Why business leaders should hire from these two diverse talent pools

Neurodiversity and veteran hiring initiatives and partnerships can truly diversify recruitment and introduce powerful skillsets to organisations.

Business leader leads strategic discussion with employees.

“Our world is changing too rapidly, and a new generation of leaders is going to have to lead this change”: Professor Nick Wailes, UNSW Business School. Photo: Shutterstock

To successfully lead an organisation, business leaders need access to a wide range of perspectives. 

How organisations can create inclusive opportunities and contribute to a more progressive society is discussed in The Business Of… Inclusive Leadership podcast, the fifth episode of the AGSM @ UNSW Business School Leadership Podcast series hosted by Emma Lo Russo, CEO of Digivizer.

Belinda Sheehan, Senior Managing Consultant and Manager of the Neurodiversity Program at IBM, and Quentin Masson, CEO at Wandering Warriors – a national veteran's charity – join Nick Wailes, Director of AGSM and Deputy Dean at UNSW Business School.

They discuss diversity and inclusion from the perspective of leaders who are creating new inclusive business models to reflect the evolving market demand.

Neurodiversity: A competitive advantage

Recent changes at IBM mean neurological differences – such as autism, dyslexia, or ADHD – are now recognised and respected as any other human variation, says Ms Sheehan.

“Some of the characteristics that neurodivergent people are known for is attention to detail, unique problem-solving, thinking outside the box, dedication and huge focus … we see all of those things. 

“We've got people in automation coming up with unique ideas to solve the problems that our clients are facing,” she says.

Ms Sheehan has been running the global program since 2016, and in Australia since 2018.

To run this program, IBM partnered with Specialisterne Australia – a third-party dedicated to help source, assist and ongoing support of autistic people into the workforce. 

And many of IBM's new hires from the program are in roles such as SAP developer, blockchain developer, cloud engineer, testers and automation specialists.

A young woman smiling confidently during job interview.

“We need to think differently; organisations need to start looking at the way they hire, see if they can change the model they have”: Belinda Sheehan, Manager of the Neurodiversity program at IBM. Photo: Shutterstock

One in every 50 in the population is neurodivergent, yet the unemployment rate can be as high as 70 per cent for neurodivergent people, says Ms Sheehan. 

“So we've got this vast untapped talent pool. IBM's all about hiring based on aptitude and knowledge,” she says. 

And there are certainly benefits to having a neurodivergent workforce.

IBM's neurodiversity workers are delivering “excellent work to clients and internal managers” who are “starting to think differently about how I get the most out of each individual”, says Ms Sheehan. 

For organisations that are interested in inclusive initiatives, Ms Sheehan suggests partnering with a professional organisation like Specialisterne Australia to help with tailored advice and tackling some of the challenges that may arise. 

For example, managers may need to think differently about the interview process for recruits. 

Veterans offer highly sought after skills

Veterans can also bring immense value to corporate life – specifically, military personnel can diversify hiring efforts and introduce powerful skillsets to organisations, says Mr Masson.

“There's a lot of knowledge, skills and expertise that the military provides throughout their career, and it's challenging in some cases to try and capture that, understand it, and translate that into an environment with a new language in business (or whatever field of endeavour that that veteran chooses to transition to),” says Mr Masson.

Operational management and leadership skills are some of the qualities veterans are selected to enter the military in the first place, he says.

And many of the skills necessary require relatively high selection criteria.

Emoloyee in deep thought examines whiteboard.

Neurodiverse talent brings significant benefits to the workplace such as great attention to detail, unique problem-solving, thinking outside the box, dedication and focus. Photo: Shutterstock

“But if you think about it, the military operates internationally, with some of the most technically advanced capabilities and platforms that are in the world ... typically that technology transfers at a later point ... into the commercial sector or corporate society internationally,” says Mr Masson.

So this is a potential worker who is a well-trained, highly disciplined person, with typically good leadership skills, excellent understanding of working in teams, and how to work in small groups right through to sizeable dynamic task forces.

On top of that, they know how to work well under pressure. 

How to be a 'new generation' inclusive leader

UNSW Business School's Prof. Wailes says leaders should adopt a more inclusive mindset and unlock new perspectives and a richness of ideas within their organisations, because there's hardly an industry or a sector that is not going to have to do things differently in the future.

“What made us successful in the past is not going to be enough to make us successful in the future.

“Our world is changing too rapidly, and a new generation of leaders is going to have to lead this change – they're going to have to innovate and think of new ways of doing things,” he says.

So how can leaders unlock this potential and utilise it as the resource that it is?

“Firstly, I think leaders need to know themselves … they need to understand their own biases, and there's a lot of work being done on unconscious bias,” says Prof. Wailes.

The second step is to create opportunities.

“Lots of organisations, in their progression and their promotion paths, reward a certain type of person or create certain types of outcomes. 

“Diversifying that and ensuring that there are lots of opportunities for people from different backgrounds to get into leadership and important roles is important,” he says.

Finally, leaders should ensure they recruit broadly to bring in different perspectives.

“There's been some emphasis on gender equality and there has been some improvement there, but many organisations haven't done a great job [of bringing in] culturally or linguistically diverse people from those different backgrounds,” says Prof. Wailes.

“So, you need to consciously bring diverse people into the organisation and give them leadership roles.

“But we all know that just bringing different people together is not enough. You've got to work quite hard at unlocking that connection between them and getting those people to feel comfortable and included in working together.”

For the full story How IBM and Wandering Warriors became inclusive leaders, please visit the BusinessThink website. A recording of the podcast The Business Of… Inclusive Leadership and other podcasts in the series are available online.