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Jan 3, 2024

Diane Dalmasse, Director of HireAbility Vermont, is in the studio today. Diane is the longest-serving director nationally in the VR program and has a lot to say about culture in the workplace and the changes Vermont made to retain and attract employees from across the nation. Learn about how hiring an organizational consultant back in the 90s continues to prove its worth today.


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Full Transcript:



Diane: I think that everyone should have their voices heard and have some ownership in how we move forward as an organization. I think it has enabled us to set a very high bar for staff. All in all, our career ladders, our leadership development are supporting professional growth and development in any way we can has really contributed to staff morale and staff retention. They are owning where we're going and actually driving how we get there.


Intro Voice: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well welcome to the manager minute. Joining me in the studio today is Diane Dalmasse director of Higher Ability Vermont. Now Diane Vermont's been in the news this fall that crazy flooding you had and other things. How are things going for you?


Diane: Things are actually fine in most places in Vermont, the flooding was very localized to central Vermont, with Montpelier really suffering, as I'm sure everyone watched on the news. It was devastating and still is in Montpelier. They're really working hard to come back.


Carol: I remember seeing the images. It was so incredible. I was down on my treadmill right away. I emailed you guys. I'm like, are you all okay? Are your staff okay? And your customers? I was just, it looked insane, I couldn't even believe it.


Diane: Yeah. There was a lot of housing lost, particularly lower income housing in central Vermont, which really just has made an already crisis situation much worse.


Carol: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Well, I'm hoping with the winter coming and I saw you have awesome weather that'll be happening out on the coast, you know, that that isn't going to impact people so much, especially with this housing situation. Well, I'm excited about the discussion we're going to have about culture. I know in my TA work, I get asked all the time. And our listeners, you know, are those folks there going, hey, who's got a good culture? And, you know, that's a really tricky question. And a lot of agencies are struggling with this right now, really have been for some time. And on the side, one of my things I've been passionate about looking at is the turnover in directors, you know, nationwide. And I'm up to 134 changes in the last decade out of the 78 SVRAs. And you just go, holy smokes. And you can see this trajectory, you know, WIOA hit and the pandemic hit, and you just see the chart going up, up, up and the great resignation. And so I think people are feeling kind of tired and worn out. And we have a lot of new directors coming in who are coming in from outside of VR.

And so people reach out and they go, hey, who's got something good going on? And the funny thing is, everybody and maybe not so funny, but everybody says, gosh, you got to talk to Diane in Vermont. And so I was super excited. I get to see your staff, James and Amanda at CSAVR. And I'm like, Amanda. She was sitting next to me. I said, I really want to talk about your culture. You have to talk to Diane. Like, Amanda was so excited. She goes, you absolutely have to talk to Diane. So I am super excited to unpack this today. I do like the Peter Drucker quote. He said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. And I know sometimes people like to say culture eats strategy for lunch, whichever meal it is. He really was on the pulse with something. So let's dig into this. So, I know Vermont is a smaller state. Can you give our listeners a little picture of your agency, like how many staff and customers do you have? And if you have any particular like geographical challenges?


Diane: We are a small but very mighty state, Carol, and we have applied for multiple federal grants over the years. And I think that reviewers or whoever views us as a laboratory for trying different strategies and different ways of working. And so, yes, we're small. We have a staff of about 150 employees, and we have a contractor, our CRP, our primary CRP that does most of our employment work. They are staff are co-located in our offices. So we have about 200 people that are working in our 12 offices spread across the state, and we serve around 6000 people a year. We are small, but I think we're on the cutting edge of many things.


Carol: I know I love that because, you know, you're on the East Coast, you're nestled in there, you're not a huge state, but there's always so many cool things coming out from your program. And I think your staff are just so smart, and they're always looking out and finding out what cool things are going on. And just they're such great thinkers. I think you all are. And not only just thinking it, you take it and apply it and make it your own and figure things out. And you really are on the cutting edge of doing things in a different way. And I really appreciate that about you. I'm sure our listeners are also interested, Diane, I always like to talk to people a little bit about like, how did you get into VR and how long have you been at the agency?


Diane: Well, I have been at the agency forever, essentially. I became director in 1991, so I've been here over 30 years and I have yet to be bored. Every day is a new challenge. We are not tired and worn out here in Vermont. We are excited about the work that we do every day and the impact it has. We make a difference in people's lives all the time, which is just amazing. I worked previous to my VR work in Human Services doing child welfare work and psychiatric social work. But I came to VR as a supervisor and never left and really felt that I'd found a home here. Work is absolutely transformational for people and I love my job well.


