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Monthly Archives: October 2015

Who will teach me? Toward Employer as Educator

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Most hiring managers don’t see their primary role as educators or a role as educator at all. Education – that’s someone else’s job, something a qualified candidate brings to the company, a qualification for a job. And that viewpoint, at least I propose, contributes to the talent gap problem[1], the persistent low labor participation rate by individuals with disabilities[2] and the relatively poor job satisfaction/engagement by workers.[3] My thought, derived in part from my influencers, the writings of educational theorist John Dewey and professor of psychology at Stanford University Dr. Carol Dweck (see below), is that if more companies, including their first-line supervisors, hiring managers and the C-suite, would adopt a mindset of an educator, the American workplace would be transformed in positive ways. The workplace would be better prepared for the engagement-seeking, values-driven, learning Millennials[4] as well as the differently-abled workers. It’s ironic that business experts and others pay lip service to the need for a “learning organization”[5] for a company to compete in the globally-interconnected marketplace and yet there is not a widespread recognition that a learning organization also means a recognition of employer as educator and an essence of employment as education.

Dylan and I are co-creating content for an original disability diversity training (that Dylan will deliver) that will form part of NextCareer Consulting’s assimilation training (for employees and employers) as per DylanListed’s partnership with NextCareer.[6] Assimilation training is the ‘soft skills’ training aspect of successfully onboarding and integrating into the company an employee with a disability, with the goal of high productivity and retention. One of our chosen teachable themes in assimilation is that of mindset, more specifically, that a ‘growth’ mindset as essential to successful assimilation: A growth mindset on the part of the incoming employee (a person with a disability) and a growth mindset on the part of the hiring manager, immediate supervisor of the company receiving the employee. For this perspective we borrow ideas from Dr. Carol S. Dweck’s ideas in her book, Mindset   ̶ The New Psychology of Success. On a related note, in Dylan’s memoir/book, Occupy Special Education – Children Should be Seen and Heard, this theme appears although Dylan does not use the term mindset. In the book, touching on Dylan’s experience as a special needs student, there is the following if/then message: If no growth mindset on the part of teachers, then a disengaged student. We suggest the following: If no growth mindset on the part of the immediate supervisor, then a disengaged, less productive worker and lower employee retention rates.

What exactly is a growth mindset? I use the term broadly to mean attitudes and processes that demonstrate (1) a belief in human potential and development and (2) that lead to growth of an individual, namely growth in experience, skills, talents, knowledge, insights, self-control and self-directedness.[7] And it is widely accepted that a growth mindset is fundamental in education. It is important too in the employment context.

Company leaders see themselves as ultimately responsible for ensuring delivery of quality goods and services that customers want at a price that ensures an optimized return to shareholders while preserving the company’s values and culture. I believe that for the average first-line supervisor, such a framing of the role of management is too attenuated and far removed from the workaday challenges of effectively managing employees in diverse work teams. What is needed is a new more accessible framing of the role of management in a company.  I propose that embracing the role of employer as educator may be helpful.

Government-industry-academia partnerships in the area of job-driven education are a relatively recent ‘in’ phenomenon in the US. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)[8] is an example. NextCareer Consulting’s innovative business model is another example. The idea is to educate future workers for a particular, identified job and not merely educate for life or for a hypothetical future employment situation. A driver[9] for such partnerships is the need to ensure a sustainable, ready, skilled talent pool. Such partnerships leverage talents, resources of each party; however, they are not easy to implement and are limited in number because of the increasingly limited available government funding. Because such partnerships are not easy to implement and given the urgency of the talent gap problem, I argue here that the education mindset inherent in such partnerships needs to be adopted inside of the employer company, and carry over into the company, before the trainee/candidate arrives and after the trained/employee is assimilated within the company.

What does a growth mindset look like in practice? There are of course numerous aspects to it.  I’ll propose only one for now to make one point. Imagine a job description that reads something like this: “On this job (in this role, or the like), you will learn to do Activity A (B,C, D…) very well because you will perform it(them) on a frequent or regular basis.” This learning-directed re-framing of job descriptions will attract qualified candidates who want to do those activities, because either they have done them (so they are confident), they like doing them, they want to improve in doing such activities, and/or the activities are part of their desired career. Implicit in this type of job description is that the company culture affords you the conditions to learn and improve.  Do you want more confident, motivated, impassioned workers? Write [essential and preferred] functional skills-based, learning opportunity-focused job descriptions as part of a growth mindset you adopt in your work teams.

