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Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: One of the very best places to work in a non-profit sector is an organization called Ability Beyond, which is headquartered up in Connecticut. And here to tell us what makes it special is their president and CEO, Jane Davis.
Good evening, Jane, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Jane: Thank you so much, Thanks for having me.
Denver: First, tell us about Ability Beyond, the mission and goals of the organization.
Jane: Sure. Ability Beyond is a non-profit organization. We’re in Connecticut and New York. And we serve over [03:21] people a year. Our mission statement is to discover, build and celebrate ability in all people. We serve people with disabilities of all kinds but mostly, folks with developmental disabilities, people that are on the autism spectrum, people with mental illness, and traumatic brain injury survivors. And we do that through employment services and through transition of services helping young adults go from school to work. We serve people in our family home. We serve people in apartments that need help with daily living. Family operate a number of group homes in Connecticut and New York and have a bunch of other services from certified special Olympics program and a bocce ball team, and service coordination. We do a whole plethora of services.
We have five offices but our main headquarters is in Connecticut, in Bethel, and our New York office is in Chappaqua in Westchester. Then we also have two sort of unique thing about Ability Beyond, and maybe we can talk more about them.
We have a rose farm in Gilford, Connecticut on the shore where we operate a business called Roses for Autism. We grow Connecticut grown roses there and that entire business is supported and a training ground for people on the autism spectrum of developmental disability. And we also sort of offset our cost thereby selling the most beautiful roses you can get anywhere and we ship anywhere in the United States at rosesforautism.com.
We also have a consulting service called Disability Solutions. I’ll tell you more about that hopefully because part of our inclusion, in adversity, nationally where we help corporations welcome people’s disabilities into their workforce.
Denver: We’ll before we get into the culture piece of it, why don’t you give us a word about that.
Jane: Sure. I’d love to. We have been providing employment services for people with disabilities for decades. So, we started in 1953. We’ve been in this business a really long time. Most people understand the value of work in a person’s life and it gives you a sense of purpose and helps people be a valued member of the society. So, we are really into helping people find jobs and we’re very good at that. We’ve been good at that for decades and recently, there’s been incentivizations for corporations to hire people with disabilities as part of their diversity programs and we thought, “You know what? We really know how to do that well. We know how to help corporations do that.” And we’re Medicaid business here, so we’re always operating at a loss. And we thought, “Okay, that might be a win-win for us. It can help offset our losses by offering consulting services but also help people with disability to find jobs across the country”.
So, we launched Disability Solutions and we have some great clients like American Express and Pepsi and Synchrony Financial and many others where we’re helping them figure out employment gaps that they have as a corporation and helping them hire people with disabilities into their workforce. And the business case behind that is that it helps meet the job-gap needs that corporations have and it really empowers the diversion and equality in the workplace. It gives you a more robust and inclusive culture and we also talk about the retention rate being improved and the hire rates being faster when we’re involved and we are hiring people with disabilities. And the buying power of the disability community and the loyalty there is also a huge sell for corporations. So, it’s been win-win-win-win-win for the companies that we’ve been working with and we’ve done all kinds of great work all across the country and consultants working for us across the country. It actually just went international because we were not too long ago in India, working with Synchrony Financial, and helping them figure out how they can meet some job-gap needs in India for the first time.
Denver: Well, that is an extraordinary breadth of services, not to mention, enterprises which help support those services. In order to be able to do that all successfully, you have to have a really engaged and motivated workforce. So, let’s turn our attention to the corporate culture of Ability Beyond. Some people describe their cultures as a coaching culture, a data-driven culture, feedback culture. What word or phrase would you use to describe your culture?