Carol: I think it's amazing. You are the longest standing director now in the country out of the 78 programs, I'm like, good for you and good on your agency. I think that that will be it's super helpful to you as we're going to have this culture talk. So I know when you walked into the situation that you did, you know, 32 years ago, you walked into some different challenges. And I appreciate we all have done that. I walked into challenges. I think any time you take over from somebody else, can you talk a little bit about those beginning years and kind of how you approached that, what you were facing and what you did?


Diane: Yes, I had been working in Central Office as a field operations director for 3 or 4 years, I think, before I was promoted to director. So I had an opportunity to see firsthand how things were being done and I wasn't happy. And my predecessor, really, he was not dedicated to the mission and goals of the agency, in my opinion. So when I came into the job, I really I pulled together critical people in the disability community and said to them, we are going to turn this agency around. We are going to take everything and try to determine what is value added for the customer and what we do for the convenience of the agency, or because we perceive that federal regulations require us to do those things. And we did. We changed many, many things and we innovated in many different ways. We had a Consumer Choice Grant for those that remember back to the mid 90s, which was a five year grant that provided us with many resources to focus on change. And we did just that.


Carol: Well, I think, you know, you were super smart about this with that Choice Grant, and you talked to me about this with hiring that organizational consultant. And I've been really thinking about that since you and I chatted the other day, which would have been amazing. I wish I would have thought of that. You know, coming into Minnesota, can you talk more about how that has helped you having that organizational consultant and kind of doing that all these years?


Diane: I certainly can. I think that is one of the major educational tools for me as a director. And lessons learned in terms of moving your agency forward is organizational development specialists. People who do this for a living can be invaluable in terms of helping you from an outside, more objective place. Look at your agency in terms of what's working well and what isn't organizationally. And so I used a big chunk of the resources from that initial consumer choice grant to hire organizational development people. Then we had a team that went into each of our 12 offices and looked at how we did business and what was working and what wasn't. And out of that came a strategic plan, and our kind of vision for the future, which really moved us along. And to this day, I have organizational development people on contract, because I have found that early intervention and getting that sort of outside specialist view can be the key to unblocking and moving forward in so many ways.


Carol: Yeah, I think that was really brilliant. How did you go about finding the people you found? You know, back in the day? I don't think there was Google. It's like, how can folks find them?


Diane: Well, we put out a request for proposals and I think early on it was we really believe in involving staff in almost everything we do. And so we had quite a large committee with staff present, and we interviewed oh, 5 or 6 different vendors who provide these services in order to make a selection of someone that we thought shared our values and our vision for the organization. And we stayed with that consultant and her team for years. Eventually we moved on. And as I said, we are always working with someone either on leadership development, professional coaching, conflict management, all those things that any agency runs into.


Carol: I love that you included all these different staff in that, and that is the one thing I hear about you with, you know, staff throughout the organization really feeling a part of things, you know, and that is a great tip for your colleagues across the country as well. So it isn't just you and Amanda and James deciding, here's the person we're picking.


Diane: Right, I have two strategic themes really values that I think drive how we do business. One is valuing and empowering employees. I think that when you value and empower employees, employees treat their customers to the degree they're treated. So if employees are treated really well, they're going to provide a high level of service to your customer. And the opposite is also true. And then I think that everyone should have their voices heard and have some ownership in how we move forward as an organization. And so I like to think that I set the direction. But then I say to the people who do the work on the front lines, how best can we move in that direction? How best can we attain that vision that I think we all share? And I think it has enabled us to set a very high bar for staff, because they are owning where we're going and actually driving how we get there.


Carol: That is really good. And I know it's simple advice, you know, but we don't always think to go, let's ask the people who are doing the work how we could do this better or more effectively or what do you see, you know, or sometimes we'll ask, but we don't do anything with it. You know, we don't act on what they're telling us. I love that that is great advice. Now, I know WIOA really threw a wrench into things for everyone. It threw a wrench for me. I was a really brand new director. I mean, I literally came in in 2013 and then July 22nd, 2014, this whole deal went down and everybody kept telling me, oh, don't worry about it. You'll have a couple of years. They'll write implementing regs. And, you know, the difference was they said the day that Barack Obama signed that it went into effect. And that was the difference. And so we're all running around trying to do something and we didn't know what we're doing. How did you approach that time? Because I know my staff just thought this was insane. And somehow I'd made all this up like this. All could not possibly be true. How'd you do it?


