Making Conversations Count


Episode 17

Are you available? Jem Hills – Inspirational speaker, performance coach & trainor

Making conversations about bullying count!

Talking to Wendy in this episode is ex-marine Jem Hills who you might find it hard to believe was affected by bullying and a lack of confidence.

As a release, Jem discovered Northern dancing and practiced as a bedroom activity that later led to an accidental release of freestyle dancing at a competition.

The dancing-built resilience and the foundations for the training to complete the Mud Run and onto his Elite Special Forces career.

The unity comes from being part of a privileged bunch of people who walk the talk, make sacrifices and put their lives on the line for Queen and country. Some stories are classified!

Listen to Jem, his experiences as a Marine, and the moment he recognized his life was going to change forever following a series of conversations…

Visit Jem’s website here.

Connect with Jem on LinkedIn. 



Making Conversations Count – Episode 17

Wendy Harris & Jem Hills

February 11th 2021



00:00:00: Introduction
00:04:36: No expectations
00:06:00: Marines training
00:07:33: Commando elite level training
00:08:57: Communication during training
00:10:07: Importance of building a culture within your company
00:10:29: Jem’s time in the Forces
00:13:20: Jem’s pivotal moment
00:17:20: Stepping out of your comfort zone
00:19:21: Madonna or Claudia Schiffer!

00:21:39: Mental and physical performance coaching

00:23:48: Final thoughts


Wendy Harris: Welcome to making conversations count, the podcast show that brings you business leaders to share their pivotal moments; a conversation that really caused a turning point in their life or career.  Now, today joining me, Wendy Harris, your host, I have Jem Hills, ex-special forces, now turned performance team coach.  I’ve had the pleasure of having a conversation with Jem before, I know that his pivotal moment is going to be inspirational and I’ll just allow Jem to introduce himself.  Jem?

Jem Hill: Hi Wendy, and thank you for inviting me on here.  Just to give everybody a little bit of my background, slightly different to most.  The starting point, I was really badly bullied so a lot of people actually go through that, it was at that time where I completely lost all of my self-confidence and the worst thing was losing your self-worth.  I couldn’t communicate, I couldn’t hardly go out, unfortunately for me.

I managed to find my confidence again through dance.  That dance was something called Northern Soul, it was a bit of a street dance and urban culture at the time, quite a few years ago, but I saw these guys doing this dance.  I had no confidence at the time but I knew I wanted to do it.   So, I ended up going back to my safe haven which was my bedroom at the time, getting hold of some of this music and practising and practising and practising, and slowly getting better at this dance.

That gave me the confidence to go onto a dance hall and start dancing it and then on one occasion, you look back in your life as you say, pivotal moments and my earliest one, it was a Northern Soul event.  They announced a dance competition, I would not have normally gone into a dance competition, but everybody seemed to get off it, it was a really great song, everybody was on the dance floor and I just thought, “Why not?”  So, got on the dance floor, started dancing and noticed that the judges were walking around the dance floor and tapping people on the shoulder.

As they were tapping people on the shoulder the space around me started to grow.Northern Soul is a bit of a freestyle dance and I started to start to think, for the first time in my life, I might be good at something and I probably exaggerated my movements a little bit, but I got into this zone and I got into an amazing place.

Unfortunately, just before the record ended I was tapped on the shoulder and I was asked to sit down, but that two minutes, two and a half minutes changed my life because it was the first time I’d ever felt that I could do something.  I wanted more of that feeling so I found out where other dance competitions were, I went home, my little safe haven, practised what they had been doing and started going for dance competitions.  I got into the top 20, top 10 and somehow I actually managed to win some of these dance competitions.

There are two things that gave me.  It gave me back the confidence that I didn’t have, because I was getting good at something and I had a passion.  My life just revolved at that stage around Northern Soul and about finding where these other venues were, so I could go and practice and do more dancing.  It was also giving me a fitness which I hadn’t realised.

Those two combined, when somebody showed me a picture of Royal Marines and I didn’t really have any aspirations for going anywhere, I just saw this poster and it excited me and it became a dream to go and join the Royal Marines.  So, I volunteered and I applied to join the Royal Marines and then I passed.  It’s a bit of a difficult course, 36 weeks, probably one of the hardest military training courses on the planet, so I enrolled in this with 49 other guys and we went through this Royal Marine Commando training.

