It's time for neurodiverse boards

Neurodiversity has helped shape many successful business leaders

by John Harte
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2022

Today, most directors understand that diversity on boards is no longer a nice to have. It is a critical element that ensures the board has access to a broad range of perspectives, which in turn enables better decision making and results.

With the current challenges and volatility facing organisations, largely exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, having a diverse representation on boards is more important than ever.

The issue is those boards that do take diversity seriously are usually looking at it through the lens of demographics – such as gender splits and minority representation. While such diversity is important, too often the chair and other directors ignore other vital areas where they need to have diversity to be effective.

The five drivers of diversity

For a start, every board should look at their board through the prism of the five drivers of diversity - demographics, skills, experience, thinking styles and circles of influence - and consider how well their current line-up matches up. True board diversity is broader than any one of the five drivers and delivers wider perspectives, improved decision making and outcomes.

When it comes to having diversity of thinking styles on the board it’s cognitive diversity – ‘neurodiversity’ – that should be increasingly recognised as an important asset. It’s because those who are neurodiverse can help generate new and different perspectives that add value. 

What is neurodiversity?

Those who are neurodiverse have a range of differences in brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. It’s a term used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders, including ADHD.

Because of their ability to think differently, the value to boards of having directors who are neurodiverse is huge. They can offer visual thinking, attention to detail, pattern recognition, visual memory and creative thinking that can help illuminate ideas or opportunities others might otherwise have missed.

In fact, those who are neurodiverse can make excellent non-executive directors, because of their ability to provide a creative contribution to the board. They also have a thought process that can highlight areas of risk that might not have been considered, one that enables them to constructively challenge executive members.

Successful entrepreneurs are neurodiverse

It is worth pointing out that dyslexia, autism and ADHD, for example, are shown to be overrepresented among entrepreneurs, a result, perhaps, of their frequent capacity for innovative, visionary thinking and taking risks. Entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and more recently Elon Musk have changed the discussion around neurodiversity by talking proudly of how being neurodiverse has given them a distinct advantage and helped to drive their success.

Unfortunately, neurodiversity is often overlooked when it comes to board appointments because the standard recruitment processes are tailored to neurotypical brains, meaning the board is missing out on talent that can play a vital role in improving decision making and future growth. This needs to change.

How to engender cognitive diversity

A good way to for boards to understand a director’s thought process, and to use as part of the appointment process to help ensure their board has cognitive diversity, is via a measurement tool such as Kolbe. It measures the instinctive way people do things, with the result called your ‘method of operation’. It is the only validated assessment that measures a person’s innate strengths. Once their strengths are understood, it’s possible to see how they can add value and how to maximise their potential.

Having cognitive diversity on boards is the way forward in an age of volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity, when being creative in spotting opportunities for businesses to evolve and grow is more important than ever. Boards that exclude those who have a neurodiverse thought process, and generally don’t take diversity beyond demographics seriously, risk missing out on valuable talent, which could hamper board effectiveness and future business success.

John Harte is the managing partner at Integrity Governance, a company focused on making boards more effective.

Image credit: Chris Madden via Getty Images