Jane: I think that we’ve had, I think something like six names for our organization in the last six years. We’ve changed our name multiple times. And the name that we have now, Ability Beyond, has evolved from other names. But to me, our name Ability Beyond, and our mission statement: discover, building and celebrating the ability in all people really does capture our culture not just for how we approach the services that we provide to the people we serve. Our job is to help them move beyond disability and find what their abilities are so they can move forward and be always moving forward. And it really, kind of, how we approach our business. We always want to be doing better. We want to be moving forward. Do we want to be growing and figuring how can we do our job better? How can we move our workforce and empower them more? So, I really think our Ability Beyond kind of captures the work that we’re trying to do and thus that feeling of moving beyond today.
Denver: Right. Never happy with the status quo as what it sounds like. Always trying to get better every single day. Talk to me a little bit about your core values and how you communicate and then reinforce the core values of the organization.
Jane: It’s funny that you’re asking us that now because we have the pillars of our business. We have our mission statement. We have our values written down. We’ve had them for decades and we actually have an organizational objective this year. So, we have strategic things that we’re always working on and every year, we have organizational goals that we’re measuring against. And this year, in particular, we wanted to redefine our culture and our values and make sure that we’re defining them a little more dynamically and correctly and constantly. The values that we have here, I think right now, we have something like 12 or 15 values. They’re all right. They’re all great. We’ve got transparency. We’ve got excellence. We have all those words I think most companies have. So, we’re actually trying to define them this year as a team working with everybody – the people we serve, our families, our direct support staff to redefine them in a more dynamic way, a way that’s a little more us.
So, you have to stay tuned for that. But exactly how we’re writing it. But I love that we’re ready to kind of rebrand who we are and keep it a little more synced and dynamic.
Denver: Yeah. I hear you. It sounds you want to keep the essence of all those values intact. But just crystalize them a little bit better and animate them some more and make them a bit more contemporary and a little bit more up-to-date where people can relate to them better than they have perhaps and as always, part of what you just said a moment ago, we’re never being happy with the status quo but take all what you have, as good as it is, and always trying to make it better.
What would you say with the “Wow” of working at Ability Beyond is? When somebody comes to work there, what is the thing that, when they’ve been there for a little bit, they just say: “Man, this is something special.”
Jane: I really think that the “Wow” and the “Wow’ that’s kept me here for 33 years is that it is fun! The work that we do is really fun and I think the fact that our leadership team, our board, our direct support staff are focused on the work that we do and that’s the direct service to a person with a disability and there’s really nothing better than helping someone achieve a goal. Whether it’s small like relearning how to brush their teeth, to getting their first job, to transitioning to their first department or even helping someone end of life. It’s really special, special work. And to me, that’s the “Wow” factor. And I think our feeling of support of the organization and the leadership team here to support that work is the other part of the “Wow”.
Denver: So many people who work in non-profit organizations complain that there is no road to advancement. There is no place to go. What do you do to sort of help promote the people’s possibilities and invest in their professional and personal development?
Jane: I think we’ve got a really good answer to that. Most people in our industry haven’t even heard of it. People have heard of being a CNA. They get that you’re going to work in a nursing home or a hospital. Other jobs are a little more well defined. Most people in our industry kind of stumble into it. I stumbled into it because I had a choice between writing a term paper or volunteering in a group home. I never would have thought about working in a group home. Never would have thought about it. And then I loved it once I’ve tried it. So, most people kind of stumble into the job. They like it and then it’s really hard to see what your career path is. If you’re a CNA you might realize that, that makes you feel a licensed nurse, a registered nurse and work your way up that way.
And the other thing to know about our industry for direct support staff is that the national turnover rate is about 50%. So, for most organizations, half the staff that you hire in the first year are gone. And nothing impacts quality more than the person serving a person with disability not really knowing them or understanding them.
So, we worked with the University of Minnesota years ago and developed what we call the Pathways Program which has actually won national awards. Our Pathways Program is where a direct support staff can apply and then go through additional training, 30-hours of training, and class-work time and mentoring time and online training time and develop their skills, learn more about the work that we do and more about the different disability types or better ways to approach the job and when they finish that, they graduate and get a bump in pay and a bonus.
