There’s more to inclusivity than we think

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Pursuing skillsets rather than personality could help boost diversity.

I’ve considered myself a champion of inclusivity for a long time. I’ve always been an advocate of surrounding myself with people with completely different skills and attributes than I have, because, hopefully, when you bring us all together, we are more than the sum of our parts. 

But I’ve recently understood that I’ve had a narrower viewpoint on what diversity is than I had realised. I was focused on age, gender, ethnicity and educational background and other standard demographics. In fact, it wasn’t until more recently in my career that I’ve recognised levels of neurodiversity, and how that can change a team dynamic and problem-solving capability. So, over time, I’ve reflected on that. 

A woman I worked with who held a role that required a high level of attention to detail was highly respected for the job she did. She had been in the business for many years, and in fact she left, and the company asked her to come back because we couldn’t find anyone who was as good as she was.  

On her return, she told me that in her time away, she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. She must have been in her late 50s or early 60s and had known all her life that she thought differently to others, and as a result, she had been happy to label herself as ‘odd’. 

Knowledge sets you free 

In getting the diagnosis, she was given access to all sorts of support, which allowed her to make it an advantage. In fact, she told me she could see the skills she has that others simply don’t. It gave her so much confidence to realise she wasn’t odd, and that it’s just a different mindset. Imagine how different her career and personal life could have been if she’d been armed with that knowledge or her employer had spotted it 20 or 30 years earlier. 

More recently, while speaking about talent on an IFAC panel, one attendee bravely shared that they had actually left several employments because they could never find somewhere that ‘they fit’. The turning point for them was they found a company that in their words, recognised their strengths, not weaknesses. They concentrated on the attributes they brought and how they could be deployed, and that became part of the culture. 

After all, as a natural introvert who often has to be extroverted for my role, I’m well aware that adopting opposite traits is tiring. I’ve always wanted to be around people who are very detail- and process-driven, because while I can do it, that’s not my natural preference and it’s exhausting. Being around people who are energised and motivated by that is fabulous and allows me to add value in different ways.  

“As a natural introvert who often has to be extroverted for my role, adopting opposite traits is tiring.” 

Wider understanding 

We need to see this happen more widely in the profession. I used to compare myself to colleagues all the time, and wished I was as good with figures as our finance director, or as good at policy as the head of public affairs, rather than have pride in my own abilities, and it was a turning point when we all realised why we made such a good team. 

If you’re really doing skills-based and behavioural-based assessment, you should be looking for the positives all the time. In terms of gender or ethnicity parity, for example, there is still some distance to go, but people are well aware of the value it brings.  

The success measure with all of this is that we are no longer talking about it because it’s naturally embedded. Employers need to change the way they think, so it’s not ticking diversity boxes, and instead looking for someone with a particular skillset because you don’t currently have it on your team. 

Sarah Beale is AAT Chief Executive.

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