Professor Amanda Kirby, CEO of Do-IT Solutions., Campaigner for Neurodiversity, Medic, Knowledge Translator, researcher.

Originally published as part of The Neurodiversity 101 LinkedIn Newsletter.

Creating neuroinclusive boardrooms and C-Suites

There has been much discussion about the need to increase diversity in the workplace at all levels progress remains slow.

Maria Moats and Paul DeNicola wrote in the Harvard Business Review in March 2021 about the findings from the PwC report (from 2018 in the Annual Corporate Directors Survey) that while diversity in the boardroom is important change has been slow. Creating a gender balance is taking a long time to achieve.

The World Economic Forum in 2020 stated that: ‘on the whole, parity on corporate boards could be reached as early as 2039 or as late as 2070.’ There is talk in the US of mandating to ensure greater diversity happens.

I have been thinking a lot about what stops you from progressing in a career and getting to be a leader and gaining an opportunity to be taking a place on a board.

A recent report from Business in The Community ‘Who Cares?’ discussed the caring responsibilities that often still remain with women. This practically means that being near your home base remains important at the beginning and end of the day. Getting on a board or leading a team means you need to be at the meetings. During Covid-19 home/flexible working allowed those wanting to operate in leadership roles to attend to be at virtual boardroom meetings and also be there for their children/elderly parents.

It made me think about what challenges some people to progress. Especially those who have additional demands on their lives such as being a parent of a neurodivergent child/carer of elderly parents. Does this mean that we never see some talented people at the board level/C-suite because the pathway does not consider a hybrid model of working that allows for leadership delivered in different ways?

Moving the dial towards neurodiversity

Whom do we need in the boardroom/C-Suite when we don’t know what jobs we will need in the future? The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report, estimates that by 2025, automation and technological advancements will displace 85 million jobs and also create 97 million new ones. We have a real challenge of identifying and developing individuals for as-yet-undefined roles. This means we need really do need a diverse boardroom. This is more than platitudes and needs to begin with respectful, curious, and challenging conversations

We need to be honest about what works. We have evidence that ‘implicit bias’ training doesn’t show always a lasting impact on people’s behaviors.

For some, the experiences of progressing within a large organization can be challenging. As a result, I often hear competent people choosing to opt out/go it alone and start their own business. This is not because they lack leadership skills but because they can’t find a way that works for them to progress in the system. Or the system doesn’t create flexibility in the way they work best. Their experience is of hitting their head on a very low glass ceiling.

Prejudice about their skills because of how others perceive a diagnostic label can also have real lasting damage to confidence too. (You may want to read Craig’s story when he told others he had ADHD!)

Sharing with others that you are neurodivergent too early in your career if an organization is not ready in terms of awareness and appropriate responses can be risky if you want to progress. Not all organizations deliver the support to allow growth to happen even if they proclaim to do so. Some people as a result spend their work-life masking and following a set of social rules that feel uncomfortable and unnatural to follow (also called code-switching) and for their organization not seeing their complete self.

“Code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Committed to sustainable change

We need the leaders of today to genuinely see neurodiverse teams as a positive gain for their organization. But we need to be realistic that not everyone will be ready or want this.

The backlash of putting in place neurodiversity initiatives can range from eye-rolling in a training session with some people wondering that we are ‘getting soft’ giving some people “special/additional treatment”. Others may make micro-aggressive comments, and mask this as humour.

I am passionate about campaigning for neurodiversity. Not everyone is. Sometimes I need to consider, why a person may react negatively to an awareness campaign. This is called “reactance”, This term is used to describe the uncomfortable feelings, and subsequent negative reactions, that may arise when someone feels (correctly or incorrectly) that their free will/choices are somehow being curbed. For example, someone might react negatively to mandatory attendance at a Neurodiversity initiative especially if they feel that they feel that they are losing autonomy (and have better things to do!).

When people feel threatened by challenging the status quo they may show other emotions including ‘fragility’. This relates to the negative reactions (anger, fear, and guilt) and behaviors (arguing, deliberate silence, or exiting the conversation) we see when confronted with issues of discrimination or privilege. This may be a boardroom behaviour when new people come onto a board with very different styles of working and communicating.

Change comes from accountability.

