Leading: Australia's Largest Autism Service Provider

May 16, 2021

Leading:  Australia’s Largest Autism Service Provider

Guest:  Jacqui Borland, Chief Executive Officer 

Penny:You're listening to Series two Episode seven

Hello and Welcome to what leaders know It's the podcast for people on LeadershipJourneys. I'm your host, Penny Beeston. Thanks for joining me for today's episode, the final episode in season two. And for my subscribers, it comes after a bit of a pause. My apologies, however, I had not planned for one of life's bigger transitions to occur during my recording on Season two.

Today's guest is Jacqui Borland. Jacqui is CEO of Aspect, Australia's largest Autism specific service provider, and also one of the biggest Autism specific school programmes in the world.

Jacqui is an executive leader in the for-purpose sector with a leadership journey that's quite unique because it features over 20 years experience in the field of Autism. In today's conversation with Jacqui, I want to explore her passion

for addressing the issues of importance to people on the Autism spectrum, their families, and the community. Welcome, Jacqui.

Jacqui:Many thanks for having me.

Penny:In season two of what leaders know, I ask each of my guests. How has leadership changed you? Your career is marked by a passion to improve the lives of people on the Autism spectrum, and this has seen your leadership career evolve in this space for more than two decades. In light of that, how has leadership changed you?

Jacqui: This is an interesting question, Penny, I actually think that fundamentally leadership hasn't really changed me. I think that 20 years of leadership in theAutism field has left me still passionate about social justice, still setting high standards for myself and for others and still wanting to concentrate on what's important and not worrying too much about small stuff. In terms of change, though, leadership has definitely given me a greater capacity to value the diversity of strengths and talents in other people. When I started in leadership, I don't think that I understood that one of the greatest achievements of a leader is to recognise others talents and strengths and skills, and to support them to develop and to grow. And over time I've come to realise that I don't have to change into a textbook version of a leader. What's important is to be authentic and accept and be open about my own strengths and vulnerabilities and then just get on with the job of focusing on the big picture.

Penny:And what do you think it is about working in the space where you are supporting and working alongside people who are neuro diverse? How has that influenced the way that you see leadership and in the way that it plays out for you?

Jacqui:I guess what I see is that we talk about neuro diversity and for people who are new to this concept – they have so they do have just so many different strengths and talents. And so it's just really great to understand and to think about what it is they're bringing and how you can work with the strength and the talents that they have for them to get the best outcomes.

I just think it's really fundamental to the work that we do now.

Penny:Before we go further into the work you currently do, I'm interested that your tertiary studies were in science and education. What was your career plan when you were studying your science degree and what was your first role?

Jacqui: Okay, so I went to a small girl school in Melbourne and we had a principal who had a biochemistry background and her absolute passion, which was probably ahead of her time, was for her students to take career paths in science and math.And I was the first one in my family to attend university.

So I dutifully followed my principal’s, ambition and enrolled in a science degree, and then went through that degree waiting for inspiration to strike and something to appear that I wanted to focus a career in. But it was definitely the people subjects that interested me much more. So it was the psychology, sociology, some elements of social genetics, much more than physics, maths and chemistry that interested me, I guess. Also coming from the family that I did there was a pressure to be employable at the end of university. So after my degree, I chose to follow on with an Education qualification rather than to continue on with the Master's or Doctorate pathway. So my first role was as a teacher in anew co ed school in Melbourne, which was a really great opportunity to develop the curriculum of science and maths and biology in a brand new school and take a group of students through from your seven and you ate through to the first year 12 cohort of that school. I taught there for five years. But again, int hat time, I moved away from teaching science and maths subjects much more towards pastoral care roles, teaching health and wellbeing and sport. So that was the beginning of my education career.

Penny:You moved into working in the Autism space. How did that come about? How did you shift from mainstream education into working with children on the Autism spectrum?

Jacqui:  So, the catalysts for me to focus on education and Autism was the diagnosis of my oldest child as Autistic when he was three years old. Prior to that, I have to say that I had no knowledge aboutAutism. There had been nothing in my tertiary studies or my education studies about students with disabilities of any sort. Now I can recognise that I did teach some students on the Autism spectrum early on.

Sadly,I don't think I did it very well. I can even remember some students or some ChildrenI went to school with that were clearly Autistic. But no one talked about Autism in those days. So my early teaching was sadly lacking in any understanding of the needs of Autistic students. Through my own son's early journey through what was known as early intervention therapies and his early schooling, that's when the opportunities arose for me to get involved in a new career path, which merged Autism and education.

So in the early stages, I guess I was able to bring my knowledge and my work in mainstream education together with my growing understanding of Autism. And that's what set me on the pathway.

Penny:  We've got many listeners who won't have a lotof insight into Autism. Can you give an overview of Autism and its impact onthe lives of children and adults?

