CEO internship: a first of its kind and a learning experience for all

Article written by Jessica Horner

For the past 12 months Yooralla has been involved in a bold new program developed in collaboration with the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI), which goes beyond the traditional internship—offering a unique opportunity for a senior leader with a disability to actively share the helm of our organisation as CEO intern/Co-CEO.

Megan Spindler-Smith is an Autistic, disabled person who during 2023, has taken on the role of CEO intern/Co-CEO at Yooralla, alongside CEO, Terry Symonds. Megan has worked with us part time over the last 12 months, including during pivotal periods of organisational development and change.

The CEO internship program is notably the first of its kind in Australia for a disability organisation. This program was envisioned to help reshape the disability leadership landscape in Australia.

Megan also recognises the significance of this role.

“I've never been lucky enough to have a role model like me in senior executive spaces…” Megan shares.

Megan (who uses they/them pronouns) drew on their own experiences observing the need for people with disabilities in senior executive spaces serving as role models for current and aspiring leaders in the disability community.

For Terry, and others in senior leadership positions at Yooralla, the CEO internship program has provided an invaluable glimpse of what senior leadership by people with disability can look like beyond an organisation simply paying lip-service to the idea of integrating people with disability into executive teams.

Terry observes that the program has been a fantastic learning experience for all senior leadership at Yooralla and says that sharing responsibilities with Megan has been a real privilege.

“[Megan brings] the experience of a leader with a disability, including their experience, adverse experiences, sometimes of discrimination, or of having to overcome barriers that might exist in workplaces, because Megan is able to reflect on that and reflect on that openly with other staff… that gives courage and confidence to other aspiring leaders,” Terry said.

Terry is quick to point out however, that the realisation of the CEO internship/Co-CEO extended beyond what Megan brings to the table because of their disability; as a change management professional, Megan brought a wealth of expertise, contributing significantly during a time of organisational change which only enhanced the success of the program.

“…In Megan's case, they come with experience in human resources, people management, learning and organisational development. And they arrived at a time when we had a significant challenge to do with change inside the organisation.”

For Megan the program has been challenging at times as they have had to confront internalised feelings of “imposter syndrome”. However, they are quick to point out that Yooralla's commitment to fostering a psychologically safe environment has been instrumental in overcoming these hurdles.

When asked to give advice for organisations considering similar programs, Megan stresses the importance of this psychological safety, as well as the crucial role of true accessibility for people with disabilities, underscoring the necessity for organisations to embrace discomfort and change to truly become disability-affirming.

“Make sure that you are ready for the discomfort. Make sure you are ready to transform and make sure you are ready to become a disability affirming organisation. Because if you can't make it safe, psychologically safe for a senior executive role, you're never going to be able to make it safe for other people with disability in the organisation,” said Megan.

The CEO internship program was a steep learning for all at times, but Megan attributes an important part of their success to the decision to not approach the role passively but to “do this at full bore”. Their advice to others in similar roles is to push through self-doubt, stay curious, and recognise that learning is a constant journey. Megan concedes that, despite their significant leadership experience, there is always more to learn and discover within and throughout the disability space.

So what is next for Yooralla and for Megan?

For Megan this program has had a profound impact on them both personally and professionally. They say they approach the next stages of their career, in their current role and beyond, with genuine gratitude and a wealth of learning from their time spent with us in 2023.

“[The CEO internship program has] changed my brain for the better, and it has made me a better senior leader. It has made me a better human…to be open and honest about what I need, and to speak up even more loudly when I see injustice for others,” Megan said.

For Yooralla, 2024 brings another exciting journey as we extend our internship program. Once again working alongside the DLI, we are giving an opportunity for a person with disability to take and internship with the Chief Development Officer at Yooralla.

Terry and others in senior leadership at Yooralla see the success of the Co-CEO program as simply a foundation for our organisation to continue to grow leaders with a disability to help them contribute to the disability sector (and beyond) in new and meaningful ways.

“The job is to go from internships to careers… to take these experiences and turn them into solid opportunities to really embed people with disability in permanent ongoing executive leadership roles in the sector,” said Terry.

Terry and Megan are both hopeful that Yooralla’s work through the CEO internship program and beyond can contribute to this goal.

For us, promoting employment and leadership opportunities is an ongoing goal with noteworthy and valuable benefits for both organisations and individuals involved in these programs.

With all that comes next, one thing is for sure; for Yooralla and Megan as well, this CEO internship program is only the beginning.

About the author:
Jessica Horner is an Autistic woman and disability advocate from Wagga Wagga, NSW. She was an ABC Regional Storyteller Scholar in 2022 and a Walkey Foundation, Media Diversity Award finalist in 2023.

“[The program has] changed my brain for the better, and it has made me a better senior leader. It has made me a better human…to be open and honest about what I need, and to speak up even more loudly when I see injustice for others,” Megan said.

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