Q&A with Wendy Adam, PhD, LCSW, New MCHB Training Branch Chief

March 4, 2011

Wendy Adam, PhD, LCSW was interviewed by AUCD's Rebecca Carman about her social work background, her experiences as the social work faculty in the Baylor LEAH, how those experiences prepared her for her current position at MCHB, what drew Dr. Adam to MCHB, her aspirations for the training program, and leadership advice for the MCHB Training Grantee Network. 

1.  Tell me a little bit about your background.  What made you choose social work?   

As an undergraduate student I studied English and Sociology, blending my passions for use of words with analysis of people and systems.  My first job post-Bachelor's was working for an inner city family service center as an intake worker.  About a year into that position I received a scholarship into a competitive PhD program in social and personality psychology.  Within a semester I recognized that my understanding of people and systems was less fulfilling without direct access to them - I missed my low paying and richly rewarding job, clearly needing more time in direct contact with people before studying them as I developed as a professional.  I moved back into my intake position as a supervisor and committed to becoming trained as a clinician first.  I transitioned with a specific commitment to developing professionally by connecting with people and through understanding the unique and pervasive impact that systems have on individuals and families, the ways poverty shapes expectations and opportunities, the way cultural differences and institutional responses to these affect outcomes.  Social work fit for me because it meets people where they are, ideally free from judgment, and promotes self determination while recognizing the undeniable role of systems change in seeking better health and wellbeing.  I completed my MSW and PhD at the University of Houston. 

2. Talk about your role as the social work faculty at Baylor LEAH.  What were a few highlights of being the social work faculty and how did those experiences prepare you for your current position at MCHB?

I served as the social work faculty of the MCHB-funded Baylor College of Medicine LEAH program in Houston, Texas from 1997-2009 as part of an interdisciplinary team of committed clinicians from Medicine, Nursing, Nutrition, Psychology, Social Work, and pivotal faculty in Research and Public Health.  Collectively our passion for youth and families clinically translated into a synergy for training, research, administration, leadership and advocacy which continues to influence my day to day experiences.  As I think back about how that experience as a part of BCM LEAH prepared me for my current position three specific things come to mind.   

First, under the direction of Dr. Al Hergenroeder, I experienced firsthand the power of shared leadership, manifest as the remarkable ways individuals can grow and the impact a small group of professionals can have when they have the room and the permission to develop and thrive.  In this shared leadership environment, I learned that diverse perspectives, even passionate disagreements, have an important role to play in refining a training program and that in the process we grow as professionals and as people.  

Second, during my tenure with LEAH I became enamored with MCHB and developed strong identification with the HRSA / MCHB mission and a variety of opportunities to connect nationally due to mentorship by MCHB staff, specifically Laura Kavanagh, Director, DRTE, and Cassie Lauver, Director, DSCH.  The opportunities they created for me to work in MCH training and Title V state initiatives, respectively, at the national level transformed me into having an "MCH identity."  An "MCH identity" translates day to day professional experiences in our own disciplines into one more collective opportunity to think systemically and promote public health through service, research, training, and accountability.   

Third, living through several cycles as an MCH training grantee, I experienced the developmental trajectory a training program goes through.  I became fascinated by the uniqueness of developing as a leader within a team of leaders, specifically an interdisciplinary team of leaders, convincing me of the different skill sets and processes necessary to lead well within an interdisciplinary team.  This has fundamentally shaped how I conceptualize the preparation of a workforce prepared to lead as a team, a national network of leaders committed to maternal and child health.   

In short, these three pivotal lessons taught me - interdisciplinary teamwork, development of an MCH identity, and developing as a leader on an interdisciplinary team of leaders - absolutely changed my expectations about what is necessary and what is possible to create the systems change necessary, prepare and assure a diverse MCH workforce and collaboratively meet the needs of the MCH population.   

3. What drew you to want to work for the Maternal Child Health Bureau, and as the Training Branch Chief, what are some broad aspirations you have for the training program? 

My connection with the mission and people of MCHB drew me to my current position, buoyed by strong MCH mentors and a belief that training shapes who and how we become as professionals and as people.  I love to teach, learn, connect and think strategically, likely problem solving as a hobby more often than not.  I see the challenges we face in maternal and child health as invitations for an increasingly strong role for MCH training and research, seeking relevant ways to impact health and wellness across the life course with limited resources through creative partnerships and exponential impact of investments.  

