How leadership development can foster inclusivity: Q&A with a Preparing to Lead graduate

January 8, 2020

Thushara T. Wijetilaka works as an administrative specialist for the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division of the U.S. Secret Service—and she is a member of the deaf community. Wijetilaka is also a recent graduate of the Partnership’s Preparing to Lead program, a leadership development opportunity for GS-7 to GS-11 federal employees. We recently spoke with her about why this program was a valuable experience.

Partnership: What motivated you to apply for Preparing to Lead?

Being deaf, it was not easy to think of myself as a leader in my division. My colleagues might think that a deaf employee does not know how to lead a team or they may feel awkward working with a deaf leader. And deaf or hard of hearing employees can face unique challenges in their workplace from issues as simple as not being able to fully participate in team meetings or events.

But deaf and hard of hearing people are capable of doing jobs just like their peers—they just need to be afforded opportunity and accommodation. I applied for the Preparing to Lead Program to showcase my abilities to lead.

Partnership: How has the program helped you become a better leader?

In my role, I lead team projects and supervise the administrative branch. Through Preparing to Lead, I learned more about collaboration and effective communication, which helped me develop leadership skills such as mentoring, motivating peers, teaching and even planning events. 

Partnership: What were the benefits of this being a mostly virtual program?

The virtual program has many benefits, one of which is flexibility. It was helpful to have access to coursework from my workplace rather than going to the classroom in person. The program allowed me to use time effectively, balance my duties and coursework and expand my worldview through discussions with classmates on IM chat.

In addition to two sign-language interpreters, the key for me was the closed-captioning, which helped me follow the lectures and discussions with classmates. Deaf people depend on visual communication, and the virtual program was perfect for my needs and learning style.

Partnership: What leadership skills or knowledge have you developed?

Adaptability and flexibility are the leadership skills I most developed. Because of my deafness, I need to be more patient with my colleagues when communicating. For example, I educate colleagues about deaf awareness, inclusiveness and effective communication in the work environment. The people in my division have gotten to know me and admire my timely responses to their inquiries and willingness to assist them with administrative tasks. 

Despite the communication barriers, I communicate well by sharing thoughts and experiences with the intention of adding value to the team and to the project. I have developed working relationships with others to best meet the needs of the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division, providing seamless administrative support to our division and across the entire organization to help achieve our mission.  

Note: The Partnership follows AP style guidelines, which use the lowercase deaf in all uses.