Brian Duffy’s Three Learnings on The Power of Neurodiversity
SAP’s President of Cloud shares his learnings on empowering inclusivity for people on the autism spectrum.
What do you define as “normal” or “good”? Is it only based on yourself or also on how others experience the world around them? Neurodiversity is the perspective that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. So instead of dividing behaviors into normal or abnormal, we look at them as simple variations.
As part of adidas’ internal speaker series InclusiviTea, we had the pleasure to speak to SAP’s Brian Duffy on how his team discovered the power of autism in their workforce.
He recalls when it all started in 2013 with one employee’s experience of raising a child with autism who was about to enter college and eventually the workplace. This one individual experience together with one the board member’s engagement in the Els for Autism Foundation sparked a larger conversation about launching a comprehensive program. Now, eight years later, SAP employs over 180 employees who are on the autism spectrum in various areas of the business.
Over the years, Brian has experienced numerous learnings about the power of autism, here are three that can help you and your business or organization to create a culture of belonging for people on the autism spectrum:
1. Understand unique challenges
Brian recalls when a parent first told him “My child doesn’t have a disability. It’s the world around them that is disabling them.”
Understanding that your workplace and culture might not be built to accommodate people with autism is important to make positive changes.
Ask yourself, how you form opinions about people when you first meet them? Brian says “What I’ve come to learn is people who are on the spectrum are facing various challenges. For some, it’s sensory. This could be the presence of too much light – for instance having a gathering in a big bright room – or wearing certain fabrics. When I met one of the candidates, he wore adidas sweatpants for an interview. This might be appropriate for an interview at adidas but within other organizations, the situation is different.”
Instead of making assumptions or assigning a stereotype to someone who shows up with an attire that is uncommon to your industry, try to learn about the unique obstacles people with autism experience.
2. Embrace everyone's superpowers
“At a gala we hosted, there was a nine-year-old pianist who performed. What he shared resonated with so many of our guests that night. He said autism isn’t a disability for him, it’s his superpower,” Brian recalls. “Sometimes people are extremely gifted in what they do, it just happens that their talent doesn’t look ‘like us’ or manifest ‘like us’.” This means it’s important to redefine what ‘normal’ looks like, and whether that even matter!
“People on the autism spectrum are usually very direct with their communication style. They just tell it like it is, without a filter. For me, this is incredibly refreshing.”
While speaking about the power of neurodiversity is usually people-focused, there is a huge benefit for businesses, teams and organizations when embracing the superpowers of employees or members.
When Brian first asked talents who are part of their Autism at Work Program about how he can add more value to them, they turned around and counted all the opportunities how they can add value to SAP. From the details in dropping a code to entire work processes.
“People on the autism spectrum are usually very direct with their communication style. They just tell it like it is, without a filter. For me, this is incredibly refreshing.” – Brian Duffy
It’s important to judge what’s good or professional not based on the majority but on what it means based on the individual. Because providing a psychological safe environment for everyone to be themselves and bring their uniqueness to their work is critical to encouraging creativity and innovation.
3. Sponsor almost-ready people
Fostering a culture of inclusion also means welcoming people who are not perceived as “the perfect fit”, based on your past standards.
“Sometimes we have a habit of waiting for people to be ready for the job. Instead, we should give people a chance who are almost ready.” Brian says as he remembers someone giving him a chance to step up for a job that he wasn’t fully qualified for yet. “When you’re almost ready it means you give it more energy because you know you have to prove yourself.”
So instead of waiting until you have the perfect person to fill a position, think about giving someone the chance who is almost ready. This happens through both professional sponsoring and mentorship, as well as redefining what’s important for a role. You could find that they were perfect all along.
“Ask yourself whether you are looking only for technical qualifications or whether you want to welcome diversity of opinion, perspective, and cultural awareness,” Brian says.
Do you have experience of embracing neurodiversity in your team or organization? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.