Supporting neurodiverse talent in the workplace

Supporting neurodiverse talent in the workplace

Dr Vina Theodorakopoulou, board member at GAIN (Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment and Neurodiversity), on why organisations that genuinely champion cognitive diversity achieve a competitive edge.

Recently, I authored a thought leadership paper for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, focusing on the significance of valuing neurodiversity within organisations. Titled “Much to GAIN”, the play on words references both the Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment and Neurodiversity – we aim to spark radical improvement in the employment prospects for neurodivergent individuals in the financial services sector – and the undeniable advantages of a cognitively diverse workforce.

In the evolving landscape of talent acquisition, neurodiversity emerges as a powerful force. Unlike their neurotypical counterparts, neurodiverse or “differently abled” individuals possess unique wiring offering fresh perspectives that can revolutionise value creation within companies. Harvard Business Review’s seminal article, “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage”, highlights this transformative potential.

The relentless tug-of-war for talent has intensified, prompting organisations to re-evaluate recruitment strategies. But let’s break free from convention. The traditional candidate funnel, often homogeneous and limiting, no longer suffices. Instead, we must explore uncharted territories to tap into the full spectrum of cognitive diversity as a way to unlock innovation and enrich decision-making.

Initiatives like Neurodiversity Celebration Week, established in 2018, play a pivotal role in advancing recognition and acceptance of neurological differences – such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia – in the workplace. Beyond mere compliance, organisations now recognise that embracing neurodiversity is both a social imperative and a strategic advantage.

As businesses seek to ignite innovation and creativity, the fusion of diverse perspectives offers a path to groundbreaking solutions. It is not about merely thinking differently; it is about solving problems in ways that transcend convention. The unique cognitive makeup of neurodivergent individuals sparks novel approaches, challenging the status quo and driving transformative outcomes. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reveals that companies with diverse teams are more innovative, generating 19% higher revenues from new products and services. These teams, fuelled by varied viewpoints, outperform their counterparts by reimagining possibilities and pushing boundaries.

But that is not all. The McKinsey Diversity and Inclusion report, aptly titled “Delivering Through Diversity”, reinforces this correlation. Diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their less diverse peers. Rather than ticking boxes, we should work together to harness the power of different minds, unlock untapped potential and drive sustainable success.

Neurodivergent individuals often possess distinctive skills, including keen attention to detail, pattern recognition and analytical thinking. In my view, these abilities, rather than being exceptional superpowers, form the bedrock of their natural strengths. In various roles, neurodiverse talent brings a fresh lens to problem-solving and innovation.

Organisations benefit from cognitive diversity, especially in dynamic market conditions and unforeseen challenges. Neurodiversity fuels adaptability, enabling companies to navigate change effectively. But it doesn’t stop there. Diverse teams, drawing from varied perspectives, make well-rounded and informed decisions. Their collective wisdom transcends homogeneity, fostering creativity and resilience. So why champion cognitive diversity? Because it propels sustainable success, enriches our workforce, and drives positive change.

And this brings us to the how. How best to support neurodiverse talent so that they can thrive and deliver?

Leaders who walk the talk. An inclusive culture in which people get a sense of belonging is vital. That cannot be achieved without enthusiastic buy-in and commitment from the top. Leaders must demonstrate they value polymorphic diversity in the thinking process and work to cultivate and embed it in the workplace. And they should provide the support to make it happen, such as assistive technologies where necessary. 

When executed effectively, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and other forms of allyship wield significant influence. However, my work with GAIN – a responsibility that involves leading the individual members’ workstream – reveals a common sentiment: widespread disappointment regarding ERGs’ actual impact.

Neurodivergent employees often feel frustrated and fatigued by perpetual requests for data and insights. Unfortunately, the information they provide frequently vanishes into the void due to the absence of feedback loops. Employees are astute and discerning. If organisations fail to act on their concerns and potential improvements, disengagement will inevitably escalate.

For ERGs to be truly effective, they require a hands-on executive sponsor who actively engages with the group. While it is understandable that sponsors may not attend every single quarterly meeting, their involvement should be consistent – at least biannually. During these interactions, sponsors should co-create solutions alongside neurodiverse employees, renewing or reiterating the board’s unwavering commitment to championing neurodiversity.

Importantly, sponsors should listen attentively to concerns, ensuring they are taken seriously. Transparency matters: they must explain the concrete actions taken in response to previously raised issues. Through this collaborative approach, we foster an environment where neurodiverse voices thrive and meaningful change takes root.

Sponsors and mentors are another important dimension of allyship. They may themselves be neurodivergent and open to speaking about their personal experiences. Or they may be neurotypical but empathetic because they have neurodivergent family connections, or simply because of their value codes or belief in upholding the importance of intersectionality.

What really matters is that sponsors and mentors should not fit the outdated mould of stern, homogeneous leadership. They should be open, understanding, willing to share some of their own vulnerabilities.

When supported effectively, neurodiverse talent not only thrives but also ignites a corporate culture of engagement, enhanced productivity, client representation, and societal impact.

For some further insights into the lived experiences and opinions of neurodiverse people, check out the podcast series, Vina Talks ND Life, that I host for GAIN. And if you are a neurodiverse Odgers consultant, candidate or client with strong views you would like to share on a future episode, please get in touch.

Dr Vina Theodorakopoulou, FRSA will be speaking later this year at an Odgers Interim event on neurodiversity hosted by Becky Mackarel, Lead, Investment & Professional Services Practice and Co-Chair of our Neurodiversity Allies Committee and Adam Gates, Partner and Head of the Insurance Practice. Please contact Becky or Adam for further information.


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