The concept of diversity is well understood in most businesses, as is the negative impact of having leadership teams made up of people who are homogenous in their backgrounds, beliefs and cultures. Research has shown, for example, that greater diversity in start-ups is equated with greater likelihood of success.
However, there is one form of diversity that is little known, understood or researched, and that is neurodiversity: brains that work differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. Differences ranging from being on the autism spectrum to having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have usually been regarded as disabilities in the workplace.
But that is changing, and it is starting at one of the biggest companies in the world: Amazon.com. The organisation’s chief security officer, Steve Schmidt, startled the audience at last year’s Amazon Web Services’ annual Re:Inforce conference, when he gave a keynote address in a t-shirt emblazoned with the message: “ADHD: it’s not a disability, it’s a different ability.”
This year, he returned to Re:inforce for a comparatively low-key session, a “fireside chat” on “neuroinclusive leadership”. He described his own journey and his discovery that his brain functioned differently to most of those around him. Most significantly, he focused on the tremendous advantage it had given him, in one of the world’s biggest cybersecurity jobs.
“The most important thing for me was the self-realisation that the differences that I had in the way my brain functions are not something to be ashamed of but, but quite the contrary, something that I was really proud of,” he told a small audience. “That really came to light during situations where I’m able to do multiple things at the same time and other people are not. For a lot of people, that’s a nice-to-have. In my particular job, It’s a got-to-have.
“When you look at our business and the security associated with it, that’s everything from aircraft to spacecraft to boxes that it ships, to tons of customer data around the world. It all takes different attention, different decisions, different analysis. The security world is something that we would love to think that we control and that we drive but, in reality, we’re often driven by outside input. So it’s necessary to be able to say, I’m having a conversation here, but at the same time I need to keep an eye on what’s going on over there, because the bad guys are always up to something.
“And that allowed me to say that (ADHD) is something that can be really helpful in a discussion about how we identify people with the right training and the right kinds of skills to fill the gaps that we have, and enables us to use that as a selection criteria for when we want to go find somebody and hire differently.”
A former firefighter and FBI agent, Schmidt pointed to research conducted by the CIA in the 1960s and repeated in the early 2000s on the process of intelligence analysis. It was found that having an overly homogenous analytics team was detrimental to the US intelligence system, because it meant they failed to understand that their adversaries were diverse.
As a result, when the same set of decision-making criteria, experiences and common behaviours were used as a lenses to understand the adversary, they got it wrong.
“So, it’s that process of understanding that there are lots of different kinds of inputs, lots of different kinds of thought processes, lots of different kinds of people. We have to use that same set of differences for our advantage, in figuring out what our (cybersecurity) adversaries are going to do.
“One of the components that we look for is people who can do things that nobody else can. And that takes a lot of different ways of thinking.”
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Threads on @art2gee