Neurodiversity and leadership: how to create a diverse and inclusive executive team

By taking advantage of neurodiversity and the unique skills it brings, companies can foster a culture of innovation.

By taking advantage of neurodiversity and the unique skills it brings, companies can foster a culture of innovation. Image:  Kyle Glenn / Unsplash

Abayomi Olusunle
Marketing/Recruitment Officer, University of Leicester; Board Member, Terrence Higgins Trust and Noetic
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  • There is a troubling level of discrimination against neurodiverse people.
  • But research suggests that integrating neurodiversity into leadership teams can help organizations access untapped potential and other benefits.
  • Companies must review HR policies and focus on culture and environment to avoid tokenistic actions that, in the long run, harm neurodivergent people.

While attending a neurodiversity workshop, a question frequently arose from colleagues and allies: how can I become a better manager to neurodiverse staff? Although it might seem progressive on the surface, this situation reveals an underlying issue. Nobody was asking how to be a better employee working under a neurodiverse leader or, better still, an ally.

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The problem is that neurodivergent individuals are scarcely seen to be qualified for leadership roles. According to new data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), only 22% of autistic individuals are employed. There is a troubling level of discrimination against neurodiverse people, with 50% of UK managers saying they would not hire neurodivergent individuals.

The world of work is rapidly changing and organizations are constantly optimizing their organizational processes to ensure diversity and inclusion. The conversation around recruiting neurodiverse individuals is still widely contested and it is wrongly assumed that neurodivergent people are only qualified for subordinate, specialist or isolated roles.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; that there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning and behaving; and differences should not be viewed as deficits. Through integrating neurodiversity into leadership teams, organizations stand to gain from untapped potential and other benefits.

The benefits of neurodiversity in leadership

Multiple studies have highlighted that cognitive diversity in teams directly leads to innovation, creativity and problem-solving abilities. A report by McKinsey & Company suggests that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones in terms of profitability by 36%. By taking advantage of neurodiversity and the unique skills it brings, companies can foster a culture of innovation which improves teams’ overall performances and competitiveness.

A conceptual model of neurodiversity characteristics, leader behaviors, and outcomes
A conceptual model of neurodiversity characteristics, leader behaviors, and outcomes Image: Sage Journals

A study completed by Harvard Business Review found that teams which comprise neuro minorities, such as ADHD or dyslexia, had a stronger potential to create unique ideas and ground-breaking solutions to problems. Many neurodiverse individuals possess exceptional cognitive abilities, with research highlighting the unique strengths associated with conditions like autism and dyslexia. These conditions often entail heightened pattern recognition and memory capabilities of great benefit to various fields. Research by Forbes points to 35% of entrepreneurs being dyslexic with only 1% of corporate managers being neurodivergent. Divergent thinking can be a useful tool in entrepreneurial success, so why aren’t more companies tapping into the potential of neurodiversity in their leadership teams?

While we have neurodivergent public leadership figures such as Greta Thunberg, Charles Schwab, Trevor Noah, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, they are often profiled as outliers. We need to collectively shift from this perception and consider the unique cognitive abilities that neurodiverse individuals possess. Through this synergy companies can benefit from more comprehensive decision-making processes, optimized problem-solving and all-round business success and outcomes.

Examples of successful neurodiverse teams

We are increasingly witnessing prominent organizations revamping their HR practices to enable them to effectively access and take advantage of neurodiverse talent. To illustrate the significant potential and outcomes of neurodiverse leadership teams, we can look at a few inspiring case studies and success stories from SAP, Goldman Sachs, Google and Microsoft, to EY, Ford, Dell Technologies and Deloitte among others.

In 2013, SAP launched its Autism at Work initiative to make use of the power of neurodivergent talent in increasing global innovation and productivity. This has led to a 94% retention rate of neurodiverse individuals. Goldman Sachs on the other hand, launched its Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative in partnership with Specialisterne. The programme’s first virtual class was highly successful and achieved a 100% offer and acceptance rate in 2020.

Cognitive diversity in teams directly leads to innovation, creativity and problem-solving abilities
Cognitive diversity in teams directly leads to innovation, creativity and problem-solving abilities Image: University of Edinburgh

The investment bank JP Morgan launched its Autism at Work programme in 2015 as a four-person pilot and this has rapidly increased to more than 150 employees in eight countries. Within six months, the results of the pilot programme were substantial with autistic employees being 48% faster and almost 92% more productive than neurotypical colleagues.

Microsoft piloted its hiring programme for neurodiversity in 2018 with a focus on recruiting and empowering people with autism, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Based on analysis from Microsoft, this programme has led to improved productivity and innovation within the organization. IBM’s accessibility and inclusive design team has been a trailblazer and comprises employees with various disabilities including neurodiverse conditions. The team focuses on creating accessible tools that are useful to both IBM and its customers.

Simple steps to create an inclusive leadership team

Research supports the idea that neurodiverse-inclusive teams and leadership have better outcomes. To ensure that leadership teams are less homogenous but effectively accommodate neurodivergent individuals, companies must review their current HR policies and practices and focus on culture and environment to avoid tokenistic actions that, in the long run, will be harmful to neurodivergent people.

To effectively build a neurodiverse inclusive leadership team:

  • Partner with neurodiversity organizations: most organizations aren’t experts in the field of neurodiversity. Our case studies such as Goldman Sachs partnered with specialists in the neurodiversity sector leading to positive results.
  • Prioritize systemic inclusion: by removing barriers to entry, such as job descriptions and interviewing processes, and ensuring equal access to opportunities for growth and leadership, organizations can fully harness the unique strengths and abilities of neurodivergent talent.
  • Ensuring pathways for career development: neurodivergent employees face structural barriers to career development owing to ingrained leadership stereotypes and assumptions about their ambitions. Employers should collaborate with neurodivergent employees to identify performance goals, skill development interests and tailored growth plans.
  • Invest in leadership development to retain neurodiverse high performers, utilizing various formal and informal professional development tools, such as mentoring, coaching and education opportunities. Ensure neurodiverse employees are included in the leadership development pipeline through regular talent evaluations.
  • Incorporate neurodiverse representation: ensure your leadership team has neurodiverse members, either by actively seeking out neurodiverse candidates or providing opportunities for existing employees to develop their leadership skills.

Nurturing neurodiversity in leadership is essential for companies to excel and maintain a competitive edge. Creating an inclusive leadership team is not just about fulfilling a social responsibility, but also about harnessing untapped potential that can drive innovation and growth.

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