Diane: Well, I think that we were in disbelief as well and sort of ignored it or ran from it. I think particularly the Pre-ETS piece. We couldn't believe they really meant it. We like James, my deputy, and I was like, it's not going to happen. They're going to change their minds. They're going to undo this. Right? But we really came to our senses in a few months. I mean, it wasn't as if we said, oh, we won't do anything until they write the regs we like realized that this was statute. This was not something that was easily changed, that Congress had indicated this was how they wanted us to do business and they fund us. And so we decided that we needed to figure it out and move forward, and that waiting was not going to help us. And so with both Pre-ETS and then the other very significant change in WIOA that we looked at was the real change from our old federal standards and indicators, which were gone, replaced by the common performance measures. And we were number one in the nation for years in terms of per capita placements and rehabilitations and employment outcomes. And we knew how to do this. And when we looked at the common performance measures, they weren't about quantity. They weren't about how many people can we get a job for any job. They were about the quality of that employment. They were about retention, earnings, credential attainment, employer satisfaction, measurable skills gains. And so we said, whoa, this is like the biggest change in our service delivery that I've ever seen. And I've lived through a few reauthorizations. So in both cases, we look to staff in varying ways to help us figure this out. And with the shift from quantity to quality, early on we went on a two day management retreat and we said, let's do a SWOT analysis of this. Let's take a look at what are the opportunities here. What are the threats here, how do we want to proceed. And I think with Pre-ETS, we set sort of a values based approach in that what we felt Congress was telling us was serve those students earlier. Early intervention leads to better outcomes. And for our shift from quantity to quality, it was like, of course this is what we should be doing. You know, we don't want to help people get into five entry level jobs. We want to help that person obtain a credential, move into a meaningful job that they will stay in and grow in. And so I think by having a values based approach and both those major, major changes in how VR did business, we were able to. And gave staff and staff, owned it with us and shared our vision for the future.


Carol: That is super smart. I know I keep saying that, but the way you approached it, I think was super helpful. I know I took more of an approach like this. These are our compliance pieces. You know, we have to do this and probably missed the boat really. On how you engage folks early on. I was more like we needed to do it. And that didn't always go over as well and did talk a lot about having family, sustaining wages. That was always extremely important to me. I didn't want people to just get a job and food, filth and flowers. Not that that work isn't important. And if someone did want to do that, that's fine. And how can we find the best version of that job possible? But I didn't want that to be the fallback. I didn't want people to think that's the only thing they could do. And I wanted people to not be in poverty and all of that. But your approach has really served you well because you've been able to really recruit and retain your staff. And so I think kind of that having that even keel and leadership and people within your agency has been super helpful. I know you have done some things specifically to really help you with recruiting and retaining staff. What are some of those initiatives you've taken on for years to help really build your culture? And now one that we know you are in support of your staff all the time?


Diane: Yeah. I again fall back on valued and empowered employees. I think people want to come work for us because other people tell them what a great place to work we are and how supportive we are of employees. And so that word of mouth travels well and beyond Vermont in many ways. We've had people come from all over the country to work for us. Yes, I think post-pandemic, we had no idea how successful we could be in terms of remote work and in really serving clients in ways that they want to be served, rather than making them drive to the office, come into our offices and worry about gas money or child care or whatever other issues they have. And I think we have helped people have a much better work life balance with a hybrid environment, which we don't intend to end. We think that we attract top talent, and we keep people by offering them that hybrid environment and that work life balance. So I think that's been very important. We've also tried to have our compensation keep up. And so we've worked at getting people upgraded and increasing their pay. But I think the environment and the culture are as or more important than the compensation in many ways.


Carol: Yeah. The work life balance really came to light during the pandemic. And I know in some cases, states, the governors have gone back to some of our VR programs been impacted because the governor's gone. All right. We know you did remote work, but now we don't want you to do that anymore. You have to come back in 100%, and they're just losing staff in droves. It has been terrible, absolutely terrible. And so keeping that flexibility is super important to people more than money a lot of times. So that has been great. I know you've also been very supportive of your staff with just trying to promote that professional development within within your agency, what are the things you do to help support each of them professionally? You know, to grow?


Diane: We've done a number of things. We've built a career ladder for counselors, which we have had to do is when we cannot find a master's level candidate that is the best person for the job, we will hire someone with a bachelor's degree, with the understanding that they will obtain a master's at our expense within four years. And so we've broadened the recruitment pool, and then we have a rehab associate. We have a counselor one, a counselor two, a senior counselor one, a senior counselor two. We've really created a career ladder of sorts. And recently we created an associate senior counselor two and a senior counselor two. In our world, it's a first line supervisor. And so because of to the degree that we've experienced turnover, like every other agency across the country post pandemic, I think we've still been able to attract really quality people because of who we are. And we realized that we need to be even more focused on succession planning and leadership development. And so we created this associate senior counselor so that people who hadn't obtained that master's, people who weren't quite qualified to step into a full supervisory position, could get a vote of confidence and on a career track to make that move when they finish the master's degree and had the experiential requirement to make that leap. So I think all in all, our career ladders our leadership development are supporting professional growth and development in any way we can has really contributed to staff morale and staff retention.


