Are You a Supervisor, a Mentor, or a Leader?

How to Take Your Supervisory Skills to the Next Level

Many Board Certified Behavior Analysts® are familiar with supervisory responsibilities, but fewer become mentors or exhibit true leadership qualities. Here’s how to ensure you’re at the top of your supervisory game, creating tomorrow’s leaders!

If you’re a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)® or Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)®, then you’re already familiar with at least one form of supervision, having experienced many hours of clinical supervision to get where you are today. And perhaps you’re now in the role of supervisor, whether it’s of direct care staff, or those seeking BACB® certification. But beyond supervision, our field needs mentors and leaders, who will inspire the next generation of behavior analysts, and support their success long-term. So how do we transcend supervision to mentorship and leadership?

Supervisors take action to improve inadequate performance and to support and maintain quality performance (Reid, Parsons, and Green, 2012). Behavior analysts often supervise parents, teachers, or staff in the implementation of behavioral programming, whether it is for skill acquisition, or to reduce challenging behavior. Research in Applied Behavior Analysis and Organizational Behavior Management has given us effective technologies to teach and maintain effective practices of the behavior-change agents who depend on our expertise.

Evidenced-based Supervision (Reid, Parsons, and Green, 2012) is a programmatic way to ensure that staff is engaging in effective practices when working with individuals with special needs, which builds on a successful model of teaching: Behavior Skills Training (BST). Evidenced-based Supervision consists of:

      1. Identifying desired consumer outcomes.
      2. Specifying what staff must do which will lead to meeting consumer outcomes.
      3. Training staff in specific skills outlined in step 2.
      4. Monitoring staff performance.
      5. Supporting proficient staff performance.
      6. Correcting nonproficient staff performance.
      7. Continuously evaluating staff performance and consumer outcome attainment.

While clinical supervision of those seeking BACB® certification certainly entails a greater array of skills to teach, the evidence-based supervision model still applies, and in fact is supported by the BACB® Supervisor Training Curriculum Outline, which specifies Behavioral Skills Training (steps 2-6 above), and evaluating the effects of supervision (step 7 above).

While supervision focuses on performance improvement within specific areas, mentoring focuses “primarily on the identification and nurturing of potential for the whole person” (Michael, 2008). Mentor-protégé relationships are long-term, sometimes indefinite, and mentoring may not involve as formal a process as supervision. Like a good supervisor, mentors help their protégé learn how to find the best solutions to problems, rather than providing the solutions. Mentors may provide a variety of supports to their protégé beyond simple career counseling, expanding their horizons and developing their professional capabilities (Bailey & Burch, 2010). For these reasons, the fit of the mentor and protégé is critical, depending not only on the skill sets of both parties, but communication styles, personal beliefs, and other factors. The protégé will have just as much role in setting the objectives for growth as the mentor, with the mentor serving as an “accountability partner” (Michael, 2008).

Leadership is not to be confused with management or supervision, and can best be defined in terms of follower behavior, rather than the leader’s behavior (Daniels & Daniels, 2005). Effective leaders inspire followers to:

      1. Deliver discretionary behavior directed toward the leaders' goals
      2. Make sacrifices for the leader’s cause
      3. Reinforce or correct others so that they also conform to the leader’s teachings and example
      4. Set guidelines for their own personal behavior based on their perceived estimate of that which the leader would approve or disapprove

Effective leaders focus their followers’ behavior, providing the vision and linking short- and long-term goals to the ultimate outcomes. By ensuring that positive reinforcement contingencies are in place, the leader supports discretionary effort on the part of the followers: they go above and beyond the call of duty, for the cause. The reinforcement comes not only from the leader herself, but from all the members of the team, and is not limited to financial incentives.

Daniels and Daniels (2005) offer several measures of successful leadership, again, focused on follower behavior. They are arranged into four categories, each with three measures:


      1. Mass: How many followers respond to the leader’s call?
      2. Velocity: How long does it take for the followers to take action?
      3. Direction: How closely do the behaviors of the followers match the leader's priorities?


      1. Vision: How many people can relate their efforts to the leader's vision?
      2. Values: How many people can relate an example exemplifying the leader’s values?
      3. Persistence: How many people meet their commitments?


      1. Teamwork: How frequently do individuals assist their peers?
      2. Interfaces: How many units actively assist other units?
      3. Innovation: How many suggestions are made that support the mission or the vision?


      1. Trust: How often do followers take responsibility for mistakes?
      2. Respect: How often do followers seek out the leader for advice or counsel?
      3. Growth: How many followers become leaders?

Leaders can collect data on these measures, and on their own behavior that produces these follower outcomes, through surveys, sampling, direct behavior counts, or more complex matrices or balanced scorecards (Daniels & Daniels, 2005).

So, to be an effective supervisor, you’ll need to clearly specify the desired client outcomes and the staff performance which will lead to these outcomes, teach these skills using behavior skills training, and use continued data collection to measure both staff and client performance over time. Effective mentors ensure they are a good fit with their protégé, are committed to a long-term relationship with broader goals that may be determined by the protégé, and serve as an accountability partner as the protégé learns problem-solving skills and maximizes their potential as a professional. Effective leaders inspire their followers by providing a clear vision, with short-term and long-term objectives that promote measured success toward achieving that vision and promote discretionary effort in their followers through the use of positive reinforcement, again using data collection on specific measures to evaluate success.

Are you on your way to being an effective mentor or leader?  


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This was very helpful.

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