“Most people take the norms and values within their own professions, organizations, or industries for granted, sharing largely unquestioned assumptions that can thwart communication across boundaries ”

said Amy Edmondson

Moving on from awareness days (which can be a great starting point to stimulate discussion) to creating change in behaviors and attitudes takes time to be ‘Business As Usual’ and not this year’s thing!

Even when we are trying to do the right thing messaging can sometimes lead to the wrong responses ironically. Research has shown for example that “organizations that include organizational-diversity messages in job descriptions aren’t necessarily better at recruiting a diverse pool of employees or less likely discriminate against them.”

The answers are not simple for the changes to be made.

Change happens when people see the value of a diverse group of people with different ideas and solutions coming together and creating benefits for the whole organization.

We need:

  • More leaders standing up and telling their stories today. Which can be a real indicator that the organization is wanting to be inclusive.
  • Processes and practices that provide a true means for a wide range of people to have the same opportunities to grow and extend their talent to create a pipeline for tomorrow.
  • To have uncomfortable conversations and try out and see what works, and consider the meaningful measures of success.
  • To listen to honest feedback and not select whom we want to hear from.

Whom do we need around the boardroom?

  • Entrepreneurial leaders – considers ideas from within and out of the organization to allow for dynamic change and growth
  • Sense-making /communicators leaders – brings the board together and ensures there is an understanding between members of the board. This is your chairperson.
  • Architecting leaders – to establish and maintain an organization’s balance between focus and freedom of activities.

I am also adding 2 other types of leaders for boardrooms…

  • Compassionate leaders – Experiencing compassion at work connects co-workers psychologically. This results in a stronger bond between them (Frost et al. 2000). Compassion breeds compassion. (Goetz et al. 2010). Acting to help others has a positive effect on that person and helps provide emotional resources that they need to care for their clients (Lilius et al. 2011). ??
  • Leaders with digital know-how – Digital technology remains a priority for many BoDs. Not only are boards focusing on greater levels of technology integration, but they are also creating more enduring and systemic digital economic architecture. The survey found that 64% of BoDs have attempted to alter their enterprise economic structure to a more digital economic architecture.✍?


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‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.' - James Baldwin

Barriers to change in the boardroom starts with:

  • Command and control approaches – will not work in the future – we need ‘distributed leadership’- board chairs need to be facilitators, not commanders allowing teaming and re-teaming to happen.
  • Low turnover – people don’t move on a regular basis… and everyone around the table has got there through similar routes. We need to ensure regular changes to the boardroom.
  • Inertia – we engage people in the boardroom using the same processes that may often exclude neurodivergent talent by the way meetings happen-the processes, the place it is held, and the way people communicate with each other. Nearly half (49%) of the FTSE boards now have a background in accountancy or finance, whereas 20 years ago this number was less than 38% of FTSE 350 directors. Some might see greater representation of finance in the boardroom positively, but we should be clear that this reduces the diversity of business-relevant perspectives in board discussions.

If you keep sourcing your fish from the same pond you will attract the same type of fish!

  • A lack of a talent pool -how can we have neurodivergent leaders if we don’t create a talent pipeline and help them to enter/challenge the status quo? Hiring programs at the bases of businesses are not enough to make a long-term shift. Many people who could grow in larger organizations leave early on because they can’t find a comfortable place for themselves and they start/work in smaller businesses. Could we be learning from them in larger scale organizations and/or could we be making organizational environments more conducive for growth?

Creating the ‘neu’ boardroom

Today in order to be relevant, we need more than ever to adapt, augment and change the boardroom to maintain relevance and influence in the modern world. We need people who think differently and do differently. The chair of tomorrow will need a variety of skills that may be different from today to navigate the changes and enable ideas to flow and manage risks.

James Baldwin: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

??Share your stories of success (and failure) so we can learn together.✊?

What Next?

Want to take the first step to making your boardrooms and c-suites Neuro-inclusive? Check out our new and improved e-learning courses delivered by the international specialist Professor Amanda Kirby.

Training packages built for your organisations needs with online accessible courses which can be accessed from anwhere and completed at a pace that suits each individual. With e-learning courses for all employees and advanced practitioner courses for HR, ED&I Managers.

What’s more if 15% of your organisation compelte the Embracing Neurodiversity couse you can gain the Neurodiversity Friendly award. A precentage of profits also go to the ADHD Foundation.

Click here to find out more, and to start your journey to becoming a Neuro-inclusive organisation today!

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