Jacqui:  Okay, but do stop me, Penny, if I go on too long because I could probably talk about this for a long time. Autism is a condition that affects how a person speaks, how they feel, how they interact with others and how they experience their environment. The figures are, at the moment, agreed internationally - one in 70 people are on the Autism spectrum, but every Autistic person is different to every other, and I guess this is supported even by the diagnostic label that is autism spectrum disorder. So we talk about an Autism spectrum, some of the areas or characteristics that are common in Autistic people, certainly the area of communication and in thinking about how all Autistic people are different. Some people with Autism on the Autism spectrum are very verbal. They have a lot of verbal language that they have difficulty using language in a social situation.

Other Autistic people don't use words at all and may use other forms of communication, such as using assisted communication or technology to communicate. An interesting area of Autism is the sensory processing experiences of Autistic people. Often Autistic people experience senses, so touch, taste, smell what they're hearing in very different ways. And they may be overwhelmed. Or they may be sensory seeking.They may look for more and more sensory experiences. People on the Autism spectrum may have difficulty or appear to us being unusual in their social interaction. So some Autistic people, seem to prefer to be by themselves or struggle to have interaction with other people. Some Autistic people love social interaction. But when we observe it, it sometimes appears to be a little bit eccentric. One of the things that historically we've talked about Autistic people as having obsessions or rituals. These days we talk about passions and strength and interests, which is more positive. But often Autistic people have particular interests or passions of a particular topic or area of interest. And sometimes they know a great deal about that area, Much more, than how they appear to function in other ways. So that's another very common characteristic of Autistic people.

Penny:  It's a very complex area, and it's good to hear so much has progressed from those early years, particularly in the eighties when it was really all coming to the fore, I guess in terms of the education of children on the Autism spectrum.  Early intervention, starting early so that children had the best opportunities that they could have.

Jacqui:Yes, one of the changes Penny that I've experienced and I'm passionate about is the changing perception of Autism. So 20 or 25 years ago, the language and the understanding about Autism was very deficit based, so the language of a diagnosis, was negative. Parents were told what the child couldn't do or what they would never do in their lives. The language around what the parents experience of having a child diagnosed with Autism was about grief and loss onDH. I can absolutely understand that the diagnosis of Autism for one of your Children can be a mind-numbing shock. And absolutely parents need to be well supported through that time, to really come to terms and understand what that is going to mean for their family. Also, I acknowledge that there is so many differences inAutistic people. Some children and some people on the Autism spectrum face very great challenges in coping with the expectations of regular life and it is really important to acknowledge that. But Autism is part of who a person is including their unique personality, their strengths and their talents. And when we start from that approach, it just changes the whole language and perception of what used to be the tragedy of Autism into just a much different conversation.

This is one of the changes that I'm most proud about at Aspect because our purpose, which is a different, brilliant understanding, engaging and celebrating the strength, interests and aspirations of people on the Autism spectrum. This is the reason or the WHY we do what we do. It's about supporting people of all ages to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Penny:  Jacqui, your passion just shines through, as does your expertise and your professional knowledge in this space. What I want to do now is come back to your leadership journey.

In1988 you joined Iribina, which was then the largest Autism provider for Children in Victoria. And you were there for a decade.  So can you just briefly outline your journey through Iribina?

Jacqui:  I started there and as I mentioned earlier, the programme provided Autism specific services to young Children. There were about100 families with their young Children each year, and I was able to begin working there really supporting families and parents in that transition period between early intervention and early years and kindergarten through to school.So my work there in the work that Iribina did was about supporting families and helping them to choose what education pathway their child would take. Many Children went to mainstream school. Some Children went to various special settings and then to assist families and parents on that journey into education for their Children.

Penny:  You had grown your knowledge, understanding and your professional expertise in leading teams in that organisation. Where did you take up your next opportunity?

Jacqui:  I guess you know my real passion. I mean, I loved working with parents, but the other part of my role of Iribina was also working schools and helping teachers, because more and more Children on the Autism spectrum, we're going to mainstream schools. And there was a real need to support teachers and schools and school leadership in understanding how they could best provide great education and adjustments for Autistic Children. So itwas a real passion for me.

Jacqui:What came up was that the Australian government funded a national programme, providing training for schools and school staff and training for parents of school age students with Autism. So when that opportunity came up, it was clearly had my name on it. I left Iribina when I joined Aspect and Aspect was successful in being chosen to deliver the Australian government's Positive Partnerships programme and I joined Aspect to be part of that national team.

Penny:What were the challenges you faced? You navigated a national role where you were planning and leading programmes across states and territories and working across governments.

