Mentoring changes trajectory of adult student’s life
Written by Jane M. Von Bergen
Photo by I. George Bilyk
When Shannon Gallagher, Gries Financial Partners’ director of client services, first landed a job with the wealth management firm as a temp receptionist at age 21, she was already good at a couple of things.
She was good at leaving college. “My mom likes to say it: I didn’t go to Akron University. I was enrolled. It was fun. I had a good time.” Probably too good a time, since she wasn’t allowed to come back. Same thing happened when Gallagher attended Cuyahoga Community College for two and a half semesters. “I lost interest and just stopped going.”
Gallagher was also good at losing jobs – through no fault of her own, however. Mostly she worked in retail and “the stores kept closing, going bankrupt.”
Worse, she was also quite proficient at being in debt, with $15,000 in college bills and no degree to show for it, plus not much ability to pay it back.
Her situation is completely different now.
Gallagher’s back in college, heading toward an associate degree in applied business, with a bachelor’s and more on the horizon. She has steadily advanced at Gries, and now directs client services at the Cleveland company. Most importantly, “We’re actively talking about the future of the firm, succession plans,” she said. “I’m one of ones that they are talking about being a future executive and a future partner in this firm. That’s their plan for me.”
What made the difference for Gallagher?
“Shannon’s very goal-oriented. I’ve worked with a lot of people in my many years in business who just want to be given a promotion, but don’t understand what it takes to make that next step. Shannon does. She gets it.”
That’s Gallagher’s mentor speaking.
Lauren Rich Fine, a partner at Gries Financial with decades of Wall Street experience, has long believed in the power of mentoring. She saw it work to keep young people on track for college and she believes the same principles apply to adults like Gallagher, “comebackers” returning to school. Fine would like to see others step up to become mentors.
“It’s not only the money,” Fine said. “It’s the mentoring. It’s also the encouragement to go back to school. I can give Shannon a specific game plan of how she can get credentials and I can work with her. I can be very honest and very direct. She’s never let me down.”
Fine has taken this belief in mentoring to College Now Greater Cleveland, where she serves on the organization’s board, helping to build Cleveland’s graduation rate for both young people and for “comebackers” like Gallagher.
In Ohio, just over one in four adults has a bachelor’s degree or higher. One in five adults, 20.5 percent, are people who began college, but didn’t finish.
Meanwhile, Northeast Ohio, with its population of 4.3 million, should be producing 37,600 college graduates a year, based on national averages. Instead, only 31,300 earn diplomas, according to the 2019 Aligning Opportunities report by Team NEO, Northeast Ohio’s business development organization.
It’s a problem for the region’s economy. “It has to happen in Northeast Ohio or else we’re going to go out of business, honestly,” said Lee Friedman, chief executive officer of College Now.
For 50 years, College Now has maintained a laser focus on increasing post-secondary educational attainment – from college to professional certificates – in the greater Cleveland area, helping 29,000 a year. Mentorship matters.
In the Bridging the Talent Gap Employee Community Report for Cleveland, one in five adult learners surveyed identified mentoring as helpful in achieving education goals. The 2019 report, funded by the Graduate Network, pointed out that one in four adult learners – 26 percent – wanted educational advice geared to career goals.
The study also indicated that adults who don’t return to school sometimes don’t because they can’t see how their courses would clearly benefit their careers. That wasn’t the case for Gallagher, who had a path clearly delineated through her mentorship with Fine and other Gries’ executives over the years.
When Gallagher began as temp, she proved so competent that the firm hired her fulltime. Soon she became indispensable, promoted to executive assistant. Then, a few years later, a competitor tried to hire her away. Gries’ executives took notice. To convince her to stay, they developed a new position for her as a mutual fund trading assistant. Five or six years after that, she became director of trading.
“If you need to find out what you should be doing with your investment, talk to your advisor. If there’s an action that needs to be taken, that’s when you come to me,” Gallagher said. “We execute everything.”
Meanwhile, Gallagher got married and divorced. Her ex-husband died, which was emotionally devastating. She had surgeries. She managed to buy a house. While she thought about going back to school, she never actually took the necessary steps. In fact, Gallagher thought she was doing pretty well for someone without a college degree.
