Neurodiversity champion Julie Mills, CEO of Support to Win, discusses how ND appeals to the all important profit motive as well as business leaders’ sense of doing what’s right.
Nothing quite matches that feeling of awesome responsibility, knowing there are peoples’ livelihoods and mortgages resting on the decisions you make as a leadership team. It’s what comes to mind wherever I hear people talking about ‘purpose versus profit’. To that I say unashamedly that making money is the primary responsibility for board members and executive leaders. After all, profits fuel growth and stability for thousands in our industry. So where does neurodiversity inclusion fit into the equation? Good question. Such a good question in fact that all businesses should be asking it. Specifically, does ND inclusion in the workplace make business sense? If you did go for it, would it be worth the time and effort?
Raising a son with autism, I can say that ND is personal for me. It’s why I’m so passionate about it and would want to pursue it no matter the cost. But Tamsin, my business partner and Managing Director at STW, doesn’t have that same background. Compassionate, yes. Committed to equality, of course. But not personally invested in dismantling the unfair treatment of neurodiversity like me.
When it came to making the decision, I couldn’t expect her to blindly support the idea of becoming an ND-inclusive workplace. I’m sure other management teams are very similar – some being led by their hearts, others by their heads – and everyone being equally accountable to business priorities.
Get your leadership team onto the same page and you’ll grow to realise what you stand to gain as a business from ND inclusion
There were downsides and risks: It would take time and focus away when we were already rushed off our feet. It would be a leap into the unknown because, frankly, back then we had no idea what it could mean in reality. And we weren’t being compelled to change anything... there are no laws saying we had to do this, nor a groundswell of public opinion making pariahs out of companies that aren’t on the ND bandwagon.
As Tam explains, two things fired her up to make our business a beacon for neurodiversity. “The first was a colleague’s mental health crisis related to his undiagnosed and untreated issues around ADHD,” she said. “The way we had him working made it worse. Seeing the link between ND and mental health was a real eye opener, as was the realisation that we could do something about it.
“The second was finding out that only seven per cent of ND people are in full-time employment. What a waste! But also, what an opportunity! I did my own research and found that comparatively small adjustments to working practices can fully unlock that capability. And when we tried it on a small scale, we saw people going from being unhappy, unmotivated and contributing little, to becoming hugely motivated with far better mental health and knocking it out of the park workwise.”
Get your leadership team onto the same page and you’ll grow to realise what you stand to gain as a business from ND inclusion. For example, being based in the south east, we have found recruitment tough in the past. Now, we’ve massively increased the pool of talent we can potentially bring onboard. Plus, we’re delivering great work, gaining productivity, efficiency, quality and accuracy since we started on our ND journey earlier this year.
It is a fact that neurodiversity brings bottom line benefits. You really can be passionate about righting wrongs and resetting inequalities, while also sticking to your business instincts.
ND and me:
By Georgia Gray, Migrations Specialist, Support to Win
Before joining Support to Win, I had never felt comfortable talking about my autism and ADD at work. Neurodiversity is never openly discussed, and if it is then you get judged for having something wrong with you. Managers generally have no idea how to cope and don’t have the tools to get the best out of you. I found it isolating and exhausting, and it really took a toll on my mental health.
When I joined Support to Win on the 1st of February, my approach was the same, to keep it under wraps. But within a week, we were sat in a meeting and CEO Julie Mills announced that the company would be committing itself to embracing neurodiversity. I burst out crying. The relief was extraordinary. Ever since that first week it’s been such a supportive environment and I’ve been given tools I can use to be as effective as possible.
For example, I often struggle with focus and prioritisation, so we have short regular check-ins. And the big game-changer is my priority squares – a visual tool for agreeing which tasks to focus on next. It’s so helpful. In my role I feel like I’m challenged every day, doing something different, which is great brain training. And it led me to being recognised by my colleagues with a Special Achievement Award. I contrast that with previous jobs where I’ve been pigeon-holed as ‘difficult’, had my opportunities to do new things limited, and ended up being given the same tasks day in day out.
Neurodiversity is not a feared topic to talk about, and we even joke about it at Support to Win. For example, we did a quiz about some of the things people have done to mask their neurodiversity in public, which was very funny. It would be nice if other companies were happy to talk about neurodiversity like this, especially at the interview stage.
It’s been a liberating experience and I’m much happier being open about neurodiversity. In the past, work was very much about worry and just getting through the day without being caught out. Now I can see a longer-term future in a professional career.