you probably know, Directors and Partners in big-4 consultancies don’t have
dyslexia. I must have caught mine from my children, I’m sure that must be the
case. I certainly can’t have had it during education – none of my teachers
mentioned it, although it would explain the rather bumpy ride I had at
But suddenly, aged 42 and with a
successful career already behind me, I found myself sitting opposite an
educational psychologist, who was explaining to me that I think differently
from most people … something I knew, but had not fully understood. A few
years later, Stephen Spielberg had a similar experience describing it as,
“The last puzzle piece to a great mystery that I've kept to
I approached my new status as if a reformed smoker - threw myself into
understanding what this meant for me, became the exec sponsor of the EY
dyslexia network, a non-exec of the British Dyslexia Association, have
written, spoken, been interviewed, counselled, coached and learned from many
I started with a disability view of dyslexia - but
something quite different is very clear to me now - as leaders, we need to
think differently about “different thinking” because neurodiversity can
transform the fortunes of organisations.
leaders, we need to think differently about 'different thinking' because
neurodiversity can transform the fortunes of
What is neurodiversity?
Around 15% of people in the UK have some form of neurodiverse condition. A
non-exhaustive list might include dyslexia, autism (including Asperger's
Syndrome)2, dyspraxia (also
known as DCD), ADHD and others. The most common of these is dyslexia, which
affects around 10% of people in the UK3. For clarity, I am referring here to
people at all levels of IQ - dyslexia, for example accounts for c13k graduates
each year4 so I don't
doubt you have hired some of these people recently. Equally, these people
also become our customers, suppliers and competitors - something we rarely
We are increasingly familiar with these terms in the
context of educational difficulties and the Equality Act5 has brought these protected
characteristics to the attention of our HR teams, in a disability
context. The negative stereotype is set.
However, there is now
substantial evidence that many neurodiverse individuals possess
unusually high levels of skill and unique capability in a number
of areas and that is the focus of this article.
Is it a
bug or is it a feature?
It turns out that
if they exploit their strengths, some neurodiverse individuals can
be very successful - Elon Musk, Charles Schwab, Jo Malone, Bill
Gates, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, Richard Rogers, James Dyson, Bill
Hewlett, John Chambers and Stephen Spielberg, to name but a few.
analytically, Professor Julie Logan of CASS Business
School6 completed research
in 2011 that indicated that entrepreneurs in the UK are twice as
likely to be dyslexic as the average, or three times more likely in the
So if all these successful people are affected if almost
certainly must be a feature? So as leaders, wouldn't it
be good if we built our organisations to fully exploit this latent
pool of talent?
“Wouldn't it be good if we built
our organisations to fully exploit this latent pool of
Surely we are already doing this?
Unfortunately, whilst things are improving, most of our activity as
employers accidently treats neurodiversity as a bug. We design
our organisations for neuro-typical people, measure everyone against
the standard performance measures and wonder why fish turn out to be
less good at climbing trees - a failure on their part perhaps?
Fortunately, most of us are trying to be good employers so we are going
to act sympathetically towards the fish - look for
adjustments we could make to their role, perhaps a new ladder etc..
So, whether intended or not, we have adopted the medical model of
disability - it's a bug - a problem with the individual.
then that the disclosure figures recorded by your HR department probably sit
at around the 1-2% level vs the societal norm of 10-15%. Does that mean
the recruitment process filters us out at the door; that we feel unsafe
disclosing; that the working environment is simply so inclusive that
labels don't matter? Experience says it is not usually the
But perhaps the future looks brighter …
Thinking about neurodiversity as a bug:
discussions are beginning to include disability (and hence
- Some organisations are beginning to adapt
recruitment processes, updating policies and changing processes to make them
- HR departments are increasingly providing access
to “reasonable adjustments”, supported by the Access to Work
scheme7 individuals to
mitigate the downsides of disability.
There is an even better
Looking through the feature lens:
- Programmes are beginning to emerge in a handful of leading companies
that actively target some neurodiverse groups based on the “feature”
- According to the Harvard Business
Review8 SAP, Hewlett
Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Ford, and EY are
all running active programmes in the US and others such as including
Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS
are tentatively beginning similar initiatives.
“The fact that programmes even exist is a very
positive indication of direction of travel but progress is slow,
fragmented and the neurodiversity gap is unlikely to close any time
before the end of this century, if at all.”
The fact that these programmes
even exist is a very positive indication of direction of travel but progress is
slow, fragmented and the neurodiversity gap is unlikely to close any time
before the end of this century, if at all.