Jacqui:  Yes, that was a real challenge, Penny. It's fair to say that when the Australian government funded Positive Partnerships, some of the states and territories would have much preferred to have received the funding directly. I think we've seen through the pandemic the issues between federal and state governments and in education. There's always very strong views and different ways of doing things. So the absolute challenge in PositivePartnerships was to deliver a nationally consistent evidence based programme, but also be flexible so that we could be relevant in each education jurisdiction. So the only way that this could be achieved with toe work really closely in collaboration with each statement territory. So we set up a planning group with representation from all of the education and the Autism stakeholders in every state and territory on the other.

Jacqui: Key to being successful or to being accepted in the first instance was to use local professionals to deliver the training so that they had the local knowledge of their ssues and the policies and the practises of the people who were coming to the training in that area. So, we established a small national team, but were sourced and supported a large national network of professionals. Over time, we developed some trust really good trust, actually, and great working collaborations across all states and territories. Once people could see that we were value adding to  their own local initiatives, feedback from participants was really strong. So from its beginnings back in 2008, Positive Partnerships has continued, in fact and has recently bean re funded by the government for 1/4 phase until 2020. For so it's become a really established and valuable national resource, and you have as take in that legacy. Obviously, yes, it's a yes, a passion I love. It's one of my past loves, and I think of it very fondly.

Penny:You grew your career within Aspect, progressing through several national roles and by 2016 you were national director of Positive Partnerships. But a year later, you were appointed to the role of National Director of Aspect Practise. You will have built many senior teams during your career.  When building senior teams. what are the three top traits you want to observe in the people sharing that table?

Jacqui:Well at Aspect, being a for purpose organisation, our staff generally have really high levels of engagement and passion for the work that they do.
Whether it's staff who are working directly with the Children we support and their families equally, all of the staff who are in our operations are administration, our fundraising, our communications. Everyone at Aspect is very passionate and loves working for an organisation that's making a difference. I want to observe that also in a senior team, but equally a genuine desire in a senior team to lead people who are passionate and engaged in what they do.

Secondly,I want to observe a team who not only understand their own strengths and their own operating styles, but they really know and believe that everyone brings strengths and different styles. And the more diversity, the more strength and the more different styles, the better the senior team will be in really becoming a greater team than the sum of its parts.

And leading on from that, I think the …

Third trait that's essential is emotional intelligence. To know the right time for really robust discussions, the right time to challenge assumptions, but also equally to know when it's the right time to support and have the back of other team members for the overall big picture achievement of the key objectives.

Penny:  Jacqui, for someone who's listening, who is leading their own team, what would be a takeaway you would give them for creating that safe space within the leadership team where those robust conversations can be had?

Jacqui:  What we are endeavouring to do is really be very explicit - in understanding that this is the agreement by the team that this is a good thing to do and it's something we want to work towards.

I think a real key is that good understanding of the other members of the team, really understanding and believing in what strength, what the skills and the experience that each person brings, because once you value and you understand that it sets up that dynamic so that some really robust discussions can be had.

Penny:  Jacqui, how do you accommodate diverse voices and views around the leadership table?

Jacqui:  I think it's not just accommodating, but really welcoming diverse views on voice is one of the things we do it Aspect.And it's been a core strategy at Aspect for a few years now to work in partnership with the Autistic people through all parts of the organisation, and this begins at our governance and a leadership level.

So since 2016, Aspect has had an advisory council, which is made up of seven Autistic adults who are really an integral part of our all of our strategic discussions, and they work alongside the Aspect Board to guide the future directions of the organisation.

One of the projects that the advisory Council has in turn driven has been the formation of student councils in each of our Aspect schools so that our students can begin at a younger age the experience of leadership and input into school decisions and understand change the process and that it can't be imposed.

Penny:  Moving into 2019, you are appointed deputy CEO of Aspect and by 2020 you're successful and being appointed to the role of CEO after the position was vacated by the retirement of the previous CEO. As your leadership grew across these significant roles, what were the three greatest insights that continue to inform your approach to leadership?

Jacqui:  Well, in my first few months of CEO, the global pandemic hit, which wasn't a scenario that I had imagined leading through in my first year as CEO.

However, in retrospect, I can see the insights that it has provided of actually are invaluable. Firstly, the Aspect community is highly resilient and innovative in a crisis. Our staff were able to think on their feet on, they were able to be flexible and they quickly developed new ways of providing services and support.But at the same time, they maintained really great understanding and compassion about the needs of our students and our participants and their families.

The second insight I had was about the importance of communication to a leader and the pandemic highlighted to me just how much people rely on clear and honest

communication and that when when our communication needs are met, then we're capable of tackling huge challenges together.

My third insight is linked to communication and it's about the importance of developing a really clear vision and a strategic plan or a roadmap towards that vision. Then the link with communication is making sure that everyone clearly understands where it all links into the work that they do every day.

With that plan, a great for purpose organisation is one where everyone in the organisation shares the vision and the purpose and everyone understands how.What they do is working towards achieving it.

