Q & A with Nesia Dotson & Melissa Johnston: March 2024

Q&A - First Orion

Nesia Dotson,
Learning and Development
Program Manager,

And

Melissa Johnston,
Senior Director of Learning
and Development,
First Orion

ANY REGULAR READER of this newsletter knows that apprenticeships are a favorite topic of ours. In this month’s interview, however, we’re focusing on a relatively unsung aspect of the apprenticeship process—the vital role of mentors. These are the seasoned pros in an organization, the subject matter gurus who help design and teach the apprenticeship programs, while also guiding the newbies along their path into the working world. For insights into the relationship of apprentices and mentors, we turned to the apprenticeship experts at First Orion, Nesia Dotson and Melissa Johnston.

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Hello, Nesia and Melissa. This is the first double interview we’ve ever done, and I think the best way to begin is with each of you telling me what you do at First Orion. Nesia, do you want to start?

Nesia:
Sure. I’m a learning and development program manager. All things “learning programs” fall under me. That includes diversity and inclusion and our apprentice programs. We try to provide some learning tracks to all of the roles within our organization.

I have about 15 years of experience in organizational development. My background was in telecom, and I joined First Orion in 2019, specifically for the apprentice program. My first program was the initial software engineer program. But my skill to help with the apprentice program is more about shaping and organizing all of the activities for the apprentices. Besides the technical side of it, we also focus on soft skills to help our apprentices get acclimated to First Orion’s culture, as well as just to the work culture in general. Because many of them come from college or even non-traditional backgrounds.

Thanks. Melissa?

Melissa:
I’m the senior director of learning and development, so my role is to set the overall strategy for our L&D efforts. I also work very closely with our leadership team on leadership development, leadership coaching, and also with our performance management and career development initiatives.

To be in a position like this, you have to have had exposure to lots of different areas of a company and have done different jobs within a company. You also have to understand that learning is not just training. I have a Master’s degree in Interpersonal Organizational Communication from UA Little Rock. Organizational communication means communication within the context of a business. It’s about understanding how communication does and should flow in an organization. I’ve also worked in various positions for Acxiom and UAMS.

Great, thanks. So let’s talk about mentorship. Why are mentors so important to the apprenticeship process?

Nesia:
The success of our apprentice program is solely because of our mentors. We build our curriculum internally, so I work directly with our own subject matter experts. What are we needing the role to do? Various employees around the organization can identify a specific scope for each program, and from there we identify the specific things that we want to teach.

We’ve done some experience surveys to identify what’s great about each program, and what’s not so great. Over multiple programs, the best experience is through our mentors. They’re teaching it, but they’re also providing support throughout the apprenticeship, because the curriculum is pretty rigorous. For the apprentices, being able to work with people that they’ll be teaming with later is a huge part of teamwork, building relationships, and making it a comfortable experience while learning.

Do you ever have potential mentors say, “Oh, my gosh. My plate’s full, I can’t do this.”

Nesia:
Absolutely. Being a mentor is a huge challenge. When the program starts, it doesn’t stop the mentor’s daily responsibilities. So that’s a lot of where I come in. I try to eliminate as many barriers as possible, from organizing the program to managing some of the day-to-day of when someone’s in the classroom, what time they’re supposed to be there, packaging up the materials, and so on. In other words, I try to offload some of that from the mentor’s shoulders.

But what we find is that the mentors want to be in the classroom. They find it to be rewarding. They find that it sharpens their skills. They find the relationship to be reciprocal, which is a good thing. It’s not difficult to get them to participate in the program. They want to do it.

How do a mentor and an apprentice work together…and, by the way, how long do your apprenticeships run?

Nesia:
We actually spend approximately 10 weeks in developing the curriculum for the program. So that’s me partnering with the mentors to develop the program and to find the talent. And once the talent is here, the program is generally in between eight to 12 weeks. But because the program is hosted on-site and we own the pieces of the program, we’re able to extend that out, or to shorten it as needed. We’ve had some programs that we’ve been able to finish faster, because the apprentices were grasping the information easily and working tightly with the mentors.

But back to your original question about the purpose of the mentors: We couldn’t do the program without them. The mentors’ knowledge shapes the program scope so that we’re able to specifically target the business need. We’ve had multiple programs that are targeted toward developing the same skill, or the same role, but no two programs are the same. And it’s because depending on what’s going on in the business, depending on changes in technology, we tweak the program based on those needs. All of that comes from insights from our mentors, and they’re more than willing to share their experiences and some of their best practices with the apprentices so that the apprentices aren’t getting textbook information. They’re getting real-world applicable knowledge.

