Supervisory Skills Boost Career Growth for the Blind

National Industries for the Blind Honored
In 2011, NIB’s Business Leaders Program received a Summit Award from the Center for Association Leadership, the organization’s highest honor for associations that implement new, innovative, community-based programs.

People who are blind are a viable untapped labor resource. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May, 69.6 percent of working-age people with vision loss are not employed.

Because this includes those with less-severe vision loss, the percentage of those who are legally or totally blind and not working is likely higher. Providing people who are blind with opportunities for employment and career advancement already available to sighted individuals is a successful strategy for employers and employees.

National Industries for the Blind’s (NIB) mission is to enhance economic and personal independence for people who are blind by creating, sustaining and improving employment. In 2011, NIB provided job opportunities for more than 6,100 blind individuals throughout the United States.

To do this, in 2003 the organization created its Business Leaders Program — a multi-track professional development program for capable people who are blind that subsequently opened career-building doors. The program operates on the premise that given ability and inclination, people who are blind only need hands-on opportunities and tools, similar to those taught in workplace and educational programs for the sighted, to achieve success.

The program consists of five tracks for professional development and employment, including:

Fellowship for Leadership Development: Offers on-the-job, salaried experience, leading to gainful employment in business.
Business Management Training: Similar to a mini-MBA education that initiates careers at the management and executive level.
Effective Supervision: The Essentials: Teaches skills needed to effectively supervise, support the organization and lead others.
Leaders at All Levels: Provides on-site training by facilitators who are blind and who role-model the team-building they teach.
Business Basics: A set of five, entry-level courses in accessible, distance learning formats covering essential business topics.

Effective Supervision: The Essentials is the fifth and newest track, created in 2011. This program’s goal is to provide high-potential participants a chance to hone their supervisory and leadership skills, perform with greater confidence, be more productive and effective, and prepare for increasing levels of responsibility. It teaches blind individuals the business acumen and leadership needed to improve their career prospects. These opportunities help with upward mobility, previously not readily available to people with disabilities.

Kevin Lynch, NIB president and CEO, said he believes the track is needed to give employees who are blind a chance to excel in their career paths. “We want people who are blind to be able to fulfill their jobs to the best of their capabilities and be eligible for career movement and advancement just like anybody else,” Lynch said.

This program is targeted to NIB employees and its associated nonprofit agencies such as The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Employees must apply to the program and include an endorsement from their company’s president or chief executive officer. Interested employees must be blind, already performing in a supervisory position and meet eligibility criteria, such as:

• Demonstrated supervision and leadership capacity.
• Having career goals aligned with supervision and leadership in business.
• Proficiency in computer technology and Internet research.
• Mastery of any necessary adaptive software and equipment.
• High school diploma.
• Ability to fully participate in all three, two-and-a-half-day-long sessions including independent traveling, studying all pre-session materials and completing all assignments.

Participation by the applicant’s manager is another requirement. In the coaching class, managers learn skills to help them shift the way they guide the participants and their other employees.

This 12-month program consists of three participant-centered classroom sessions in the Washington, D.C., area, along with self-study and other assignments to be completed before and after the sessions. The two-and-a-half-day-long classroom sessions are conducted every three months. In 2011 there were 21 participants plus their coaches, and 17 participants plus their coaches — one coach per person — in 2012. Participants came from 18 states and Washington, D.C.

Effective Supervision Topics and Activities
In the first session, Understanding Supervision, participants are taught tactical, operational and strategic thinking, time management tips, performance management skills and proactive communication practices. They learn the supervisor role and how to communicate clearly with their direct reports. They become skilled at balancing their own work while supervising others.

The second session, Managing and Leading the Work, covers issues related to supervision including ethical decision making and developing a systems perspective on managing projects to effectively complete work with and through others.

In the third session, Managing and Leading People, participants learn crucial skills to engage the employees they supervise and to build strong, effective teams. Each session is a building block for the one that follows, and all sessions contain hands-on and other exercises. Trainers customize each session to meet individual participants’ needs.

A session on performance coaching for participants’ managers — some of whom are visually impaired — is an example of this type of training. Its purpose is two-fold: to assist participants in supporting their employees’ success, and to foster increased and more effective conversations about the participants’ development.

Through Effective Supervision, participants’ managers learn how to coach to increase their direct reports’ skills and abilities and gain the opportunity during the training session to practice and refine coaching and continue coaching employees after the training is finished. The managers and participants create a clear action plan of how they will move forward with tangible action steps for working together in new and different ways.

“Management support for the program is integrated at every step,” Lynch said. “It is essential to the program’s success.” At the end of Effective Supervision, participants are expected to understand their jobs, be more aware of others and themselves, manage and lead projects and supervise.

The End Result
A mid-point survey was conducted in 2011 to gather information on the effectiveness, performance and workplace impact of the first two sessions. The evaluation form was sent to the participants’ managers, and the response rate was 85 percent. Managers said participants demonstrated newly learned skills, improved supervisory performance and contributed to the effectiveness of agency operations. Among the comments:

• “[She] has a better global understanding of how her decisions can impact not only her direct reports, but our agency and the relationship with our customers. She has increased confidence in her decisions and improved critical thinking skills.”
• “[He] has a stronger understanding of how to motivate people to be productive.”
The 2011 final program evaluation, several months after the last classroom session, received a 100 percent response rate. Managers were asked the same questions as in the mid-point evaluations. Overall, ratings were high, and the training impact was significant. Comments from the managers showed that participants sustained and improved their ability to manage people and make decisions as well as positively affect their agency’s performance:
• “He is more engaged in the supervisory process and asks relevant questions. In many instances we have found that employees practice what they are taught in the short term, then go back to whatever makes them comfortable. In this instance, he goes back to what he learned in the Effective Supervision class and applies the techniques that he was taught.”
• “[Her] change in how she manages her reports has actually increased our sales within her department.”

Agency management stated there is improved/increased productivity from supervisors and their teams. Further, customers are reporting improved service. NIB distributed a formal evaluation instrument — 100 percent return rate — validating that the effect of training continues four months after the last classroom session. Using a 1 to 5 rating scale — 1 equals do not agree at all and 5 equals agree to a great extent — the averaged rating was 4.1. This indicated the participants exhibited the learned skills, improved supervisory performance and contributed to the effectiveness of agency operations.

In the class of 2011, four people from various parts of the U.S. received promotions, and one supervisor from Little Rock, Ark., received a salary increase with expanded responsibilities.
“This experience enables people who are blind to know for themselves the enormous difference it makes to become a good leader both on the job and in life,” Lynch said. “Most important, participants gained not just competence, but confidence to apply their learning and new expertise. That’s the key.”

A common concern for those unfamiliar with working with employees who are blind or visually impaired is determining how well these employees can manage projects and other people with vision limitations. This is a concern NIB is working hard to eliminate.

Supervisory skills are the same regardless of visual impairment. The ability to delegate is the same, as is the ability to have a feedback conversation on a direct report’s performance. Using programs such as Effective Supervision, employees can demonstrate that they are as capable and competent in supervisory roles as any other employee, and like others they benefit from development and training aimed at skill enhancement and upward mobility.

Casey Wilson is the director of product management for Management Concepts, a training company. He can be reached at