Neurodiversity: Everywhere, but hidden in the higher ranks

Charlotte Valeur explores the strengths and challenges of being cognitively different, in conversation with the LBS Leadership Institute.


Charlotte Valeur is a Non-Executive Director and FTSE Chair whose board-level experience spans a host of sectors and industries and covers IPOs, mergers and acquisitions and restructuring. She is a recognised international authority in corporate governance and leadership, and co-author of Effective Directors (Questions to Ask). In 2020, Charlotte was diagnosed with autism. In 2021, she made this diagnosis public and went on to found the Institute of Neurodiversity. Her goal in doing so is to “help unlock the talents and strengths of all neurodiverse individuals.”

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS

“As opposed to everybody trying to fit in, we are understanding that we are not all the same.”

She sat down with Vyla Rollins, Executive Director, London Business School Leadership Institute, Randall S Peterson, founding director of the London Business School Leadership Institute and Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and Melanie Frances, Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. Together they explored some of the critical questions surrounding neurodiversity and challenges (and advantages) that face people who are cognitively different.



What is neurodiversity and why are we talking about it more?

For Valeur, neurodiversity is an umbrella term that describes a host of “natural neurotypical variations within the human species.” She sees it as a broad circle of difference that could in fact include the neurologically normative: “it’s all normal, we just come in different shapes and sizes.” It’s a view that aligns with the work of Australian psychologist and sociologist, Judy Singer, in the late 20th century, who sought to redefine conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and others: rather than pathologies, these are “variations” within normal human activity. Singer’s work generated enough noise to become something much broader, says Valuer. “At the same time, the world culture of individualism is growing. Now, as opposed to everybody trying to fit in, we are understanding that we are not all the same. And it’s OK to be different. This feels like the last frontier of those social movements in the space of diversity – though you never know.”

Singer’s work emerges from more than a century of medical research, says Frances, that has significantly accelerated our understanding of neuro differences, and their ties to genetic makeup. The result is that adults are increasingly being diagnosed, as well as children.

Interestingly, new evidence suggests that people who are neurologically divergent typically have more than one cognitive divergence, says Valeur. “When you look at autistic people, something like 70% also have ADHD, so it’s very co-mingled. It’s actually very rare for a person to just have one neurodivergence, there’s generally more in it. So the challenge is: which one do you relate to if people ask you to disclose what you have. Which one do you mention? Or do you just mention all of them? This is where the term neurodiversity is very helpful.”

Labelling itself, of course, can be problematic. Valeur welcomes the more individualised approach of academic, physician and campaigner, Amanda Kirby, who talks about the “spiky profiles” of neurodivergent people; the cognitive spikes that relate to autism, ADHD or whatever the condition and that translate into certain strengths, as well as weaknesses.


What is it like to be “diagnosed?”

Among the emotions are feelings of guilt towards your children, says Valeur, and fear about the future. “My own biases around autism were that it was something wrong; that something was wrong with me.” On top of that, she says there’s concern about discrimination and being reduced to “an autistic person,” despite her 35 years of professional success. Then there was the issue of disclosure.

“There is a very fundamental human desire to belong. And to belong we need to feel connected and find points of similarity to those around us”

“The whole theme of disclosure is a really big topic because it’s so big for everyone. It should be easy for people to talk about their neurodiversity without fear of being discriminated against. Unfortunately that’s not where we are. When I went public I had many directors writing to me saying: I’m autistic too but I would never dare say so publicly. I go into companies and teams and I’ll say: I can guarantee you that 20% of the people here are neurodivergent. You might not talk about it but I know you’re there. And people start twitching on their chairs a bit. But it’s a fact. We are everywhere. But in the higher ranks we’re hidden. And it’s because we’re scared.

Peterson agrees. “There is a very fundamental human desire to belong. And to belong we need to feel connected and find points of similarity to those around us. Being different from the norm for many years has been perceived as somehow “bad” – but not because it’s actually bad; it’s just different.” The work being done, the broadening of the conversation around diversity is both timely and welcome, he says. And there are encouraging signals emerging from his research with Rollins into boardroom effectiveness: “The people we have spoken to in boardrooms for our research are surprisingly aware of diversity and interested in seeking it out really broadly…There’s an understanding that some of these neuro-diversities have great positives as well… These are differences that actually reflect some positive capabilities and insights that most people will not have.”



