Coming Full Circle: The Experience of the Leadership Mentoring Program
On the path to fostering occupational therapy leadership, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF) co-sponsored the Leadership Mentoring Program, which had its pilot program in 2007. One of the priorities of AOTA’s 2017 Centennial Vision is building the profession’s capabilities to influence and lead in health care; the goal of the Leadership Mentoring Program is to address that need by enhancing the emergence of strong occupational therapy leaders within academics. The second Leadership Mentoring Program began in January 2008 and wrapped up in September, with enthusiastic reviews from the participants.
“The growth I experienced would have taken years on my own,” says Ada Boone Hoerl, COTA, program director of the occupational therapy assistant program at Sacramento City College. “Not only did my self-confidence and communication strategies increase, but also my self-image increased as a leader.” Boone Hoerl was one of four participants who are program directors for occupational therapy assistant programs. “I saw it as one of the many ways that AOTA is reaching out to OTAs, and I wanted to engage in that process.”
“I established a sense of identity as a leader,” says Aaron Eakman, PhD, OTR/L, program director of occupational therapy at Idaho State University. “When I began I couldn’t see myself as a leader—I had the title but didn’t know how to walk the walk—and the experience of this program allowed me to have that sense of myself.” Eakman just started as a program director and is new to academia, having received his doctorate in 2007. “I knew I needed help in my professional development, and I knew that I needed to expand my ability to lead.”
This year’s program was specifically tailored for program directors who were eager to enhance their academic careers, handle administrative challenges, and take on more leadership roles. Interested applicants responded to the call for nominations, and AOTA and AOTF had a review panel select a diverse group of 17 aspiring leaders for the program.
“The group was composed of program directors with varying years of experience,” says participant Wendy Krupnick, PhD, OTR/L, chair and program director of occupational therapy at Philadelphia University. “Some of us were seasoned, and others were relatively new. Regardless, the issues we discussed were timeless.”
AOTA and AOTF partnered with Colorado-based The Mentoring Company to use the company’s group model—Mentoring Circles®. This concept, which has proved successful in large corporations, consists of lessons involving personal story telling of successes and failures. “The story telling is phenomenal,” says Catherine Nielson, MPH, OTR/L, FAOTA. “It gives a context to learning and it allows the learners to arrive at their own conclusions because it’s not advice giving.”
The circle consists of the participants, facilitators, and a catalyst mentor who is responsible for leading the group by using personal experiences. AOTA and AOTF selected Nielson as the catalyst mentor because of her many years of academic leadership and mentoring experience as program director of the Division of Occupational Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Beginning in January—after a face-to-face session held in Denver—the participants committed to 2-hour conference calls every other week that consisted of the mentor’s story telling followed by topical stories from the participants. “Each story I wrote for the sessions would deal with interrelated topics that had come from group discussions,” says Nielson. “The stories would be real life and they dealt with times when I was successful and times when I had failed.”
Nielson’s final story for the last session in September was about what she had learned as the catalyst mentor of the circle. She shared how the program allowed her to revisit her career and put mistakes to rest and understand and appreciate her strengths as a leader. “I certainly had the opportunity to reflect on my own career,” says Nielson. “I really put my career in order and came out feeling like I know what I have accomplished.”
All participants signed a confidentiality agreement so that the issues discussed would remain in the circle. “The information and stories we shared allowed us to create a level of intimacy that ordinarily takes much more time and shared experiences to develop,” says Krupnick.
The facilitator’s role was to provide structure and keep the group on topic so the catalyst mentor would not have to worry about group dynamics and could focus solely on participating. “Right off the bat you got the sense that this was serious,” says Eakman. “The experience wasn’t having someone give you advice, it was listening to each other’s stories about situations similar to the ones you were dealing with, and you could take from it those nuggets of experience that you could use in your own leadership style.”
The Mentoring Circle approach differs from other leadership programs because it generates multiple perspectives and enhances leadership learning of a group, rather than the learning of an individual. “It’s the ongoing nature of the circles that makes it different,” says Nielson. “It’s not just going to a class or a single event; it’s building a community that makes a difference.”
Whether it was growing on a personal level, establishing an identity as a leader, or creating intimacy with other directors, the response of the participants and the catalyst mentor was overwhelmingly positive. The group formed bonds that they plan to continue beyond the Leadership Mentoring Program. “We have become such a cohesive group,” says Boone Hoerl. “We were very supportive regardless of experience and responsibilities, and I was honored to be a part of such a distinguished group of occupational therapy professionals.”
The growth and development of leaders in the Leadership Mentoring Program will have profession-wide effects. “Developing leaders and supporting people to invest in the profession is a win–win for everyone,” says Krupnick. “Occupational therapy becomes stronger when the individuals who regularly help to educate and socialize others into the profession are provided with the tools to assist them.”
Occupational therapy practitioners who are interested in learning more about the Mentoring Program and mentoring through storytelling can attend a mentoring institute—Leader Development through Mentoring and Storytelling—at AOTA Annual Conference and Expo. The session will cover the concepts of mentoring and storytelling; check the Conference guide for more information.
Participants in the 2008 program emphasized their belief, based on their own rewarding experience, that AOTA and AOTF should expand the Leadership Mentoring Program to develop leaders and involve as many persons as possible. “If enough people go through the process there will be a coalition of leaders at different levels—grassroots, state, regional, and national,” says Boone Hoerl. “We will have a common framework for developing a vision, the courage to ask tough questions, and the skills to elicit positive outcomes.”
By jointly sponsoring the Mentoring Leadership Program, AOTA and AOTF believe that it focuses on critical needs in the profession. “This initiative is a way to address the need to enhance the emergence of strong occupational therapy leaders within the academic community,” says AOTA President Penny Moyers Cleveland, EdD, OTR/L, BCMH, FAOTA.
“It’s such an important move for AOTA and AOTF to do collaboratively,” says Nielson. “It’s such an investment, not just in the organization, but in the profession. To me, it was one of the best things I’ve been involved with professionally.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.