Compassionate Leadership: Mentoring in an ABA Service Provider

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Pierre Louis, M.S. Ed., BCBA

Executive Director of Training and Leadership Development, DiNovi & Associates

It’s no secret that we are in a “Golden Age” of ABA.  The industry is booming and agencies are hiring BCBAs and front line staff at record rates.  Our own company has been witness to such growth in recent years.  But growth comes with risks if not managed carefully – a risk that the quality of your services will diminish, and the risk of declining employee satisfaction as more clients come in and increasing demands are placed upon staff.  In all likelihood, you could make the case that as employee satisfaction decreases, so does service quality. 

We attempt to get in front of such risks with something we call “Compassionate Leadership” through our mentorship and coaching programs.  Once hired, our staff enter our program and are quickly paired with a mentor.  The mentors are highly experienced BCBAs or clinical coordinators that have regular weekly meetings with their assigned staff.  One function of the program is to guide new employees through the processes related to the daily workings of our company systems (e.g., billing documents, treatment plan templates, time management, etc…).  However, an even greater advantage comes from the opportunities it provides for reciprocal internal feedback between staff and executives.  Feedback could come from staff regarding their cases or job satisfaction, or feedback could come from mentors on treatment suggestions and the ever-important “soft skills” that can make or break a case or contract.

You see, there is an important distinction between a “supervisor” and a “mentor.”  A supervisor is someone who typically has firing power over his/her staff, and someone in whom staff might not feel comfortable with in fully expressing his/her job-related concerns.  A mentor, on the other hand, is disconnected from the more aversive contingencies associated with a supervisor.  As such, we find our staff are more likely to tell mentors things that they wouldn’t otherwise.  Sometimes, mentors might act as confidants to their staff, but many times things are expressed that are valuable sources of feedback for our company – red flags that indicate stressors on our employees and that something needs to change quickly.   

With the staff’s permission, mentors will bring this information to my attention and we can act quickly to resolve the issue. For example, once a staff voiced a concern to her mentor that she loved her job except that driving to some of her far away cases was getting a bit taxing.  With the staff’s permission, the mentor brought this to my attention and, a few phone calls later, we offered her a travel stipend to help augment the time she was spending in her car.  Needless to say, this made all the difference in her outlook.

But, the mentorship program has another layer that is more accurately described as coaching.  Coaching provides more high-level attention to the staff based on their larger professional goals and interests – and the interests don’t even need to be related to our company.  With coaching, we ask the question “What’s your niche?”.  Everyone has a niche – something they excel at or are motivated to improve upon.  If you can discover your employees’ niches, and align your organization around them, you have a winning combination for the long-term viability of your company. 

As an example, one staff recently voiced to her mentor that she wanted to become proficient in public speaking.  She felt this was an area of weakness for her and wanted to further develop the skill.  In her case, public speaking skills are important to her job as they are important for conducting trainings and speaking to school administrators.  So, we set her up with another BCBA in the company who was highly experienced in public speaking to build her repertoire.  As another example, one of our staff had a strong interest in applying ABA to personal fitness, and has a background in the area.  For him, we ended up providing him guidance on how to start his own company to achieve his goals.  So, you see, coaching isn’t just about how we can improve our company, but how we can build up our employees for success in their work with us and in the rest of their lives. In some cases, coaching sessions have resulted in the employee determining that their niche is outside the company. The employee has left, pursued their niche, and then returned to the company with an even stronger skill set.

What are your experiences with mentoring programs in ABA agencies?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

pierrePierre Louis, M.S. Ed., BCBA is the Executive Director of Training & Leadership Development at Brett DiNovi & Associates, which is one of the largest consulting groups of its kind on the east coast of the United States. Pierre has 17 years of experience working with individuals with ASD, as well as other developmental and behavioral challenges. His introduction into the field was at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University in 2000. There, he also began and completed his coursework for his BCBA credential while obtaining his graduate degree at Capella University in Education, with a specialization in performance improvement. Pierre has used that combination of experience and education in subsequent roles at Gloucester County Special Services School District and at Bancroft; most recently as Director of Clinical Training. Throughout that time, Pierre has continued to work with children and adults with various challenges including those who have experienced traumatic events. Additionally, Pierre has taught Intro to Applied Behavior Analysis at Camden County College and has also taught ABC’s of ABA for Rowan University. Pierre’s other interests include Organizational Behavior Management and leadership development. Pierre can be contacted at pierre@brettdassociates.com

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