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Posted 13 Oct 2021

The Trouble With Neurodiverse Leadership…

With the focus on neurodiverse hiring so much in the press, we’ve had less attention for career progression, talent management and transition to leadership. Back in 2009, Professor Julie Logan reported that 35% of entrepreneurs were dyslexic versus 1% of corporate managers. Further research has indicated that ADHDers are also more likely to start businesses than their Neurotypical peers, but ADHDers are also more likely to have erratic employment histories and find the corporate ladder unassailable. Similar patterns exist for other neurominorities, as the social exclusion data testifies. So, what is the trouble with neurodiverse leadership? Why are we so good at starting things and what happens in a corporate setting that is so different?

Compliance Versus Rule-breaking

As my own business has grown, we’ve placed quality management systems at the heart of our internal structures. We’ve built reflective practices for near misses, incidents, safeguarding and success into the agendas of our scheduled meetings. I can see from experience how hard this is to keep fresh, to avoid falling into the trap of standardization rather than standards. High ethics and integrity are hard to codify, and when we fail, we create bureaucracy and hypocrisy that neurodivergents (ND) see a mile off. Our company licenses all staff to speak up on these matters, so that we can maintain continuous improvement and self-awareness. We value their critique and see it as insight and accountability for shared success. Does your company do this? If not, your ND employees are going to experience the dissonance more intensely than your neurotypical (NT)employees. We tend to have a fine tune for injustice, imbalance, pointless rules. It’s why we hated school and it’s why we’ll leave your business.

Specialists Versus Generalists

Another issue for ND leadership, is that the only way to the top is typically through layers of junior and middle management, in which taking care of others and handling the admin of HR and team operations is an essential skill in the role. I’ve experienced this myself as my company grew, and noted the burst of productivity when I could afford my first PA. I’m not a generalist, I’m a specialist. And like most NDers, somethings take me longer than should be necessary (like checking annual leave and expenses) whereas other things take no time at all (like creating new services to meet a need, or preparing for a talk). One of the most common points of referral to my company for ND support is a promotion – suddenly the team member who was an excellent analyst/salesperson/social worker is spending 50% of their time reading other people’s work and critiquing it, rather than doing what they do best.

Being an entrepreneur is a short cut from specialist consultant to the leadership team. That’s why ND businesses work. We take the service/product that we see is needed from our daily, grass roots work and supercharge it to the business level. Your company is probably full of frontline, entry level role people whose ideas and voices could be making a difference in strategic meetings. The leadership team is over-represented with people who are great at filling out forms and compliance. Perhaps this is why corporates get stiff and inflexible and entrepreneurs get all the creativity. Entrepreneurs also get to set their own schedules, make up their own structures and can work in bursts of focus rather than have to stick to a daily grind.

Release Your Divergent Thinkers

To release your ND staff, middle managers, and to unburden your ND leaders, I recommend four things: (1) place a high value on admin, PA support, coaching and assistive technology (2) allow specialists at the strategy table, (3) throw out the rules on presenteeism, aka “corporate commando” and (4) lastly, let subject matter specialists be mentors rather than managers by supporting those who are professional managers to take over the reporting lines. The emotional labor of management, supporting with stresses, pastoral concerns, making decisions that will adversely affect a few people, not taking offence when there are conflicts and misunderstandings, giving your team your best self – not all NDers are up for that. Some are literally specialists in it and thrive on the relationships, others find that they can’t focus on their special interest when they are responsible for how others perform and feel.

When We All Do What We Uniquely Do

So this week I am personally handing over the reins of CEO to my Commercial Director, Jacqui Wallis and stepping back into a more research focused role both for my company and with my Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work. I know that as a female ADHD business leader the nature of my role in the Neurodiversity movement has been an inspiration for many aspiring ND leaders and I have therefore thought long and hard about taking a different role. However, I am handing over to Jacqui Wallis, a Dyslexic/Dyspraxic woman who is both creative and a professional relationship builder. I get to stay doing what I uniquely do, which is research and innovation. I can mentor our budding psychologists without needing to check if they’ve done their homework, I can focus on making sure what we do is watertight in terms of evidence and credibility, whereas Jacqui can focus on how we achieve our vision and supporting those who will get us there. I’m released from scheduled meetings, monthly reporting and 121s, Jacqui is empowered to develop our operational infrastructure to support our growth.

Jacqui’s rule is that we should all do what we uniquely do first, that our main job should be about our strengths and not our struggles. The best way to enable a neurodiverse leadership team is to craft roles that suit a wider variety of minds and to then balance those across the piece. In a business which has 60% ND leaders, I’ve found that the power of a Leadership team is more important than any one personality or cognitive profile. I know that a change of CEO doesn’t change the make up of our team, but that we are now simply better placed to play to our strengths. I’m feeling lucky and privileged to work in a business where my genius within is prioritized, where my colleagues realize that removing my stumbling blocks will raise our collective game. Jacqui too will now have the remit she needs to hit her targets and enact her vision (which is amazing). How many leaders in your business could be driving innovation and growth if only you could flex a few “rules” to let them work at their best?

Read more of Nancy’s Forbes Blog here.