By Dr. Jacqueline Ganley
When I attended a women’s leadership conference five years ago as part of my work for Easterseals Autism Therapy Services, I met leaders from various organizations around Southern California—Disney, Boeing and other big companies—who were talking about their mentoring programs. I started thinking about how much mentoring has helped me in my career; professors, supervisors and people I met while I was volunteering at non-profits, who took me under their wings. I turned to my boss and asked if I could do that for Easterseals and she said, “Yes!” It was the right place for me to be to hear that message.
Career satisfaction and advancement is quicker and higher among people who are mentored and, for the employer, it elevates the quality of work, increases productivity, raises employee retention and creates a more-positive work environment.
In Autism Services in particular, we focus heavily on professional training … but mentoring is different. Mentors don’t tell you how to meet a goal or solve a problem but provide guidance to help you make a decision. It’s someone you look to when you’re stuck and need advice and you can share things that you might not want to tell a supervisor. Mentors are there to guide you as a coach or advisor without judgement or repercussion.
For the Easterseals Mentorship Program I created, participants must formally apply and fill out a questionnaire about their goals. Once accepted, they are paired with a senior team member in their area of interest. Since it can be awkward to ask someone to be a mentor, mentees appreciate being paired up in a program so they don’t have to find someone themselves. Beyond that, the program is very individualized. There are no requirements for how often to connect or how to structure the interactions. You can take advantage of the program as much as you like; go full force and speak frequently, follow your mentor at their job; or work on a project together. For others, it’s less contact. We just check-in to make sure it’s working for the mentee and provide scheduled workshops and speakers.
Some people are looking to advance, some are looking to move in a different direction. Mentors not only share their expertise in improving or developing skills sets but can help you look at things from a different viewpoint, expand your network and enhance your methods and strategies.
It’s not just the mentees who benefit. It’s a two-way street. Mentors also gain insights due to collaborative learning, are inspired with new ideas or may learn new strategies from the people they are guiding.
Dee Prescott, VP of Adult Day Services – North, has been with ESSC for 30 years and has mentored two employees to date and notes that it’s a different experience every time. “We all have different expertise and interests,” she says, “and most of the VPs here have been here for more than 20 years. It’s exciting to help develop the next generation of leadership.
“Mentees learn a lot about other service lines,” she continues. “ESSC is an enormous agency with numerous sites spread across Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Imperial, Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties. Employees know what they do within their own service and geographic area, but they don’t always see how it fits into the larger organization. We want them to know the history of the organization and where we came from. But mentors also learn new ways of doing things and seeing where new leadership wants to see the agency go helps me stay in the know and see how I can support that.”
In fact, Dee is now working on a pilot program with her current mentee, Jill Craven, a Clinical Supervisor for ESSC’s Autism Services, which utilizes Google Maps to map all service lines and sites to help employees navigate the organization more easily. “It’s exciting to think of something new that will benefit everybody,” Dee says.
“I wanted to learn how to better develop my leadership skills and got a new role model who helped in the creation of an amazing service, who leads with strength, passion and compassion,” adds Jill. “Dee and I came up with this idea together. We were discussing how valuable it would be to see all of the services lines’ locations and supports on one document. In doing so, we were able to see what regions were missing specific services and to look at the employees in each region. The overall idea—and something I’ve grown very excited about—is to help with the facilitation of the continuum of care that Easterseals is capable of providing our participants and to be able to collaboration between and within service lines more effectively. Hopefully this map will aide in these big-picture ideas.”
Eriko Yamagishi, M.S., BCBA, Associate Director of ESSC’s Behavioral Provider Network, was one of the program’s earliest mentees and is now a mentor herself. “My desire to learn demonstrated my dedication to this organization,” she recalls. “I was able to bring the training and new strategies shared with me by my mentor back to my department. Now I’m in charge of training as well as the work-life balance committee for our division. The experience also makes you more aware of what’s going on in the organization as a whole, so that we’re a more cohesive team and can help one another.
“The program also went beyond work themes to support broader life goals,” she continues. “The confidence I gained was used outside of work as I applied strategies shared with me to accomplish a personal goal of becoming certified yoga teacher. I also really enjoyed the experience of being a mentor. The first mentee I worked with has gone on to be promoted, but she gave me a fresh pair of eyes to look at things from a different perspective. I was where my mentee was 10 years ago and her passion sparked inspiration in me. And now I’m mentoring again.”
A seven-year employee of ESSC, Rebekah Young, M.A., BCBA, Clinical Supervisor, is the person currently being mentored by Yamagishi, who says, “My office is located in Ventura, so I started the mentorship program to get to know people from different regions and departments. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to grow my professional network and some of my professional skills that I could use some fine tuning on.
“I chose Eriko as my mentor because she works in our Behavioral Provider Network and oversees six Clinical Case Managers and the 700 cases they supervise,” she says. “So much of what she does is have critical conversations with the clients we support, families, the team she supervises and outside partner organizations. When someone or something needs attention, she steps in.
“That’s an area I wanted to work on for professional growth,” Rebekah recalls. “I’m reading a book called Critical Conversations, attend the workshops and check in with her regularly. She gives me ideas and insights and a different perspective. The program has already given me more management skills and the confidence in addressing those conversations. It’s opening doors for me.”
To date, the ESSC mentorship program has enrolled 57 mentees who gained first-hand knowledge and experience under the tutelage of 43 mentors. Of the participants to date, 25% have been promoted and seven become Board Certified Behavior Analysts within one year or less of completing the program. And retention rises significantly. Ninety percent of the graduates of the mentoring program were still employed by ESSC a year after completion of the program and 77% after two years; notably higher than U.S. statistics in the human and social services field, which can range from 25-55%.
Recently at one of the program’s speaker series, several mentees stood up and were so eager to share their experience. They feel more confident and more empowered to make decisions or to supervise or to deal with a problem. They just had this overall confidence. There are always going to be uncomfortable or scary situations, but they have someone they trust to help them. That was cool for me to see the enthusiasm that they shared. It wasn’t like that in the beginning when everyone was very quiet and getting to know each other. I saw the transformation, which is why I do the program every year.
And I’m proud of how many previous mentees have become mentors. I think that’s indicative of how impactful the program is and how people are paying it forward. They volunteer their time on top of their work commitments. It takes a lot of dedication, but I always have more mentors than I need.
As supervisors and leaders, developing your staff is a significant part of your job and mentoring can be a great tool at any stage of your career. Launching a formal mentoring program gave Easterseals a unique platform for our staff members to pursue professional goals and aspirations and gain self-confidence in their abilities and job performance.
With everyone’s feedback, we are making it better and better each year, opening it up to more people and making it more effective. It’s a win-win for everyone!