Yes, she was doing good, but good was not good enough for Lauren Rich Fine, and not good enough for Gallagher either. “Now I know what I don’t know,” Gallagher said. “I can talk your ear off until I’m blue in the face about operations, but I can’t hold a conversation about the market.”
Fine told Gallagher in no uncertain terms that for her to advance to the top at Gries, she’d need at least a four-year diploma like her colleagues.
If Gallagher was going to be listed as a partner on the firm’s website, her bio would have to indicate where she earned her degree. That was non-negotiable. “Appearances matter and people who say they don’t are naïve,” Gallagher said. “In practice, I could probably run circles around some recent college grads, because I’ve been doing this. But they have the one thing that I don’t — and that’s that piece of paper.”
After listening to Gallagher talk about getting her diploma for a couple of years, Fine finally asked, “Why don’t you go? What’s holding you back?’”
In September, Gallagher enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College – step one. Truthfully, much of the work came easy to her; she already knew a lot of the terms and she always had a head for math.
“To give you an example, we’re learning about how to write up financial statements and income reports, balance sheets and cash flow reports, which are reports that I have been preparing for accountants” for years, Gallagher said. “But right now, I’m actually understanding what a cash flow report means. I’m actually understanding what these particular numbers mean for this report. I’m actually interested.”
Meanwhile, Gallagher is getting the support she needs. College Now helped her apply for financial aid. Gries allows her to leave early one day a week to accommodate her class schedule. She’s gotten some financial help from Fine and expects the firm will contribute later.
The way Fine sees it, Gallagher is making all the right moves. Besides pursuing her degree, she’s following Fine’s lead as a volunteer and leader in nonprofits, taking on increasingly responsible leadership positions which stretch her capabilities outside of Gries’ offices in downtown Cleveland. Those same commitments create networks and connections in the community, helpful for a company selling wealth management services.
“Shannon has confidence because she knows she is the subject matter expert about so many things within our organization,” Fine said. “But they aren’t things that grow the firm. To grow the firm, she needs different skills. Anytime you’re helping grow a firm, they can find the resources to reward you.
“We’re aiming to position her for that.”
Innovation with Excellence: A Look Inside College Now’s Organizational Culture
What keeps College Now’s 180+ employees focused and happy in their work? Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now, shares her insights about leading a growing, innovative non-profit addressing educational inequities in Northeast Ohio:
When you were approached about joining College Now as its CEO in 2010, what made you want the job?
It was because I’d spent such a long time in community economic development and saw the social inequity and disparity caused by the ‘haves and have-nots’ in education. I realized that the only way to create social equity — and also long-term economic health for our region — was to ensure that everybody had the opportunity to get a postsecondary credential.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I see myself as a strong stage-setter, but I like to create a collaborative, highly empowered team. I think people that like working for me are extraordinarily driven by excellence – they have a huge commitment to mission, they’re self-starters, but they also ‘play well with others’.
What are College Now’s best assets in terms of organizational culture?
I think this is a very supportive place to work. I think there is a high ethos around balancing career and family, friends, or other outside interests — sort of with the caveat that people put their work in an important enough place that the work is delivered with excellence. It’s not very difficult for a CEO to be flexible and try to support people’s other life if the work is great. It’s when the work isn’t great that it gets hard because then something’s being sacrificed. I think here, remarkably, considering it’s a large organization, those are really the kind of people that enjoy it and thrive here… I think that’s a big part of what we’re offering.
How does College Now support the professional growth and development of its employees?
We do that in many ways depending on the position. On our advising side, there are constant advising meetings and a lot of that is around skill-building and problem-solving. Our HR folks and professional development committee try to make sure that we’ve got things that match all the different parts of our employee population, especially because we have a lot of diversity of people that work here, in terms of their experience and their age, etc. We’ve certainly sent people to different kinds of training, whether its leadership training or skill-building. We do our best to try and make sure that people have what they need, but we kind of juxtapose it with the fact that we have a small budget for that sort of thing. Being mission–driven, it’s not like working for some big for-profit company where you can send people to those fancy trainings and leadership camps – we just can’t do it. But we do our best.
What makes you most proud of your team?