What skills or positive differences can neuro-divergent people bring?

Frances cites an aphorism: Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Over-focusing on specifics or traits is to miss the richness of diversity across the spectrum of neurological difference itself. “It’s about trying to be broad with our understanding but really individualising the cognitive diversity.” That said, there are certain skills or abilities that Valeur has spotted within herself that differentiate her from others. One is pattern recognition.

“At the LBS Sloan Masters class, I and others were asked to look at a chessboard for five seconds and recall what we’d seen. Mine was the highest score by a margin. The lecturer called me an “outlier,’” she laughed. “But I definitely see pattern recognition as something I use in my work as well, bringing patterns together. And when you speak to neurodivergent people, we often speak in patterns as it seems to be the way the brain is structured.”

Another is risk management. “When I look at risk and weigh the probability and impact of something happening, I tend to have 10 or more different impacts of varying severity, where most board members have three to five. So it’s clear that somehow I’m able to see more potential impact – more potential risk – but also more potential opportunity.”

This can cause frustration in the boardroom however, if colleagues are not “open-minded” or willing enough to see that individuals look at things differently – and that this can be a strength.


So how do we get the best out of neurodiversity, while minimising frustration?

From her own perspective, Valeur points to certain obstacles such as the use of sarcasm or irony which she simply “doesn’t get,” to a pervasive lack of clarity in communication. In her tenure she has had to hire and fire individuals, and something she’s found consistently appreciated by her colleagues is her absolute clarity – and kindness – in explaining her decisions and actions. “People do tell micro lies during the course of any day, but being clear and direct – in a kind way, with kindness and respect for the person – seems to have worked well for me. With kindness you can deliver almost anything. Clarity is really important: say it like it is.”

“Everything important in life comes with an instruction manual, says Randall, except people.”

Neurodivergent people also typically have highly logical minds. While this is a strength, it can also make it harder to navigate the “hidden rules” of the workplace, she notes. Going the extra mile on a job, giving that little bit of discretionary effort is not immediately obvious to someone with autism for instance. “I spoke to a coaching company recently who coached young executives on the unwritten rules in the workplace which could be super-helpful for neurodivergent people. Tips like do more than you’re supposed to and you may be spotted sooner for promotion. If we’re asked to do a specific task, we’ll do and probably quite well, but going outside of it might be seen as wrong because it’s not what we were asked for. So it needs to be clearer to people like us.”

There are things that individuals might want to do also, to facilitate collaboration with others. Everything important in life comes with an instruction manual, says Randall, except people. In his research, his work with boards and his teaching, he has found that there is a lot to be gained by sharing clues on how others might get the best from you. “Something that you can do is think about what your own instruction manual might be and how people can get the best from working with you. Even if you never share it, it’s self-awareness to do it. Because the exercise in itself really helps you understand how you are coming across to the people around you.”

Valeur agrees: “I had a late diagnosis at 52, which meant I had to look at myself all over again and reevaluate how I handle different situations. Now I had an extra dimension to my self-knowledge. I think that another thing is about maintaining curiosity about the person in front of you and those around you. Everyone in front of you will always know something that you don’t know, even if it’s a child.”


Stay curious, and aware

Frances echoes Valeur’s point about curiosity: “Curiosity will help us learn more about neurodiversity. If more people like Charlotte share their diagnosis and their own strengths and challenges there’s a challenge to think about what support systems or resources you can provide to help that person really thrive on your board or in your team. Building awareness is also key. Whether it's having an awareness-building conversation or going away and finding out what neurodiversity really means.”

Disclosure, albeit difficult, is key here, says Peterson. He would encourage neurodiverse individuals to follow Valeur’s example and embrace disclosure; and to be careful not to “self-exclude” as a result.

“There’s a strong sense of public shame associated with difference, that can lead people to want to hide or not show their face, and that’s what we need to change. The more that people make their disclosures, the more they open up the door for others to follow suit. At the same time, there’s a need for all of us to learn more about this so that we can address the cycle of shame and embrace the positive for what it is.”