We’ve started with Level 1 which is direct support professional. When you come here, you’re not a DSP yet but once you go to the program, if you go through the program, then you become a direct support professional that’s graduated through Pathways and you can go on to mentoring and supervision or behaviorals or aging. Specialty areas that you might want to pursue within the organization and we try to map out literally a ladder for people so they get it. But it also helps them be more prepared to do their job better. If you’re more prepared, you’re going to be happier at work and we’re going to have a better result that’s meeting our business needs and needs that people that we serve. And we found it to be really, really highly successful. It’s a worthy investment. It took time and resources to develop it. It takes time and resources to complete the class and to find money for that bump in pay. But it’s brought our turnover rate, we wanted to hit 21 last year and we hit 17.6.
Denver: Which is compared to 50% on the national average scale. That’s dramatic.
Jane: Absolutely. And for the DSPs, the retention rate, it’s in the 90s. Generally, people that have gone through the program are so much more likely to stay. So, the more people that we have go through the program, the more prepared they are, the better our quality is, the better results for the people we serve and the better our retention rates are. And that also helps us save money. And then we can reinvest that back into more Pathways classes. So, it’s been a win-win for us and the people we serve and project support staff.
Denver: Well, very forward thinking. People always look at this as a cost. It really isn’t a cost. It’s an investment and at the end of the day, it saves you money and improves the quality of care.
You mentioned a moment ago that you’ve been there for 33 years so you’ve seen a lot of changes. One of the changes I’m sure you’ve seen has been this influx of millennials into the workforce. How has that impacted your culture?
Jane: I think a couple of things. One is we want to be known for a few things here are Ability Beyond and one of those is technology. We put a lot of investments into doing what we do more efficiently because the Medicaid system is so challenged, and our state funding is also challenging in both of the states that we operate in. So, we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient.
The other challenge we have is we have a workforce of 1200 but they are spread out through about 120 different locations in both states. So, we have a lot, a ton of small teams. Sometimes one person, sometimes six, sometimes 12 in all these different locations so communication and staying connected is a challenge for us. The great thing about that work forces that they embrace technology too. So, it made it easier for us to roll things out that help us be more efficient in E-systems. And this year, we’re launching electronic learning management system so it’s easier for our staff to go to classes and gain knowledge. So, it’s made it easier for us to roll off those kinds of initiatives.
On the other hand, it’s challenged us to do a better job with transparency, with engagement, and with staying connected with our workforce and throughout all these different locations. And it’s also challenged us to really embrace how we help people connect with purpose-driven work. This year, in particular, we’re looking at different tools for that in how to attract people that are purpose-driven and then retain people that are purpose-driven because they’re more likely to stay. They’re more likely to connect with the work that we do and the Millenials are into that.
Denver: That’s true. What are some of the technology tools that you’re looking at?
Jane: Well, some of it is kind of boring. Some of it is around how we – our electronic record for the work that we do and to help us get through Medicaid audit, so things like that. Our human resources information system may be a little boring to people but to help our workforce of 1200 get information they need at their fingertips has been great.
A lot of it is around, we call it TIPS. So, Technology Innovations for People. We coined that phrase here and that’s about direct service to the people that we serve. So, helping them be more independent through technology, it gives them a great sense of empowerment, help them be more independent. They’re less reliant on paid staff and when they’re less reliant on paid staff, it saves Medicaid system money. And we’ve been getting a lot of grants for the last couple of years to help people be independent and save through remote supervision and different tools to help them, prompt them to take their medication. We’ve been rolling out medication dispensers. All kinds of things like that that help people communicate, to help them be more independent, save the Medicaid system money and help us be more efficient and it’s really cool. We have what we call a TIP Squad which is the Technology Innovations for People Squad which is actually is run by our technology person, Laurie Dale, here. And it’s made up of people with different disabilities and people that we also serve who are testing technology for us and helping to roll it out for other people that we serve.