For me, and I hope the team feels this way, it’s a happy place to come to work every day. You spend a lot of time here [compared to] when you think about how much time you spend sleeping or your other time. It’s happy, I think, because we try to hire the most responsible, committed, and collaborative people. I think when people feel they can have some control over what they do in their every day, and that they’re well supported, well treated, and don’t have to be afraid of making a mistake — because everyone makes mistakes –I think that creates a happy culture.
College Now has a strong track record of retaining talent. What common characteristics do successful, long-standing employees demonstrate?
A real commitment to the mission and the organization, and commitment to their own excellence. Driving the extra mile to make sure the work is as good as it possibly can be. [Understanding] that we’re customer/client-first, especially because we do so much public-facing work – everything from our students and their parents, to other educators and school administrators, funders, Board members, community leaders, and other nonprofits; people with that same point of view and [those who] are the best kind of communicators and collaborators.
College Now was the first organization of its kind in the country. How do you maintain a culture of innovation to keep College Now at the forefront of college access?
Honestly, you have to reward it. And you have to instill it. You can’t rest on, ‘Well, we haven’t done it that way in the past.’ We’ve grown quite a bit in the last number of years and a lot of that is because people around the table – and I mean that in the biggest way – when they have new ideas, people listen to them. It doesn’t mean you can implement every new idea, and it doesn’t even mean that some of them that don’t get implemented are bad ideas, it just may not be practical right now. But you have to really emphasize innovation and you have to reward it in the culture.
College Now has a team in its downtown Cleveland headquarters, as well as a team of Advisors who work primarily within schools across Northeast Ohio. How does College Now maintain a culture of collaboration and inclusion within an organization that provides services in 185 venues?
Honestly, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Because, you have to remember, when somebody goes to one or two buildings every day and never comes downtown, in some part, most of their experience is in that building. The culture of that building will have a huge effect on the way they view their job. And sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it‘s been a very difficult thing. [In the advising department], they have ongoing monthly meetings to bring everybody together to get back on the same page, to address concerns, to provide additional training, leadership, information, and news, and I think that’s crucial. It is one of the more interesting challenges because coming to the downtown office every day is an entirely different experience than going to one of the high schools or a library every day.
How does College Now’s work address economic inequality? How are its employees positively impacting the greater Cleveland community?
Research shows that people with varying levels of postsecondary attainment make more money during their lifetime [than those without postsecondary education]. What we know is that Northeast Ohio is woefully under–attained. There are many open jobs and many people who are either unemployed and/or undereducated for those open jobs. And so, there are other communities that do a better job of it for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. [Cleveland] was a blue–collar manufacturing community, and that takes generations to change sometimes. Ohio is the 7th largest state, but we’re 36th in educational attainment and that is not a great recipe for long-term economic health. And so, to the extent that we can work with the students, communities, and adults we serve and get them on a postsecondary track, it not only helps them personally and changes the trajectory of their own life and their family life, but it changes the collective economic picture.
What is your vision for College Now in the next 5 to 10 years?
A lot of it is just continuing to grow and refine the work. Say Yes to Education is a six-year ramp up and we’re in year one. I don’t think that changes everything but that’s a good amount of runway to start changing the hope for young people in CMSD to be able to go to postsecondary or get on a solid career path. The implementation of Say Yes Cleveland is a piece of it.
I also think the expanding work we’re doing with adults is a very big piece of it. I think Julie Szeltner [Senior Director of Adult Programs and Services] has done a great job of trying to grow that piece of our business. There‘s roughly 500,000 people in Cuyahoga County that either have some college and no degree or a high school diploma and nothing else. There’s a big opportunity there. You almost can’t solve the workforce gap on the backs of 18–year old‘s, you almost have to go to the adults.
I think the other big piece is us refining our ability to lead kids from education to career. If you’re going to stop at the end of high school and go do something, let’s get better about helping you think through those options, with the hope that most everybody takes some kind of postsecondary option. If we can get better at showing you what all your options are, you might be able to make a better choice as you maneuver through and understand what the consequences will be, like, “How much postsecondary education will I need? How much income can I expect to make? What‘s the demand in this region for that job?” That’s another really important piece of the work that we’ll be doing with partners.
*This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length*