The great thing, well the fortunate thing about Royal Marine Command training for me, is that it’s designed to help people pass.  It’s not actually designed to make you fail, as long as you stick with it and you stay the course and you do what’s asked.  I started that course as a fairly weak individual; it grows you, it grows your body and it grows your mind and it teaches you lots of things including determination and about resilience.

So, I passed out as a Royal Marine and I joined 45 Commando which is the Arctic War Zone Commando and spends quite a bit of time up in the Arctic Circle down to minus 35.  Operating in those conditions it taught me to how to ski, it taught me how to climb mountains and what we call yomping mountains.  We’d spend a lot of the time in the mountains and that was, again, building my fitness and helping my mindset grow to achieving great things.

Four years on, I then took the option of going for Special Forces, which is taking that bar to the extreme level.

Wendy Harris: So, to take you back to the dancing, there’s a couple of things that sort of strike me that I’m sure the listeners will agree as well is that, by chance really, a love of doing something in your bedroom privately without letting people know about it, and just by chance getting up and joining in with something, with no expectation, that first pivotal moment that showed you that actually by chance leading you there, that you were actually better than you thought.  It’s not just about you being your own critic.  Other people were judging you on that dancefloor, to the point where you very nearly were the last one standing.

Jem Hills: With that it’s like if I look back, I really when it started, I had no confidence.  So, it was a case of watching something from afar.  I was watching these guys doing this dance initially but I dare not participate.  I had never seen it before and it was taking that idea, absolutely not knowing if I was going to be any good or not, I just wanted to do it.  I didn’t know it was going to transform or develop into something that became a real passion in my life.

I didn’t have anything else in my life and I started practising it in my bedroom, just by memory of what they were doing, and it was after we started to go to different clubs in different places it actually then started to get better.

Wendy Harris: But that journey of dance and going and entering other competitions and finally going on to win one, when you saw that poster boy of the Marines, in effect the dance had kind of given you that inner resilience if you like to go, “Well, why can’t I do that?  I’m sure I could give that a go”.  So, that natural resilience and fitness that you’d got through the dance was kind of just — it’s like sowing the seeds and the foundation of what you were going to need as that next step up.

That 36-week programme, is it as close to the programme that we see the SAS: Who Dares, is it close to that or is that just television?

Jem Hill: When we talk about Forces, we’ve got sort of normal forces and then we have a different level which is what we call Special Forces.  The Royal Marine Commandos are infantry, they’re higher end of the infantry level and it’s a tough course it is a long course, but for military basic training that 36 weeks, it’s designed to take somebody who is a total civilian at one end and push them out as a very effective fighting machine at the other end.

In the process of doing that, because they want such a high skilled soldier at the end or Royal Marine, the process is quite long because there’s a lot of training that has to go in there to build your mindset up, and your body.  I think nearly everybody starts off not as fit as they would like and so it’s a traumatic change, those first few weeks, and to the amount of physical activity that you do.  That is sort of basic military training.

Four years later, I volunteered to go to the elite level which is taking that training to a subsonic level.  It’s a different type of training; they’re looking for different types of people.  They’re looking for people who have gone through military training, but are willing to operate on their own and actually ask questions.  So, there’s a whole different sort of process and push yourself further, and I think that’s one of the things about military training.  You get taught resilience, and it doesn’t matter which unit you are joining, you get taught to push yourself further than you probably imagined.

If I look back to some of the hardest that we do in the basic Royal Marine training, one of the hardest things is the mud run.  You wouldn’t do it in your first week; you have to build up to be at a good physical standard to actually go on a mud run.  You think you’re probably about to die because they’re pushing you, your body is not working but your mind is trying to give up.  The whole time you’re pushing your mind to keep going, keep going, keep going.

They know when your body can’t take it anymore and they will stop you, they will pull you back and then take you back again and build you up, so it’s a gradual build-up programme to be able to complete the Commando training which is right at the end of the course.  And, it’s all about that mindset, it’s overcoming what our mind is telling us that we can’t do this, you actually can do it, so we can all do a lot more than what we think we can.  Sometimes we need to have somebody to help us do that.

Wendy Harris: Would you say that a key part of the success for that training being set up for success is the communication that goes on between the trainers and those going through the training, because it’s a no-man-left-behind kind of attitude, isn’t it as well, that you’ve got to really pull together as a team, strengths, weaknesses and have that kind of bond as a unit?

