Championing Change: Nurturing Neurodiversity In Senior Leadership 

Take a moment to consider some of the most creative and innovative minds of the previous century or so. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Richard Branson are just a few of the names that might spring to mind. What do these individuals have in common? They are all considered to be neurodivergent. 

What is neurodiversity?

When people say they’re neurodiverse, the first things that come to mind are often autism or ADHD. However, the term also incorporates individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysnomia, dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome. Neurodiversity describes the concept that people perceive the world in a variety of different ways, and isn’t indicative of a medical condition. Although neurodiverse people may struggle with aspects of everyday life that neurotypical people don’t, different ways of thinking can also provide unexpected benefits. For example, Richard Branson once said, “I see my condition as a gift, not a disability. It has helped me learn the art of delegation, focus my skills, and work with incredible people.”

Despite this, research shows that neurodiverse people are one of the largest underrepresented groups in the workplace. Although 20% of the population is estimated to be neurodiverse, unemployment amongst this demographic is rife. For example, just 21% of autistic people are in full-time work. Although this group includes people who are unable to enter employment, many are highly skilled and accomplished. When SAP began its ‘Autism At Work’ programme, for example, they found that many applicants had degrees in highly technical subjects, and one even held a patent. 

The Power of Neurodiversity In Leadership 

We don’t have to look far to see real-life examples of how neurodiverse thinking can be a huge business benefit. Take Steve Jobs, for example. He recognised that the mobile phone industry was ripe for disruption and saw an opportunity to create a device that not only made calls, but also revolutionised the way we communicate, work, and live.  His ability to envision and execute innovative ideas showcased the immense potential of diverse perspectives at the helm of leadership, ultimately reshaping the technological landscape. And Jobs isn’t a lone example – many neurodiverse people explain that they’re able to see possibilities and connections that may elude neurotypical individuals, making these individuals invaluable in the business world.

Although it’s best to avoid stereotyping any neurotype, current research also backs up the fact that some neurodiverse individuals are able to focus for greater amounts of time on complicated and technical tasks. When JP Morgan and chase instituted their own ‘Autism at Work’ programme, they found that their neurodiverse hires were, on average, 90% to 140% more productive than employees who had been at the company for five or 10 years. In a leadership context, neurodiverse individuals, with their affinity for delving into intricate details, are well-suited to dissecting complex problems, making informed choices, and guiding their teams toward successful outcomes.

Why neurodiverse individuals find it harder to climb the corporate ladder

It’s an unfortunate fact that neurodiverse people are more likely to be excluded in the workplace and less likely to be hired, so it’s no surprise that they’re vastly underrepresented within senior leadership. This is mainly because leadership positions generally require a whole host of social and strategic skills that can elude some neurodiverse individuals, for example, social and emotional intelligence, effective communication, and the ability to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics. Managers may find that team members perform exceptionally well in a specialist role, yet flounder once promoted to a more generalist leadership position. This doesn’t mean neurodiverse people cannot be leaders, it simply means that they may need additional support, tools and resources in order to reach their full potential – a step that should be encouraged to promote a healthy and inclusive working environment. 

How can organisations nurture neurodiverse leadership from within?

There are numerous steps employers can take to harness and nurture the leadership skills of neurodiverse people. For example: 

Create bespoke leadership training programmes. You might think you don’t employ enough neurodiverse individuals to make this step worthwhile, but you’d probably be wrong – as we mentioned earlier, 1 in 5 of us is neurodiverse in one form or another. Creating dedicated leadership training programmes will allow you to tap into the potential of neurodiverse talent within your organisation, regardless of its size, industry or sector. These bespoke programs can be tailored to address the specific needs and strengths of neurodiverse individuals, helping them develop the skills required for leadership roles.

Introduce mentorship and support systems: Programmes that pair neurodiverse employees with experienced leaders or mentors within your organisation can be invaluable. These relationships offer a safe space for neurodiverse employees to seek guidance, share experiences, and develop their leadership skills. Mentors can provide valuable insights, help navigate workplace challenges, and offer emotional support. Moreover, mentorship can be a two-way street that benefits both the mentor and mentee, enhancing the former’s understanding of neurodiversity and promoting empathy.

Rethink your expectations: Often when we think of senior leaders, we imagine a person full of charisma and charm able to effortlessly navigate any social circle. As we’ve already covered, however, for some neurodiverse individuals, this simply isn’t part of their skillset. Consider re-adjusting your organisation’s senior leadership profile to accommodate these differences. For example, could you place greater emphasis on qualities like deep analytical thinking, problem-solving prowess, and a keen eye for detail? Could you introduce new systems and processes which would make it easier for neurodiverse leaders to communicate with the rest of the team? 

Rethink your recruitment process. One of the main barriers to neurodiverse people succeeding within leadership positions is that they are sometimes excluded by traditional recruitment processes. You can make the process easier by keeping job descriptions clear and concise, taking additional steps such as providing interview questions in advance, being mindful of sensory requirements and making it clear you’re willing to make adjustments, and providing training for hiring managers so that hiring decisions aren’t clouded by unconscious bias.

And finally – don’t generalise! There’s a saying within the autistic community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that simply because a team member is neurodiverse, they possess some kind of superpower that makes them exceptional at maths or science. Neurodiverse individuals, like anyone else, have a wide range of skills and talents. Instead of making assumptions, take the time to understand the strengths and areas where they may need support. This approach will allow you to appreciate and develop the unique contributions each neurodiverse team member can make to your organisation.

Ultimately, embracing neurodiversity in leadership is not just a matter of social responsibility; it also offers a strategic advantage that can drive innovation, productivity, and creativity within an organisation. By recognising the unique strengths and perspectives that neurodiverse individuals bring to the table and making necessary adjustments and accommodations, businesses can tap into a wealth of untapped potential. 

At GRG Executive Search, we’re taking the lead for an equal future. We take diversity seriously and consistently review our approach to supporting diverse talent, monitoring trends in diversity, and best recruitment practices. To explore how we can support your executive search requirements, please get in touch with a member of our executive team for a confidential discussion or email

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