So you’ve been doing apprenticeship programs now since 2019. What are the problems that you run into that you have to try to fix?

Nesia:
In program development, it’s important to first identify the scope of the program and then to stay focused. But sometimes we can lose sight of that scope. There’s a difference between nice-to-haves and need-to-haves, and if we entertain too many nice-to-haves, that can prolong the program. It’s as important for our apprentices to get into their work role as it is for them to learn, so our priority is to make sure that they experience the real world in a timely manner, and not keep them in the program too long.

Right. I would also assume that a mentor who’s signed on to do this isn’t pleased if it goes on longer than they were expecting.

Nesia:
Absolutely. I mean, one of the challenges is for the mentors to balance their time and responsibilities outside of the program as well as in the program. So a lot of that depends on our planning of the program and how I manage various aspects of it.

What kind of person makes a good mentor?

Nesia:
I would say a good mentor is also a good student, because the reason they’re a mentor is that they’re a subject matter expert. A lot of the success of our organization is because we have individuals who are constantly learning, whether it’s a new skill or how to overcome a barrier within their work. And that helps us to keep the innovation going. It helps us to move quickly and to fail fast, which is a characteristic of one of our cultural cornerstones. And so I say that a mentor, even though they’re teaching and they’re influencing, they also have to be a student, they have to have something to teach. It has to be relevant, it has to be something that is influencing the business today. If you talk to our mentors, they can tell you how they’re still working on their craft. They’re still shaping and developing themselves.

First Orion has been doing apprenticeships for five years now. What advice would you give other companies, both large and small, about developing their own apprenticeship and mentor program?

Melissa:
First, you have to have leadership support. This isn’t something you can do in isolation with just one or two people. You have to have your advocates at all levels of the organization. It takes everyone to make it successful. And then I think you also have to have a very clear plan and path for what you want to focus on and what you want to accomplish in the long run. It’s not something that should be done just kind of ad hoc, just because maybe you need to fill one or two positions. You need to have a strategy behind it about how you’re actually going to incorporate the apprentice program into the work that you’re doing. How is it going to benefit the company, not just from a resource perspective, but also from the work that’s done in the apprentice program?

Two, there are so many ways that an apprentice program can benefit an organization, and in the planning of it you need to ensure that you have a strategy that’s in line with organizational goals, that’s in line with what your business future looks like.

Can you give me an example of how you align the strategy with First Orion?

Melissa:
Before I answer that question, I want to add one more thing. Another piece of advice is you need to have an owner like we have in Nesia. An apprenticeship program requires the involvement of many people in the organization, but you have to have that project manager, that dedicated resource. Because it takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of focus to make it happen. So that’s another piece of advice that I would give.

But back to aligning the strategy, we tend to target the areas that we foresee the need for the most growth so that we can involve the most people, that we can hire as many as we can in an apprentice program. So, for example, when we did our software engineer program, which was our largest at 20-something apprentices, we understood that that was an area of our company that we were lacking in, and we could foresee the work that we wanted to do, the clients that we wanted to attract, the way we wanted to grow our branded calling. That was the one job role where we knew we would need more people, and we would need a little bit deeper bench than what we had.

When we started the apprentice program in general, the first role that we looked at was data, because at that time we were heavily focused on scam protection and understanding phone calls and calling trends and that type of thing. So we look for those areas of the company where we know we need to grow business and where we don’t have the number of resources that we need—not only to cover what we’re doing now as a company, but also to cover what we want to do as we move forward in the future.

I’ve heard several apprentices talk about what they get from mentors. I want to close by asking what mentors get from this process.

Nesia:
One thing is the opportunity to pause a bit and have more people interaction. Sometimes we’re so heads-down, working on our individual responsibilities, that we miss the people interaction. So being a mentor gives them time to step away and build relationships with those that are outside their immediate team. It also challenges them to think in new ways. They receive great questions from our apprentices that challenge their level of knowledge and encourage them to think outside the box on their current responsibilities.

Also, participating in the apprenticeship program spotlights the work that they’re doing around the organization. They can use that as a notch in their belt for promotional opportunities or for switching roles within the company. It’s definitely an honor to be asked to be a mentor.