Carol: That has been an issue for others. You know, people have been striving to try to do some sort of succession planning, but they've been just struggling to figure it out. And sometimes with the state, you know, the hiring systems and the requirements, you want to get that first supervisory job, but you're supposed to have some supervisory experience. And people are like, how do I get that? So that's a very cool approach that you've got. So people have kind of that entry level and can keep moving up, get exposure and experience. That is great. I think that is really, really smart. Now, I know you also have prided yourself on I saw it during your reviews, so when you had your last monitoring review and I was helping you prep and you really talked about kind of balancing between you wanted staff exposed, but you didn't want them to get into all that. Some of it gets to be a lot, and you didn't want them to feel kind of the pressure of all that negativity or whatever may go on. But it has been very important to you to have your employees involved in things and to get feedback from them. How do you go about doing that intentionally, like getting that feedback from everyone. And so people's voices are heard and all of that.


Diane: We have many ways. I have a pulse team that meets quarterly. It is a representative from each of the 12 offices who is not a supervisor or a manager. And we pose, oh, usually three questions ahead of time that we want to take the pulse of the organization about. It could be about our diversity, equity and inclusion work we've been doing. It could be how's the hybrid work environment going? It could be about professional growth and development. So we posed three questions. And they literally poll their offices on those three questions. And they get responses anonymous responses. And we come together and there's no it's myself and our quality assurance manager. And we have a half day of hearing from each of the offices about the questions we posed, and then really encourage them to bring anything they want us to know about, good, bad or indifferent. That has been, I think, maybe more valuable to me than them.  I'm not always sure, but I've heard things I would never otherwise hear and have been able to intervene and act on those things. So that's really been wonderful. We also have an implementation team, which is again a cross representative group of different staff categories and different offices, and we generally use that group as a sounding board so that if we're going to try something, you know, like we moved to paid work experiences where we compensate customers for work experiences at minimum wage. And so we lay that out to the I-Team and we said, tell us how you think that's going to go, what are going to be the challenges? What are the opportunities here, what should we watch out for or whatever? And that has been an amazing thing. And so we've gotten frontline input into things before we actually implement it and gotten thoughts and ideas from that group. So those are just two examples. But really it goes on all the time in different ways.


Carol: I'm taking notes. I love this. The pulse team. I wish I would have talked to you, Diane, like ten years ago, when I was at Minnesota Blind, you could have help me with a lot of things. I think these are great, great ideas. I know a lot of your colleagues are coming in from across the country. You know, I said we've had 134 changes in a decade. They're coming in from outside of VR. And so I know folks, for one, they're trying to learn this completely foreign language of VR with all our acronyms and our different things, and then trying to deal with political issues and the staffing issues and all of it. Do you have any advice for all these new folks coming in and how to start and how to be kind of get your same enthusiasm? I know you love this program so much. How can we help instill some of you across the country?


Diane: Oh, I don't know, Carol, I came from outside when I started as a supervisor in VR, and I went into a learning mode, and I think if I had come in from the outside as director, you want to just sort of soak it all up and learn it. And VR is not rocket science. It's really not. And being a leader is not rocket science either. But I think learning the system, listening to people, really figuring out who are your really go to leaders and staff and cultivating those people. Again, I think putting forth a values based approach to this work. Is what we need to be doing everywhere, that this is social justice work. This is about assisting people with disabilities move out of poverty. And we are transformational when we do this, right?


Carol: Oh, amen to that. Do you have some go tos, Like I know everybody has different books that they like, or authors you like to read, or things you like to look at or do to help you learn and grow yourself. Do you have any go tos that you could share?


Diane: Well, it's funny because I have a manager who loves this stuff, and so I have to say that I more depend upon him to come talk to me or talk to us about what he's been reading and what he's been learning. And he frequently will remind me about Covey's work. And being that most of us live in the whirlwind, that we could spend all our time in the whirlwind, putting out fires and dealing with the crisis of the moment, and that we cannot do that if we hope to move forward and improve and serve people more effectively, we have to look at our wigs, which are wildly important goals. And so we have to identify those wildly important goals, and we have to make time to focus on them. Because if we stay in the whirlwind, we'll always be in the whirlwind.


Carol: That is a great ending quote for sure, because VR has been a bit of a whirlwind and we have to move past staying in that. Diane, I sure appreciate you joining me today. I really love what you're doing in Vermont because I just think you guys are incredible. Thanks so much.


Diane: You're welcome.



Outro Voice: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!