Let’s get back to the real world. Job descriptions do not resemble the above, not by a long shot. Instead they are an impressive repository of job requirements, written in the unique vernacular of the employer, formidable even to the most experienced candidate. Why is this? Is there another way to give a candidate an accurate glimpse into the company and the job while attracting the best candidates? It’s worth thinking about this question. I merely suggest here that as a company begins assimilation of employees with disabilities a fresh look at job descriptions (as well as job design) with a growth mindset in mind can make a positive difference (more efficient recruitment, higher productivity, higher retention) for the employee and the company.

From the viewpoint of the first-line supervisor, ‘work,’ as embodied in the typical job description, is the urgency to daily deliver certain work product through work teams; however, from the viewpoint of the non-managerial employee, ‘work’[10] seen as ‘employment as an education,’ is actually a more natural, accessible and positive framing of the essence of employment. How so? Employees do stuff ̶ they make, assemble, test, package, offer, market, sell, distribute, create, publish, advise, improve, write, sketch, design, innovate, problem-solve, lead. And how do we learn? We learn by doing. So, the essence of employment is learning through practice. If only the immediate supervisor would see it this way too. This learning with practice mindset, which implies a continuous improvement mindset, we believe is a winning, inclusion-promoting mindset that prepares the organization for successful assimilation of qualified differently-abled individuals. That is why Dylan and I chose to talk about mindset in our assimilation training.

And, if, for the moment, you agree that the essence of employment is education, what then is the role of the employer as educator. Here, I borrow ideas directly from John Dewey[11]: The role of the educator is that of protector of conditions (and attitudes) conducive to [an employee’s personal] growth. And what are some of those conditions: valuing each employee, valuing differences, providing necessary tools and resources, giving timely, constructive feedback, having high (performance) expectations, meeting the employee where she is experientially. A closed mindset will never successfully recruit, train, advance and retain a candidate without a disability and most definitely will not do so for a candidate or employee who has a disability. And just as the software giant Microsoft discovered that designing its products for accessibility for 15% of its customer/users benefits 57% of its customer/users[12], we believe that a first-line supervisor assuming the role of educator, at least in part, benefits all employees, not just newly assimilated differently-abled employees.

Dylan and I look forward to starting a conversation on the theme of the importance of a growth mindset inside of American companies assimilating differently-abled employees. We surely will learn a lot along the way.


[1] See the 2013 book entitled The Talent Equation: Big Data Lessons for Navigating the Skills Gap and Building a Competitive Workforce by Matt Ferguson, Lorin Hitt and Prasanna Tambe.

[2] Visit http://www.dol.gov/odep/; http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf

[3] Visit http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engaged-work.aspx .

[4] Hear, for example, a global VP at SAP speaking about Millennials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBb4RAD6JaA: 75% of the workforce in 2025 will be values-aware, values-driven, engagement-demanding Millennials (individuals born when technology was already pervasive).

[5] Peter Senge introduced the concept of a learning organization in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and followed it with an update in his 1999 book  The Dance of Change: The Challenge to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. The idea advanced is that an organization must learn faster than the competition in order to excel in the marketplace today and that creating a learning organization is not easy.

[6] NextCareer℠ Consulting, based in Dallas, Texas, is focused on employability and employment of U.S. veterans and individuals with disabilities, including recruitment, technical training (through NextCareer’s partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas), placement with employers, on-going coaching and support and assimilation training (through partnerships) for employers, job seekers and students.

[7] In explaining the existence of two different mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, Prof. Dweck writes of a person’s fixed abilities and the person’s changeable abilities that can be developed through learning. Mindset refers to a choice in beliefs about one’s or another’s abilities as being fixed or capable of development.

[8] http://blog.dol.gov/2014/07/22/promoting-job-driven-training-and-american-opportunity/

[9] There are other drivers in initiatives to train, recruit individuals with disabilities, including tax incentives for employers and compliance with the laws (e.g., showing good faith efforts in increasing utilization of workers with disabilities per Section 503 law governing federal contractors/subcontractors).

[10] For the moment, I don’t dwell on the fact that the ‘gainful’ in gainful employment is an important aspect of work, employment. But studies consistently have shown that money is not a powerful, sustainable performance motivator after a candidate is hired. For that type of sustainable motivation, the work has to offer additional intrinsic factors.

[11] See ideas espoused in John Dewey’s 1938 classic, Experience & Education. John Dewey was a notable educational thinker and reformer. He suggests the idea that education is maximized if seen as “an intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience…[this is part of his Principle of the Continuity of Experience…which I translate here to refer to “meeting the employee where she is…”].

[12] Mr. Hubbell shared this in a speech he delivered at a disability conference I attended.