As our world and emerging technology affords us the opportunity to connect more expansively than ever before, I see the role of interdisciplinary training as increasingly more necessary and am excited by the impact our shared efforts will continue to have.  The MCH training programs' enduring commitment to interdisciplinary training positions us to collectively lead broadly as many disciplines and organizations grapple with its allure for the first time.  We have an opportunity to lead through our practice and our documentation of impact, establishing unmistakably the impact of interdisciplinary practice on outcomes.   

I am also committed to supporting and enhancing the interdependence of the MCH training network with the Title V MCH state programs.  Many of the MCH training programs' creative and enduring collaboration with their state Title V programs create shared resources, improve accountability, and creatively address systems issues impacting maternal and child health.   

Leadership development is a lifelong process and I am committed to enhancing the MCH Training Program portfolio's visibility as a network of leader developers and leaders in development.  For times of great need and great opportunity, leadership that is relevant, responsible and mindful ensures progress.   

Recent efforts within the Training Branch around cultivating trainee voice resonate within our portfolio and I plan to continue the great work of the Branch in this area.  Engaging trainees as leaders from day one of training ensures their investment in understanding their own important role to play in our MCH workforce.  I plan to partner with trainees directly and with our grantees to creatively promote and support trainee input, connections with our Branch staff and each other. 

Transitions in assessment provide expansive opportunities to understand the impact and anticipated outcomes of training.  Competency based assessment offers an opportunity to assess the impact of our training on behavioral outcomes, meaning what our trainees are capable of doing upon completion of training versus what is offered during the training experience.  Many clinical fields such as nursing and social work have fully embraced this approach to assessment and I look forward to working with our DRTE team and our grantees to develop ideas to enhance our creative demonstration of the impact of our training investments.   

The cultural diversity of the MCH workforce is essential.  This recognition will continue yo serve as an attainable goal, spearheading our thinking to moving beyond where we might think is possible on any given day.  The richness of cultural differences and the disaster of not having it have and will continue to ensure this as a priority of the Branch. 

We all have a life course, influenced moment to moment by the convergence of the systems in which we interact personally and professionally, and the protections these moments afford or the risks they engender.  I applaud MCHB's efforts around life course and find it consistent with the work of so many of our training programs already.  I see an important leadership role for the MCH training network to play as these current dialogues turn to strategies for the health of a nation.   

4. What leadership advice can you give to our MCH Training Grantee Network - to faculty members as well as trainees.  What leadership qualities would you hope faculty members are promoting when interacting/teaching trainees, and what qualities would you hope that future leaders (current trainees) are building on or strengthening?  What about for family faculty members specifically? 

The leadership advice I have for faculty and trainees is to be present.  Be really present...moment to moment.  It is so easy and tempting to multi-task, seemingly essential to get through the long daily to-do lists.  It also compromises every aspect of our experience as well as those with whom we interact.  It requires risk to be in our moments, especially when we are so busy, but the reward is remembering them and therefore being accountable for them.  

Our MCH leadership competencies are not perfect but in them I truly find the core of what it means to be an MCH leader.  I am hopeful that our trainees see the leadership competencies in practice daily in the actions of our faculty and that our faculty members see the competencies in themselves and each other.  I also hope that faculty and trainees are practicing recognizing and acknowledging leadership as it is happening.  Being present to experiences allows this to happen richly and consistently.  Deliberately recognizing leadership becomes a wonderful habit over time and an enhancement to the experiences we have with each other.  Along with this practice of living what we teach and recognizing it as it is happening, I am hopeful trainees and faculty make time to be people who are fallible, teachable, and honest.  The role of our family faculty and other involved youth and parents grounds us, as trainers, in the reality our populations.  Their input makes us accountable to our constituents and provides trainees with direct experience of the "post-visit ride home."  As we question our impact on maternal and child health, our family members interpret and give context to our data.  Their role deserves more respect and thanks than justification, as they represent the very reason we do what we do.  Professional training might last a decade in earnest, training as a family member - a lifetime. 

5. Is there anything else you would like to share - either about yourself, as the new Training Branch Chief, vision for the future with regard to training programs? 

I work with an incredible team of leaders in the Training Branch and DRTE overall.  I come to work thankful each day that I, too, get to work with people who embody the MCH leadership competencies.  There is a total congruence in what we ask of you and what we ask of ourselves within DRTE.  It is an honor to be here and I look forward to connecting with and learning from all of you as together we lead.