Jem Hills: Absolutely, and I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned.  I mean now, as you mentioned, I’m an inspirational speaker and performance coach.  One of the main things that you’ve got is that culture that you have in the Royal Marines and you have in Special Forces, it’s like rocket dust.  If you could bottle it and actually sell it, it’d be worth a fortune, because guys will do anything for each other, guys end up putting their lives on the line for each other.

It’s like, “Why do they do that?”  It’s because they have such a belief in what they do, they believe in the organisation and they have a belief in each other; that’s taught from culture.  In the Marines we have a special term for it, but if you take that into industry it’s having that culture and making sure the culture works.

I’ve worked with lots of different companies and some have an amazing culture within it, and some don’t and you know the ones that don’t have a great culture, people will leave.  It will implode and it just doesn’t have the vision to get where they want to go.  So, it’s so important to be able to transform that culture when you’re starting a company to make sure it comes with you and everybody believes in that culture.

Wendy Harris: I’m guessing the transition then from Marine to Special Forces, where you are expected to be on your own and independent of that corps, you’ve got to really have the best interests of the corps, if you like, at heart in all of those things that you are undertaking as a representative of it.  I know that you can’t talk about what you were doing as Special Forces, but how long were you in the Special Forces for, Jem?

Jem Hill: I had four years in the Marines and then I had very fortunately 20 years in UK Special Forces.  I look back at that and it was such an amazing time.  Where they have gone now, I mean the organisation that I joined was quite small and it has grown into this massive elite organisation.

I’m extremely privileged to work with some amazing people.  I just can’t describe some of those people, books are written about those people.  They’re some of the most amazing people that walk this planet.  It’s tough to get in it but it’s an extreme privilege to actually be and walk with these — what I consider they’re legends, they’re gods, they’re amazing people doing a job that is really tough at the end of the day.

Wendy Harris: Jem, I think you need to be reminded that you walked with them too, so you’re equally remarkable for the things that you’ve done and gone through.  I’m pretty sure that a 24-year military career, that’s nothing to be sniffed at, I’m guessing that there’s been some fairly significant sacrifices too along the way.  As a country, I’m sure we owe you quite a debt that we don’t even realise.

Jem Hills: Yeah, I know there are always sacrifices.  Still, when I look back, it’s making the most of it and you mentioned a couple of things.  I was chatting to one of the guys I actually went through Special Forces training with last night.  Very rarely do we get together or anything like that and I got a call.  We never brag about what we’ve done because when you’re in it, you don’t boast, you just get on and do the job.  It’s like in the centre of excellence, you have to be better or as good as the person next to you, and the calibre of people you are working with, and we just don’t shout about what we’ve done.  We don’t shout about how great you were.

We actually — that calibre of people it was amazing and sometimes you forget that you’ve been working with people like that.  The conversation was like that last night, and we’re just chatting that we don’t talk; we don’t shout out somewhere that this is what we’ve done.  I mean I’m on a podcast now talking about it, but we have done it, we have been there.

Wendy Harris: It’s private, yeah.

Jem Hills: Yeah.

Wendy Harris: To be fair, I have pressed you on it so I’m sure it wasn’t in your mind to come on and say anything along those lines but I think it’s important, you know, recognition goes a long way to keep your confidence, as well, in what it is that you’re doing because sometimes you forget how brilliant you are as an individual.  I know self-doubt creeps in and it takes, sometimes, for somebody to remind you just how brilliant you are; so, thank you for that.

So, Jem, everybody that comes on the show, I invite them to think about a pivotal moment.  With 24 years behind you in the military, I’m pretty sure there’s got to be more than one; but, I ask you to share that one moment with the listeners now and with me.

Jem Hills: When you asked about those different questions, you always look back and you go, “What did change my life?” and having served for 24 years, you come out and it’s like, “What’s next?”  My mum had actually — she was going through — she’d got cancer and it was terminal, so I’d gone home and I was helping here out.

My mum died and the first call I got after that was from the 2IC of the unit I was in saying, “Jem, I’m really sorry to hear about your mum.  Would you like to come back?” which was a bit of a shock.  I was like, “I need a bit of time to think about this”, but I’d been out for two years.  I called him back two days later and said, “No, my mindset is coming out”.  I wanted to get into business; I wanted to get a much better understanding of life on the outside, and so I didn’t go back in.

