service was my critical thinking skill set and my wife,” Irey says.

It was when he found out his first child was on the way that his provider instincts really kicked into high gear.

“When I found out we were having him, it was that lightbulb moment, like, I can’t do this crazy stuff anymore,” Irey recalls. He needed to settle down and start a career, but he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. So, he and his wife trained to become certified nursing assistants, working first at a long-term care facility in southern Oregon before transitioning to a hospital. 

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Irey’s capability and resourcefulness soon earned him the attention of his first of several mentors. He moved around the hospital, working in different roles and taking on more responsibility. 

Simultaneously, his family grew to three children, and Irey started thinking about earning that bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he enrolled at another university in a healthcare administration degree program, taking classes one at a time online while juggling work and family.

Will Irey and his family pose outside

“I knew this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.

In his marathon, Irey faced a serious obstacle. His middle child had been treated for arteriovenous malformations when she was about 4 years old. By 10, she’d suffered an aneurysm.

She recovered, but the experience kept Irey’s priorities top of mind. Relationships, after all, are at the heart of everything Irey does. Familial relationships drive his passion for providing and protecting. Professional relationships drive his hunger for learning, growing and mentoring.

The last of these has played a particularly important role in Irey’s life and career. His first mentor at the hospital set him on a path toward leadership. She passed away from cancer around the time Irey’s daughter suffered the aneurysm, and it was a lot for Irey to cope with.

“But again, you have that goal,” he says. “You have to reach that goal, so keep persevering. You just gotta stay hungry and keep pushing through.”

Irey found another mentor when he joined T-Mobile. In fact, she was one of the people who interviewed and hired him four years ago, causing him to switch careers — and degrees.

 

“I had about eight classes left [in my original degree program], and I ran out of financial aid,” Irey says. 

But UOPX, which has an alliance with T-Mobile, offered a pathway forward. The University recommended switching degree programs to a Bachelor of Science in Management, enabling Irey to transfer his previous credits toward that new degree.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, offered financial and emotional support, accommodating Irey when he needed to study or take an exam.

They took every roadblock out of my way,” he says. “There was never a time where I felt like it was a burden with my employer, and that’s one of the things I love so much about T-Mobile.”

Portrait of Will Irey

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Once he graduated, Irey was ready for the next adventure, one that involved moving to Kansas in 2022 and taking on greater responsibility as the regional facilities manager.

Today, he reflects on the importance of family, mentorship, leadership — and having fun.

How do you approach creating company culture?

We had created this culture in Bellevue, Washington, with our department being one of the best, most talked-about, fun departments at T-Mobile. And I felt I was a big part of that, bringing the fun all the time. That was largely why the recruiter wanted me out here in Kansas: to bring that culture.

I’m loud and I’m proud, and I just want to have fun, especially on the hardest of days. So, that might mean anything from karaoke singing out of nowhere to dressing up in full costume to do an all-hands presentation for our teams.

We work really hard. But on the flip side, we always make sure we have just as much fun. 

What makes a good leader?

Not being afraid to fail. I expect to fail. I expect my employees to fail, because that’s how we learn. I’ve had a lot of what I like to call managers who were very upset when there were failures, who didn’t know how to get someone through a failure. I don't consider them leaders. I consider them managers.

And just leading from example. That was one of the reasons why I said I want to start at the very bottom to be successful, because I want to know when I get to that higher level that I can honestly look somebody in the eye and say, “I know exactly what you’re going through, and I’ve been there, and this is how I’m going to help you get past it.”

What’s one thing you want people to know about mentorship?

I’d say the excitement of the relationships you build through mentorship. It’s not a cookie-cutter situation. I am still in touch with every person I’ve mentored. I’m still in touch with every person who mentors me because it never ends. It’s a constant journey.

You advise others to “stay hungry” in their careers. What are you hungry for now?

My hunger now is making my employees successful and getting them to go farther and longer than I can. I’ve had this great opportunity moving out to Kansas where 98% of my team are seasoned veterans who have been here for 10-plus years. They know everything about this campus. But I have one team member who’s 35 and wants to be a leader, wants to learn everything.

So, while still supporting my team and keeping them happy and hungry with being here, I’ve been able to mentor him. That’s filling my cup. We have so many similarities with the hunger, with the perseverance, with the “No is not the answer.” So that’s what’s keeping me hungry right now.

I’m also going to go back for the master’s after I get more tools in my toolbox with this current position. So, continuing to grow and continuing to move up, maybe to that VP level or higher. We’ll see.

Where does your faith that everything will work out come from?

I come from a broken family, and I didn’t want my kids to have that. So, I felt if I could be successful and take care of my wife and take care of the family, the kids would then carry that mantle on with them.

That’s where my faith comes from. I’m going to make sure it gets done, especially through all my failures, because you can’t have success without failures. Sometimes you have to let go, and as soon as you let go, something will come up, some door will open. And I just always had faith it was going to work out, even when things were happening against us, testing us or trying to put us on a different course. We didn’t allow it.

Where does your energy come from besides your refusal to sleep?

I think it’s being a ginger. I joke about it, but it’s just where it is.

I could sit here and ponder on all the things I’ve been through, and all the traumas, but I’d say that about 15 years ago, I learned a valuable lesson of letting things go. Let it go and focus on the positive and just be that ray of sunshine. Come in singing to people to tell them good morning. Random outbursts of laughter, things like that.

There’s a lot of love to give. That’s why we’re here.

That’s really the fire inside of me. It’s hunger. It’s silliness. It’s goofiness. It’s ginger magic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

 

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