We’ve been Beta testing products in our industry like a product from a company called Nix Health which is an independent transfer system. Most of our workman’s comp injuries here are from helping people transfer into a wheelchair from bed. And their system, the bed actually transfers you from the bed to the wheelchair and back without touching the person. It’s an amazing piece of technology. Huge implications in our industry. So, we’ve been helping them test that specific to people with different types of disability for us. And, we’re working with MIT right now on an alternate use of a product. They’re testing a seizure watch and we are alternate use testing it for people with – we serve young adults with mental illness and most of them have post-traumatic stress disorders from, at least, in trauma histories. And the watch also helps measure biometric indicators that someone with PTSD will just say “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine” and then all of a sudden just…
And we’re alternate testing the watch to see if we can predict when someone is saying they’re fine and they’re really not and intervening before they get past the point of no return. So, we can intervene and pre-empt it. Really super fun stuff. We really want to be– with one of the things we want to be known for and in fact, people that we served have been speaking across the country and are working on a technology space and people can check out our website because we have a whole page on our technology innovations on our abilitybeyond.org website.
Denver: Well, you do very difficult and challenging work. How do you try to maintain work-life balance and what do you do to help people to avoid burning out?
Jane: It’s funny. I just learned this. I didn’t know this but I actually was just doing a podcast for someone else, Christopher Kukk from Western Connecticut State University here and he sort of has a theme around –– I’ll say it incorrectly but it is around kindness and compassion. He was talking about how empathy uses the same brain triggers, I guess, as stress. And he’s actually going to be coming and talking to our direct support staff about the difference between compassion and empathy and how to try and make sure you’re being completely compassionate with the people we serve without sacrificing too much of your own brain power and life force. So, we’re looking at ways to offset that. We’re always looking for ways to be supportive as we can to our direct support staff and really trying to find a balance of work-life balance with flexibility and support for that.
As our organization has evolved over time, at this point, our leadership team, almost three-quarters of us started as direct support staff… including me. So, that shift in our leadership team over time has helped really have a greater understanding of what our direct support staff who are doing the real hard work are going through. So anything we can do to support them, we’re going to try it.
Denver: I bet. Let me close with this. Is there anything at Ability Beyond that nobody would know unless they work there? Something unique or quirky or some ritual that you have that really just distinguishes your place of work from any other?
Jane: We have a ton of rituals here. We have ugly sweater contest, and our annual barbeque, and our golf event, and our gala. We have a lot of ritual events and celebrations here. I will go back to what I said at the very beginning, I really think that what is unique about us is if you’re going to work here, we’ll want to support you. We want you to see your career path here. But you really need to embrace change because we are constantly sort of moving forward and looking for better ways to do that. And part of that is accepting change and that’s not always easy for everyone. But if you’re someone that embraces that and enjoys that, I think that’s really part of our “Okay, this is unique to us.” We’re always trying to move ahead in the work that we do and most of the time, it’s amazing and fun. And it makes you really proud to work here and I know that’s what it is for me when we hear that a lot from our team and our staff that say they’re proud to work here.
Denver: Well, I can hear it in your voice and that’s a very nice sentiment indeed. Tell us about your website, the kind of information people will find there and what they can do to help support the work if they should be so inclined.
Jane: Well, yes. First, they should buy any floral needs, should be met through rosesforautism.com for sure. Go to that website in our link from abilitybeyond.org as well. We ship anywhere and we hope you enjoy our locally grown roses. They open all the way and they’re really fragrant and beautiful because they help support people with disabilities learn all aspects of the business and supports awareness of autism.
For corporations listening out there, disabiltysolutionsarwork.com is our consulting and you can learn more about that. Also, there’s a link from our website. And at abilitybeyond.org you can see what’s new. You can learn about all the services that we provide, more about our technology, our employment services and apply for a job there too. We’d love to have you. It’s fun to work here. You can work here.
Denver: It sounds that way. Well, Jane Davis, the President and CEO of Ability Beyond. I want to thank you so much for being on the program this evening. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Jane: Thank you so much.
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