But, shortly after that, I got a second call.  In fact, I got a third call; I’m going to come back to the second call.  But, the third call, which was a pivotal moment, was that conversation and it was, “Is that Jem Hills; are you available?”  We have a thing, when you leave Special Forces, there is a thing called “The Circuit” and everybody knows who’s on the Circuit.  It’s not written down; you just know who’s left Special Forces and that they’re available.  Somebody will know somebody who’s available and they’ll just give you a call when there’s a certain job, and I got this call and it was, “Are you available?”

But, there’s three things you need to know and you need to know them quite quickly, and it was job description; how long; how much.  When I asked the job description, it was flying around the world looking out for somebody wealthy.  How long was initially, “We’ll give you a three-month contract, but in close protection, as a bodyguard, if you get on, it could be for life; if you don’t get on, it will be a day; but, we’ll give you an initial contract for three months and see how you go”.

And then, the third question is how much, and the answer to that question, nobody had ever offered me that much money before.  I was like, “We need to meet”, and he said, “Okay, tomorrow morning, 10.00 am in London”.  I met the guy and a week later, I was on an aircraft to Brunei.  I arrived in Brunei at 11.00 at night.

When you get off a long-haul flight, a little bit disorientated, it was so hot, 30 degrees; the humidity was incredible.  Walking just off the aircraft, you’re sweating everything and I hadn’t come prepared for that!  So, I had a nice coat on, and I was looking quite smart at 11.00 at night.  I was there to meet my new boss and the sweat just started to pour off me!

I met this guy and he said, “Jem, I know you’re probably knackered now.  Here are the keys to your new Range Rover.  Follow me; we’ll drive down to your new accommodation”, which happened to be the guesthouse at Palace Hall.  He said, “Have a good night’s sleep; I’ll meet you at this hotel at 10.00 in the morning and we’ll discuss the job”.

I took over as Head of Security for one of the richest guys on the planet, Prince Jefri of Brunei, and I had an amazing two-year period.  I ended up having a whole team of people helping me look after this guy.

Wendy Harris: Did you ever expect that that was going to be something that you would end up doing when you left the military?

Jem Hills: No; having said that, I came top of my bodyguarding course, so I had that skillset.  I hadn’t planned to come out and become a bodyguard; I had a place at Henley Business School to do an MBA; but, with my mum getting terminal cancer, I cancelled that and went home, so that sort of changed everything.  Then, I got the offer of this job and you just take it when you need it.  So, I took the job; it was an opportunity.

During the military, as a bodyguard, you do it with a massive amount of backup; but, what I wanted to do was actually do it as a civilian with no backup, just to see what it was like to put myself in that position.  So, I’ve done it, it’s on my CV and it is different.

Wendy Harris: It’s that competitive edge in you, I think, Jem, isn’t it, to just prove one more, push the boundary just a little bit further.  You could have walked away after three months; that was the initial offer; but two years mustn’t have been too bad?

Jem Hills: It was amazing!  It completely opened my eyes to a different world when you’re dealing with that amount of wealth.  But, doing that job for two years, or a continuous amount of time, you suddenly realise you don’t have your life anymore.  You’re working for something, and I wanted more than that; I wanted to be me.  Although I was doing a great job, I didn’t really have a purpose and I was just doing what was necessary to make sure that everybody in the team was safe.  The principal is always safe, so you’re constantly working that.

I went for a run on one of the beaches, and it’s the white sands to die for, and I just ran and I was sat on this log and I was like, “Now what?  What do I want?” and I didn’t know what I wanted.  I teach this stuff a lot.  We get so comfortable in our comfort zone that the excitement happens just over there, and you’ve got to take those steps.  You’ve got to take them on a regular basis to challenge ourselves, otherwise we do lose our purpose and we do lose, you know, what are we here for.

Life is not a dress-rehearsal.  I do not want to be sitting at my graveside, or waiting in God’s waiting room thinking, “What are the regrets?”  Don’t have any regrets.

Wendy Harris: No; time’s too short.  Certainly this year has taught us all that time is too short and to make the most and best of the time that we have.  I so understand where you’re coming from that you’re serving somebody else, that you kind of lose who Jem is; what does Jem want; what is Jem getting out of this?  But, sometimes you have to have that headspace, like a run, to let those thoughts in for you to actually listen to yourself as well and give yourself that room to have the conversation with yourself.

So, going back to the second call?

