Why do we need to support neurodivergent leaders?
By Jo Faragher on 16 December 2022
It’s no secret that a number of well-known entrepreneurs are also neurodivergent. In fact, research by Forbes has suggested that more than a third (35%) of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, compared to 1% of corporate managers. The list of entrepreneurs who credit their success in part to their neurodivergence include Richard Branson, Charles Schwab and Jo Malone. But while the importance of entrepreneurial role models should not be understated, talented neurodivergent employees should also have the opportunity to progress within the wider corporate and public sector worlds.
“Many neurodivergent leaders have stepped outside organisational structures to thrive and succeed,” says Helen Musgrove, Director of Psychological Consulting at neurodiversity consultancy firm, Lexxic. “We need to remove the barriers to the top in organisations as this is important for maximising talent, creating diversity of thinking in the boardroom and creating role models within a genuinely inclusive organisational culture.” Within many organisations, she adds, there are entrenched ideas about what makes a good leader both generally and in that business. “There’s a misconception around what makes a good leader in the first place, for example, the stereotype of charisma, confidence and control,” she explains. “And there tends to be a big focus on ‘fit’ when recruiting leaders, asking ‘will they fit with how we do things round here?’ rather than ‘will they bring a new perspective that challenges us to think differently?’” Furthermore, people often wrongly assume neurodivergent employees lack communication skills or empathy, meaning they can be excluded from key conversations or opportunities that might be important for progression.
See strengths not deficits
Part of the problem is that organisations often focus on a deficit model of support for neurodivergent employees. They may provide reasonable adjustments during the recruitment and onboarding process, but the approach can be one of trying to ‘fix’ the candidate or employee rather than supporting them to thrive. “This approach fails to recognise, or capitalise on, the real strengths of many neurodivergent individuals, such as creativity, problem solving, energy, flexibility and integrity – which can offer great leadership potential,” adds Musgrove. There can also be barriers on the route to senior leadership. “Unfortunately, the middle management roles that have traditionally been part of the route to senior leadership tend to be associated with generalist operational and administrative skills that could be more challenging for someone who embraces big picture thinking and creativity. The most progressive organisations recruit for a range of different and complementary skillsets in their senior team – so that the members can bring different perspectives, play to their strengths, and support each other on the things that come less naturally to them.”
“We’re moving away from that ‘up and out’ model, particularly in professional services,” agrees Dan Harris, CEO of Neurodiversity in Business (NiB). “It’s more expected now for people to have a non-linear career. So someone may have great technical expertise but is not interested in managing people, but the organisation allows them to have narrower or more specialist roles that are equally respected.” Progress to partner or director level is becoming less formalised, with less emphasis on formal panels where candidates have to justify themselves, he adds. “It’s a journey rather than a black and white, yes or no decision. We’ve moved from assessment days to development centres, and those high pressure situations are less prevalent. This shift isn’t necessarily neurodiversity specific but is helpful.” Another helpful trend is organisations moving away from the tradition of the annual appraisal, explains Harris. “Annual appraisals are stressful for employees and labour intensive for senior leaders. A less formal approach, with a focus on coaching rather than performance evaluation, helps neurodiverse employees.”
It is important to have an environment where neurodivergent leaders feel safe to be themselves and highlight any barriers they encounter on their leadership journey says Lexxic founder Nicola James, who herself is dyslexic. “Remember something that is a barrier to you can be a barrier to someone else as well, so it is important that organisations take action to address them. People have so many different learning styles, strengths and challenges,” she says. “These differences are what makes the world go around, and what makes a diverse leadership team great. So if you find something hard don’t give up. Remember all the things you have had to overcome and learn to get where you are, and the unique talents that you have to offer. Finding support to help overcome any challenges you face, for example through coaching, techniques and technology, can leave you free to unleash those talents and fulfil your leadership potential.”
Sarah*, who works for a consulting company, recently discovered she had ADHD after going through a diagnosis of autism with one of her children. She has not disclosed her diagnosis to her current employer because she doesn’t feel ready, but coaching support from Lexxic has been invaluable. “I was always told I was high potential and looked like I was successful – I ran a big team and could deal with emergencies really well but often it would take me longer to get there,” she explains. Sarah often felt she was masking her issues, working long hours to meet targets and burning herself out. In coaching, she learnt techniques such as blocking time out from meetings to focus on tasks and “body doubling”, where a colleague works alongside to guide someone through a task. One of the issues she has encountered as a senior professional is that because she wasn’t underperforming, managers didn’t see an issue or feel she needed support. “I don’t need to be underperforming to need support because I’m working long hours, masking my challenges and not fulfilling my potential. Support helps me to fulfil my potential or make it easier for my team to work with me,” she adds. Sarah now feels Lexxic’s support has given her “the key to a library of information and understanding, and helped me put things together in a safe space”.
Lexxic supports organisations to ensure that their structures and processes help neurodivergent employees progress in their careers in a number of ways, including:
- Auditing talent management and leadership programmes, as well as senior recruitment practices to ensure they are attracting, retaining and supporting neurodiverse talent.
- Coaching: either 121 coaching for employees or line manager co-coaching to support effective career planning and progression.
- Increasing awareness of neurodiversity through e-learning or interactive workshops and webinars for the whole organisation, or for recruitment/talent management teams.
- Supporting employers through the Neurodiversity Smart self-assessment process, which helps them to understand strengths and areas where they can do more on neuro-inclusion. Obtaining ND Smart accreditation can also be a great way for organisations to showcase their neurodiverse credentials to potential recruits, as well as customers and employees.
*Name changed as interviewee wished to remain anonymous.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.