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Meike Bliebenicht, Neurodiversity Campaigner | 2020 Leader of Diversity Initiative of the Year | 2019 Role Model of the Year

In this article Meike Bliebenicht, Workstream Lead, Neurodiversity at the Diversity Project – Investment Industry explores the lack of neurodiverse representation on corporate boards and why this needs to change.

Meike has been working in the financial industry for almost 20 years, mainly in product, distribution, and portfolio management roles at HSBC and, prior to that, J.P. Morgan.

In 2016, the UK investment industry launched ‘The Diversity Project’, an initiative supported by 80 City firms to improve diversity and inclusion. Meike led the project’s neurodiversity workstream, focusing on unlocking the amazing potential that divergent thinkers can bring to the table.

The objective of appointing a well-diversified board is to look at issues from different backgrounds and perspectives and scrutinise performance impartially. Ensuring neurodiversity on boards can make an important contribution to achieving this goal.

It is well known that diverse teams typically outperform homogenous ones. This holds for teams of every level of seniority, including boards. To date, however, most recruitment initiatives to boost board diversity seem to have neglected an aspect with huge potential to increase cognitive diversity and reduce groupthink: neurological diversity, or neurodiversity.

Appointing neurodivergent individuals to boards can add immense value

Neurodivergent brains literally think differently. We can scientifically demonstrate this, for example through neuroimaging techniques. The differences in brain ‘wiring’ provide a substantial boost to cognitive diversity, enhancing critical thinking skills, creative problem solving and risk management.

At the board level, these skills are particularly valuable when appointing non-executive directors (NED). According to the Institute of Directors, a non-executive director’s role is “to provide a creative contribution to the board by providing independent oversight and constructive challenge to the executive members of the board”. The good news is that neurodivergent individuals will not even have to go through extensive NED training to adopt these skills. Neither will they need to have held a variety of board roles to train them up. They have had a life-long practice of these skills already and will be able to apply them from day 1 on. It is how their brains are wired.

Neurodiversity is often overlooked for board appointments

A quick online search did not provide any sensible results for ‘board’ and ‘neurodiversity’, or ‘NED’ and ‘neurodiversity’. While understanding of the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce has increased over the last few years, has the importance of neurodiversity so far been overlooked for board appointments? What has been going wrong?

The lack of senior role models could be one of the reasons. In the tech sector, there are many senior leaders who are proudly neurodivergent, but in other industries leaders seem more reluctant to disclose. Does neurodiversity not play a bigger role in discussions about board diversity because a precedent has not yet been set? Are we simply not sufficiently aware of what we are missing out on?

Another reason could be that our standard recruitment processes are tailored to neurotypical brains and do not work particularly well for individuals who think differently. For example, open questions like “What brings you here today?” and rapid-fire question techniques can pose a challenge. So even if there were neurodivergent applicants for NED roles, the likelihood of them failing at the interview stage is higher than for other candidates.

The additional benefit of a neurodiverse board

Appointing neurodivergent NEDs has another advantage. It sets a positive example for neurodivergent employees. Between 15-20% of the UK population are estimated to be neurodivergent, but only a very small percentage decide to disclose to their employers, often in fear of negative consequences to their careers.

Neurodiversity can make a tremendous contribution to the diversity of thought, but only when the environment is inclusive enough for neurodivergent colleagues to feel sufficiently confident to apply their different thinking skills. When this is not the case, neurodivergent employees feel forced to adjust to neurotypical expectations by masking their different approaches to thinking and working. The opportunity costs for the employer can be immense. Not only is there a loss because otherwise available and often rare skills are not used properly. There also is a waste of productivity by the large group of neurodivergent employees spending a substantial amount of their time and energy on covering up their differences.

Setting a positive example through openly neurodivergent board members will encourage neurodivergent colleagues across the firm to come out and apply their different thinking skills, rather than feeling that they should hide them.

It’s time to act Neurodiversity is the only scientific way of demonstrating the diversity of thought. It is time to include neurodivergent individuals on our boards to ensure we make use of their skills at all levels of seniority.

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In this article Meike Bliebenicht, Workstream Lead, Neurodiversity at the Diversity Project – Investment Industry explores the lack of neurodiverse representation on corporate Boards and why this needs to change.

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