Targeted Development for Managers with Disabilities


By Pamela Babcock July 21, 2010

The UCLA Leadership Institute for Managers with Disabilities intends to help mid-career professionals take their careers to the next level. Experts say it’s the only external leadership development program designed for leaders with disabilities.

The institute, geared to those with at least five years of management experience, examines topics such as leadership styles and skills, mentoring and personal development, organizational savvy and strategic leadership. Most sessions are taught by someone who has a disability, according to Alissa Materman, director of the Office of Executive Education Programs at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles.

A program begun in 2007 with 27 participants, the institute is one of several such programs UCLA offers. Others are geared toward leaders who are black, Latino, gay or female. Much of the content, such as sections on mentoring and networking, is covered in all five of UCLA’s institutes, but all are taught, “through the lens of the particular demographic group,” according to Materman.

Executive readiness is another topic shared by all. “So much of showing executive readiness is what you look like,” Materman noted. “When you don’t look like the executive that the typical company wants to project, how do you position yourself so that you can be considered for promotion?”

Ted Childs Jr., IBM’s former vice president of global workforce diversity, was a driving force for the program, which IBM has supported since its inception. Other founding sponsors include PepsiCo, Fannie Mae and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The first institute was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

In August 2010, the institute—which went on hiatus for two years because of the economic downturn—was redesigned, based on feedback from the first iteration. Participants spend three days on campus but spend five months engaged in advance work and assessments and post-program analysis to gauge progress and drive home workplace applicability. The $5,500 fee includes tuition, educational materials and most meals.

Materman said participants emerge “with a clear picture of who they are as leaders, their current impact in the organization and what their potential impact can be.”

UCLA does not have metrics on how many attendees have been promoted since the 2007 inaugural session, but Materman said up to 40 percent of graduates from similar programs UCLA has conducted “in the diversity space” received promotions.

Unique Opportunity

“I have yet to see or hear about anything remotely like what UCLA offers,” said Nadine O. Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting, a Mendham, N.J.-based disability consultancy.

Vogel said that might be because for companies to address leadership for managers with a disability, the issue has to “bubble up” at the senior management level—something that has yet to happen.

“For a university to put on a program like this, you need demand, and I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where there is that kind of demand,” Vogel said. Over time, however, Vogel said, she expects to see more such programs because “companies are paying more and more attention to people with disabilities, and not just in entry-level positions.”

“People with disabilities represent a critical talent pool that is underserved and underutilized,” said Shirley Davis, SHRM’s director of global diversity and inclusion. “There is an opportunity for HR and diversity professionals to really leverage programs like this. We hope that other universities will look at potential ways to build this into their curriculum.”

“There’s a dire need for leadership development in the disability community and for people to feel like they [rightfully] belong where they are and where they could possibly attain to be,” said John D. Kemp, an attorney and partner at Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, executive director and general counsel for the U.S. Business Leadership Network in Washington, D.C., a speaker at the Fall 2010 session of the institute.

Kemp, who uses prosthetics, emphasized the need for people to “embrace our disabilities and the pride that we should feel as being people with disabilities.”

Participant Takeaways

Susan Mazrui, director of public policy for AT&T Services Inc. in Washington, D.C., who was diagnosed in her teens with multiple sclerosis and has been legally blind for 25 years, attended the inaugural program of the institute. “There is nothing like it elsewhere,” she said. In addition to learning techniques for building support networks for communication, Mazrui said, the program helped her understand parallel experiences others with disabilities have had, such as some of the challenges presented by cocktail parties.

“Employees who have disabilities don’t have the opportunity to connect” in some cases, Mazrui said, because employers are less likely to have disability-related employee resource groups, even if other such groups exist for women or minorities.

Mazrui said the institute offers “no risk of pity” and “an opportunity to look at the lighter side” of interactions with people unfamiliar with disability. “Some of the most awkward moments have led to great working relationships and strong friendships.”

Most important, however, Mazrui said, the institute gave her the encouragement she needed to move to a new position, because “the idea of creating your own career path was one of the messages.”

Another institute alumnus, Jennifer Kemp of DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, took on a new position following her institute experience. She now works as youth policy team lead and manages a staff of six.

Jennifer Kemp, who has cerebral palsy, said the institute helped her think more about managing people, tasks and expectations and helped her learned how to harness her management style. “I’m very open, honest and direct, but … I think I can kind of come across as too direct,” she told SHRM Online.

She said that one of the best things about the institute was being around other people “who had achieved a certain degree of success, so you could have frank conversations around how does disability play into that [success].”

For example, Jennifer Kemp said, “If I’m managing somebody and they’re not performing, is it because I’m not a good manager or because of my disability?”

Positive Signs

In recent months, Vogel said, she’s seen growing interest among clients to develop the leadership abilities of employees who have disabilities, and several have begun mentoring programs to pair up employees with disabilities.

“We are seeing more and more folks in executive positions such as a chief diversity officer or head of HR start looking at diversity in a more inclusive way when it comes to candidates and/or employees with disabilities … which I think is a wonderful thing,” Vogel said.

Her company’s annual “Disability Matters” awards conference draws senior-level executives to share best practices on how to develop people with disabilities in the workplace. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the attendance and level of participants,” Vogel said. Five years ago, there were 55 attendees; but more than 200 are expected for 2010.

But, she added, one challenge in the U.S. is that there are no metrics on the number of people with disabilities in leadership positions.

“There are many people in the workforce with hidden disabilities who are being promoted and moving up and the employer doesn’t even know they have the disability,” Vogel said. “If the CEO thinks he has 100 people out of his workforce who have a disability and not 1,000, that makes a difference in what he or she believes the need is.”

A Different Perspective

While Jennifer Kemp works in the disability field and was born with her disability, she said the majority of institute attendees had acquired their disability, which leads to “a completely different way of thinking about disability.

“There’s this perception in media and in life that if you have a disability, that’s really all there all there is to you,” she said. “But most of us are also parents, we have very active lives and the disability is really just one part of who we are and it’s a part we usually ignore and don’t talk about and address.”

She says there should be more programs for managers with disabilities and that they should start earlier.

“People who are younger need to meet other groups of people who have challenges and have been successful,” she said. “Success breeds success. They need to understand that the stereotypes that they are exposed to don’t have to be their reality.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

Related Article

Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference?SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010


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