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• Feb 10, 2021

Kelly Wonnacott takes a lot of pride in one of his most important roles in life – as the biggest fan of his niece who has Down syndrome.

Now that his niece is a 16-year-old high school sophomore, Kelly, a Retail Credit Analyst at TD Auto Finance (TDAF), said his perspective has shifted about her future.

“Her needs are about to change drastically. A job or college or whatever happens after high school was never a thought. But being at TD has helped open my eyes to possibilities,” said Kelly, one of a dozen colleagues who recently took part in a training program aimed at promoting leadership skills among people with disabilities and their allies.

Successfully embraced by TD in Canada since 2018, Enabling Leaders, administered by The Humphrey Group, seeks to develop leadership, communication and mentorship skills and advance career potential for employees who identify as having a disability. The training also focuses on educating allies to better support colleagues with disabilities.

TD Auto Finance stepped up and committed to be the bank’s first U.S. group to roll out the program. Members of its Individuals with Diverse Abilities (IwDA) committee, mostly allies, made up the initial class last year.

The two-day training, virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, included a panel discussion with TD executives, four live sessions led by Humphrey Group instructors, and one-on-one coaching sessions, touching on identifying leadership opportunities, recognizing diverse perspectives, increasing self-awareness and practicing communication skills.

The training took participants outside their little box

“Everybody wants employees who feel motivated and energized, who will always give their best effort, and sometimes people just don’t know how to do that,” said TD Senior Risk Specialist Jennifer Kopec, who helped bring the leadership program to TD Auto Finance. Serving as co-lead for TDAF's Individuals with Diverse Abilities Business Resource Group, she describes herself as a passionate ally and has long championed the bank’s efforts to promote workplace support for employees with disabilities.

“I think this training, especially with COVID and people being at home, energized the group, and it made everybody feel good about taking on a leadership role,” Jennifer said. The experience “took people out of their little box.”

One session, “Understand Yourself and How to Inspire,” focused on identifying one’s own leadership qualities and on overcoming barriers. Another explored using storytelling as a communication tool.

“It was a training environment where you were able to hone skills that you may have had already and not realized. The facilitators provided an environment where we could truly enable and empower ourselves as leaders,” said Jennifer. During the workday now, she said, “I stop and think about everything that I learned.”

Kurt Schillinger, Head of Innovation and Operational Excellence at TD Auto Finance and Executive Sponsor for TDAF’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts, sees promise in Enabling Leaders.

“I am proud of the fact that my team rose to the challenge and took ownership of making this the best possible experience that it could be,” Kurt said.

"Training is meant to stretch individuals, to take them to a place that might make them uncomfortable – because it's not innate or natural. To hear the messages from the participants, messages that were real, honest, and raw, means that our team felt challenged, and that the training stretched them to explore areas of leadership they hadn't realized before” he said. “They felt truly invested in their role within the group, as well as their individual contributions. Everyone agreed that this was a real first step in bringing this program to our U.S. businesses going forward."

Through Enabling Leaders, TD is offering support to a group that feels they don't know how to get it, said Ilana Sprongl, AVP, Methodology, Learning, & Release Management, who participated in Enabling Leaders in Canada. Ilana said the program made her want to do more volunteering, possibly mentoring people with diverse abilities. “This was an excellent event that enabled me to share my story with others – providing tips on my own experiences regarding disclosing hidden disabilities.”

An executive sponsor in Canada, Patricia Foley, AVP Customer Assistance Transformation, said that the Enabling Leaders program for colleagues with disabilities “was incredibly impactful – I watched firsthand as participants grew their confidence and communication skills in a matter of days. I'd highly recommend this program across the organization.”

In the U.S., Tina Gladki, Senior Business Information Management Analyst at TDAF, said Enabling Leaders exceeded her expectations. “It kept me engaged. It was such a motivating and positive experience! I grew to be more confident in my speaking skills, and that is something that I didn't have before,” she said.

Jennifer believes the program would benefit anyone who identifies as having diverse abilities and noted that TD leaders have been discussing next steps for the program across the U.S. footprint.

If anyone feels limited at work due to disability, “this course would help them,” she said. "This leadership program would allow them to gain self-esteem, wisdom, and confidence."

Kelly said the program reminded him of the need to "use his voice", a lesson he learned years ago in the Air Force.

“I am 52 years old and this was my first time putting my hand up to go first. This was the first time in my life,” he said. “The 1:1 session provided me with tools that changed the way I present myself. I was afraid to speak in front of large groups.”

Kelly sees the program through a personal lens. At TD, we live by the manta of bringing our whole selves to work and this is how I want my niece and her friends to feel. I want them to have equal rights and opportunities to become a bigger part of society. I want every person to have a feeling of purpose. The same purpose my family at TD has shown me.”

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