Penny:  Leading on from that Jacqui contemporary leadership is about leading with purpose and your purpose is fuelled by a passion for the difference you're making. What other ways do you imbue that passion into the teams at Aspect?

Jacqui:I think one of the things that really helps to communicate the passion through our organisation is stories and the sharing of the stories of the work we do and the outcomes.

No matter where people are working in the organisation, they really love to hear the anecdotes and the case studies and the stories of where a family or a child oran adult has done something that they didn't think they would ever do or has achieved something or had a really great outcome. So it's through those sharing of stories that we really, I guess, helped to communicate the really important work that we do. And it's from those stories that the passion is fuelled. I believe in our staff and it never ceases to amaze me. We have staff in finance and it and the HR team who aren't directly working with Autistic people and their families. But they equally are inspired and love the fact that we are doing this work working towards really great outcomes, and it really does fuel their passion about the work that they do now.

Penny:  I want to think about the way you lead an influence change across community across the Australian community, particularly in the roles that you've had over the past decade. Neuro diversity continues to present as a barrier to equality in our community. How does this impact on the Autism community and what are some of the things you would like to see a change in the way we are in our community, towards people who are neuro diverse?

Jacqui:   I think that historically the work around Autism was focused on the Autistic people themselves. So it was about providing supports. It was providing therapy and intervention so that

Autistic people would learn or would change so that they would fit in better with society and with the environment.

I think the challenge and I think what is happening is there is much more of a movement towards flipping this thinking and thinking about how we can all make adjustments to the environment and to our expectations so that we can create a world where people on the Autism spectrum are supported.

But it is also recognised that they have unique strengths they have value and that there's so much we can do to provide on Autism friendly community to support them as the direct work with the Autistic people themselves.

So I think that as this work gains momentum, it's my hope that Autistic people will be able to be recognised and fitting in without feeling that society is wanting them to change to become less Autistic.

Penny:  That's a really great place to hear us heading because, back in the day, it was all about making people fit in, and even now toa huge degree in our community.

We observe people being made to fit into a particular mould rather than us accepting that the absolute diversity of every one of us.

Jacqui:  There’s a lot that people can do to create more friendly environments, not just for Autistic people but for different neuro diverse people. Aspect is increasingly being asked by community groups, businesses about how they can do this work. And so we do work with our large retailers, with banks and with community organisations and places like airports.And so there is that realisation that that's just the right thing to do.

Penny:   Jacqui, now I want you to cast your mind forward to the next decade. What do you see is the priorities to improve the opportunities and outcomes for Children on the Autism spectrum in Australia?

Jacqui:  There are so many priorities, but I guess for me , the number one priority is to continue to work with the Autistic community and listen to their experiences and to identify with them what the priorities should be.

I think that one emerging priority, which is coming through conversations and partnerships with the Autistic community, is that we need to better understand how we can support mental health and wellbeing outcomes for Autistic people. We know that Autistic people have higher levels of anxiety and stress and poorer mental health than the typical population. But this work must be done with the Autistic community. Otherwise, we're going to get it wrong.

I think that another emerging priority is going to be related to employment. So even though this isn't directly about Autistic Children, it is about their future, because what the data is showing us is that Autistic adults are highly likely to be unemployed or underemployed, even when they've got qualifications and often quite sophisticated and impressive degrees. There's work to be done with employers to build their understanding of the huge value and the strengths that are available in an Autistic workforce, and to support employers with awareness of Autism and understanding how it is that they can better recruit, support and retain Autistic employees, and I think the third priority is what we've already discussed. And it is this ongoing work to create a more Autism friendly Australian community. This is important so that we're creating a world where Autistic children are not just supported, but they're really recognised for their strength and their values. Because when we think about the future of AutisticChildren, this is going to be the way that they will achieve their best authentic outcomes.

Penny:  That rounds out a conversation on an excellent note. Jacqui,

Thank you for being a generous guest on today's episode of What Leaders Know. You have taken us on your leadership journey, which had its roots way back in your early teaching career.

Listeners who are in the early stages of their leadership careers will be encouraged by your pathway. One of the takeaways for these listeners is that you can bring content expertise through your leadership career and continue to build on it, and it will enrich your leadership insights and practise.

Thank you again, Jacqui.

Jacqui:  Thank you, Penny. I've really enjoyed talking to you.


As I mentioned in the introduction. This is the final in season two of What Leaders Know.

SeasonThree will launch in September 2021.

Shownotes from today's episode may be found on my website www.whatleadersknow.com.au  and.  www.strategicoptions.com.au


I will also leave a link to Aspects’ website for those who want to explore the vast range of services this organisation offers.



I look forward to hearing from my listeners - either drop me an email at penny@strategicoptions.com.au or reach out by my website.

Thanks again for joining me in today's episode and for following me in Season One and Season Two of What Leaders Know.

I've been your host. Penny Beeston, stay safe.