What is the business case
"Some neurodiverse people simply see
things differently - that difference brings the leap of thinking that is
needed to drive innovation, the spark of creativity or vision needed to
transform a product or a service”
As always, the
case for change will vary from organisation to organisation but arguably it
- Economic argument:
your customers - The value of this market is substantial as a
consumer alone. What is your current market share with this group? What are
their unique needs, buying habits etc?
War for talent
- 67% of HR leaders9 believe the war for talent will
remain a major issue. A compelling proposition for the neurodiverse
could help address this. It could also boost brand awareness and
- Strategic argument:
impact of different thinking - Some neurodiverse people simply
see things differently - that difference brings the leap of thinking
that is needed to drive innovation, the spark of creativity or vision
needed to transform a product or a service. What we offer varies,
depending in the individual. Sometimes they offer strengths in things
like pattern recognition, concentrated attention to detail, high
levels of empathy or a range of other characteristics. Employing
these capabilities in the right way can transform the fortunes of an
- Diversity & Inclusion Agenda:
of working age adults have a disability. By pension age,
that number will have risen to 44%. In working age, neurodiversity
is one of the biggest groups - it spans gender, ethnicity, age, and
sexual orientation so sits well at the centre of any diversity and
inclusivity agenda. What is good for the neurodiverse will also tend
to have positive knock-on effects for a wider employee groups.
Chief Neurodiversity Officer
If I am right, then
harnessing neurodiversity could provide organisations with a rich
dividend. Smaller disruptive organisations are often self-selecting
neurodiverse talent from the outset - their challenge will be to
avoid growing in to cookie cutter shaped large corporates.
“Harnessing neurodiversity could provide
organisations with a rich dividend”
larger organisations, the key challenges will be: how to access and utilise
this latent without breaking their already scaled business models; and
how to achieve the level of cultural change needed to make this
Unsurprisingly, the biggest dividends will be the hardest
to achieve and much of the change will need to be driven from or
sponsored from the top of the organisation. It's not going to be
easy, but that shouldn't stop us trying.
Perhaps the rise of the
Chief Neurodiversity Officer may be upon us!
I believe you! How do I get started?
is no “one size fits all” answer, but a number of typical steps are
included below. One thing is certain - most organisations need some
level of specialist advice when defining their approach.
Ignore your company's
“Better not tell anyone”, was my
first thought, once I had a “label”. Most people are reluctant to
disclose an invisible disability. So don't trust the statistics HR have
captured - assume 5-10% of your staff are probably keeping quiet about
their condition and act on it.
is vital. People who are actually involved and will spend the time needed
to understand and champion the issue, Even better, find someone who
is affected by the issue in some way. Of course, the perfect scenario
would be someone brave enough to stand up and admit this applies to them
Make sure adjustments are easy
for people to access
For many, their difficulties can
be largely mitigated by the use of a few pieces of inexpensive
technology. Make this easy to access, a confidential process that does
not require individuals to draw attention to their difficulties or seek
budget from managers.
creation of a staff network
Where there is a lack of
disclosure people are often reluctant to engage with corporate
initiatives. A staff network can help you engage with a collective as
well as allowing them the autonomy to help themselves. They will need
budget and time though.
Invisible disability is often complex and
levels of awareness and understanding are generally poor. Engage
external experts to help educate or craft campaigns.
Do you simply want to be an inclusive employer or
could Neurodiversity offer competitive advantage? Engage with experts and
neurodiverse people - find out more and decide what role neurodiversity will
play in your strategic talent agenda.
Don't forget the Boardroom
neurodiverse is your board? Consider exploring the way your board thinks,
makes decisions and whether it needs to add non-executive talent to gently
challenge its approach.
- Interview with Quinn Bradley, on
Friends of Quinn
- Estimate of the number of autistic people in the UK
from the National Autistic Society, based on 2011 UK census and
epidemiological surveys (2017 autism.org.uk) - Asperger represents perhaps
1/3rd of this number (source: Baird et al, 2006)
Dyslexia Association www.BDAdyslexia.org.u
- Prof Peter D Pumphrey
FBPsS, 2006/7 - Analysis of UK domiciled 1st degree qualifiers with
- The Equality Act 2010, consolidates the Disability
Discrimination Act 1998, Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race
Relations Act 1976.
- Dyslexic Entrepreneurs: The Incidence; Their
Coping Strategies and Their Business Skill
- HM Government - https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work
- Harvard business Review, May/June 2017, Robert D Austin and Gary P
- Navigating the future: HR 2020, Eversheds Sutherland and market
research company Winmark