This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website:

03 September, 2013

You Went to India? In July?

Emily Johnson, MA
Research and Training Coordinator
Global Autism Project

There is nothing that fully prepares you for leading a team of professionals into the unknown. There is especially nothing that fully prepares you for leading a team of professionals into the unknown in India. In July. (Everyone I know whose from India says, “You went to India? In July??”) Yet, that’s where I found myself this summer. A few short months after I graduated from the LEND program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital/University of Cincinnati, I left my home and flew halfway around the world to Jakarta, Indonesia, to start my new job.

When I finished this past year of graduate school, I accepted a year-long position as the Research and Training Coordinator for a non-governmental organization called the Global Autism Project. My job entails a lot of things, but one of the most exciting is being a team leader for volunteer teams of professionals traveling to our partner sites to provide training in evidence-based practices for autism spectrum disorder. The Global Autism Project has partner sites in India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru, so this summer I did a marathon 6 weeks at the Indonesia site followed by the India site. I led two teams of volunteers for 2 weeks each, helping them to provide training to professionals working with kids with autism.

Like I said, there is nothing that fully prepares you to do this kind of work. But thank goodness I had something that mostly prepared me to do this—my LEND training. LEND taught me a lot of things, but the skill that I became most grateful for this summer was the ability to really listen. In LEND, I spent a lot of time learning how to really listen to families. I would think I knew what they needed, but then realized it wasn’t my job to decide what they needed—it was my job to listen to what they needed. So I listened. And then I listened some more. And then I kept listening until I really heard what they needed me to hear.

When working in other countries, this is by far the most important skill. Many people approach work in other countries with a very helper-oriented mindset. We genuinely want to help, and we want to do it by giving what we have, be it supplies, or knowledge, or other things. But in my 5 or so years of doing international work, I’ve learned that sometimes what we give isn’t always what the community needs. Just like with family-centered care, we can only learn what they really need by listening. So I listened a lot, and I taught my teams how to listen. I used the leadership skills I learned in LEND to bring a group of people together to listen to our international partners, and we shaped our training based on the needs of the center. In Indonesia we focused on basics of ABA data collection, and in India we focused on contingency-based classroom management skills. Each partner site is unique in what they need, so we listen first, and THEN provide the training that they ask for.

When I left LEND, I was surprised by how quickly my newly-formed leadership skills catapulted me into so many opportunities. I took a position as a committee chair in my state professional organization, I got offered to write a textbook chapter, and then I took this position at the Global Autism Project. But I don’t think I realized how much LEND had taught me until I was halfway around the world, leading a team of people who were looking to me for directions, and trying not to screw anything up. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had so many inner resources instilled in me as a LEND graduate, that I wasn’t going to screw anything up (nothing that couldn’t be fixed, anyway). Traveling can be really hard on people—traveling AND working AND leading people can be even harder (in case you really wanted to test your LEND skills, you could always try to lead a multidisciplinary team in a country with an average temperature of 100 F and no air conditioning.) They were successful trips. We had hard days, but they were still successful. We accomplished a lot, but I also discovered, at the end of it all, that success isn’t always about accomplishment. Success is listening, success is being a good leader, success is having people trust you enough to invite you back into their country for the next time. Based on what I got from LEND, and the kind of leader I am, I realized I’ll always be successful, even when I don’t succeed.