Jem Hills: That was the second call.  It was the first call; the first call was pretty similar, but it was a friend of mine.  The second call, I’d never heard from him before.  The actual second call was a guy I’d worked for; he’d been one of my bosses and this is the one that actual set the seeds in motion.  He was saying, “I’ve got a couple of contracts that might interest you.  Come and have a coffee”.

He’d recently set his own global security company up and he’d got these two contracts.  One was for Madonna and the other one was for Claudia Schiffer and I was like, “Wow!”  You’ve gone through the best bodyguarding school in the world; people want you because of that; you’ve got a skillset that is required.

I was thinking now, the option of these two; which one?  And he was like, “Jem, you can have either one of these.  Which one would you like to do?” and I’m thinking, “Well, there’s no way I could control Madonna”, and to be a bodyguard, you know, as a security PA, you manage their lives.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, I think I’d be with you.  I’d be on the flight to Brunei than trying to keep up with Madonna; definitely!

Jem Hills: Yeah!  I was like, “I’ll take Claudia”.  I’d see the films, and it was six months in LA and six months in London.  But, he turned around and he went, “Jem, don’t take both of those because I need an operations officer in my new office and you’d be great at doing that”.  “No, I want Claudia!”  He said, “Okay, have a week to think about it”.

So, that was the first call I got, and it was during that week that I got the second call, which was the one that after the how much, I was like, “We need to chat”.  And then, during the interview of that process, in that café in London, when he started to talk about the principal, the guy I’d be looking after ultimately, it blew me away.

You don’t see these opportunities coming, but when they do happen, jump in with both feet, get in there, do it!  I had no idea what that was going to lead to but when I’m coaching, I think it’s very important that we can be walking down a corridor and we can come to a door.  If you’re lucky enough, you can have an option of looking through the door and taking a peak and do you want to go through it; or, sometimes we don’t get a choice to go see what’s on the other side of the door.  We have to take that leap of faith and just go.

Wendy Harris: And sometimes, what you see through the door isn’t necessarily what you’re going to get when you open it; that’s also important to know?

Jem Hills: Absolutely.

Wendy Harris: Jem, what an incredible story.  Thank you so much for bringing that to share with us today; I really appreciate that.  If people want to pick up the conversation with you, any Claudia fans, how do they get in touch with you, Jem; where’s the best place for them to find you?

Jem Hills: My website’s pretty easy,  I’m on Facebook, jemhills, and LinkedIn.

Wendy Harris: You’re jemhills there as well?

Jem Hills: Yeah, I’m just jemhills; I mean, that’s it.  Yeah, so if anybody wants to have a conversation, I am a performance coach.  I love taking people to that next level.  We all need some help every now and again.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, and by performance now, Jem, we’re talking of a mental variety as opposed to a physical variety; correct?

Jem Hills: It depends.  But, it starts in the mind; whatever it is, it starts in the mind.  And I think for me, just going out and doing a walk is really important.  We have to have exercise.  To perform at an optimum level, we’ve got to make sure our body and our mind are working together and we need to have a fit body and we need to have a fit mind.  It’s both of those; it’s personal development upstairs and downstairs; and if you’re not exercising, then you’re not giving your body a chance.

It doesn’t have to be extreme.  I’ve done exercise to the extreme and I’m not telling you that that’s what you have to go and do, but just doing something gets the heart going, it gets the circulation going and as you said earlier, when you do something like that, it gives you a chance to think.  It’s a bit of space, and that is really important as well.  I have a great morning routine.  It’s exercise; there’s some mindset stuff in there; there’s a bit of mediation.  I have to do yoga.

I didn’t mention it, but I broke my back in service; I had a parachute accident and it took me a while, physically and mentally, to get over that.  I’m pretty much okay, some people would disagree with that, but I’m fairly okay.  It’s just a case of having a routine, and part of that is that exercise.  If I don’t do it in the morning, it won’t happen in the rest of the day because other stuff, you know how much other stuff there is out there?

Wendy Harris: Yeah, there’d be no room for it.  Well, Jem, you’ve shared some great tips there as well on helping start the day.  Get yourself in the right mindset.  If anybody wants more help, please do reach out to Jem on all the platforms.  We’ll pop the details into the show notes for you as well.

All I can say is, thank you for joining me, Jem; thank you for listening.  Please remember to subscribe on the website, which is; you’ll never miss an episode then.  Thanks so much for listening, see you next time.