Some time back, in a different decade, I was working at a company that had a very strict dress code. You might remember the time, the blue suit, white shirt, blue tie, black shoes, short cut hair and clean-shaven face.
But there was no mention of socks.
So I set about making a point of wearing the most colourful outlandish socks, the focus of my rebellion. I had purchased several different pairs at one time and just simply grabbed them out of the washing basket once clean, however they came.
With my need to push back against rules satisfied and largely ignored, the socks grew more distinctive over time and a reputation formed. However, it was not the one I had expected.
At one point office prizes consisting of socks were given out but unlike others, my gift included two pairs of different colours. "Because you always wear odd socks" I was told.
To which I replied "what do you mean?" pointing at my feet the team member said, “You have a red and a green one on right now”. "Why is that odd?" I questioned, “Because they're not the same” I was informed.
"But that’s not unusual, I have another pair exactly the same at home!"
It was then that I realised that something was different. But wonderfully different.
From an early age, I have always thrived on variety. I was fascinated by everything and wanted nothing more than to just keep discovering. As a child, this was acceptable and seen as the fickleness of youth.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I was diagnosed with High-functioning Autism, ADHD and Opposition Defiance Disorder, and I often make jokes about the fact that my non-neurotypical makeup makes me incapable of staying on one track or following 'normal rules'.
Part of my neuro makeup means I have two modes, scattered or hyper-focused. My mind never had a ‘train of thought’, but an ‘electrical storm’. Sometimes, this is noisy but can lead to capturing sudden flashes of insight between lightning-strikes.
I tried to figure out what autism might explain in my own life, including some of its negative aspects. I’ve had a long experience of depression, anxiety and ODD. Had they arisen directly from a glitchy abnormal brain? Had they come about as a response to the adverse life experiences that accompany any difference, or might hypothetical non-autistic me have had them, too? And what about the more positive aspects? Would non-autistic me ever have had the focus or determination to persevere in the sometimes isolating, all-consuming business of IT?
Part of coming to understand my autism was how it affected my work performance and colleagues. What was clear early was how it gave me a razer focus on the type of organisation I wanted to work for.
I want to work for an organisation where the purpose is greater than profit, where what I do matters, for the employees, the customers, the community and stakeholders.
I want ethics to be part of the discussion, not just lip service, where values are lived and the pursuit of doing the right thing trumps the pursuit of a metric.
I believe that people are the real assets of any organisation and they need to be respected and rewarded. For this to be possible, however, organisations need a loosely coupled structure, where creative chaos can live in one space and structured process in another, to pursue and achieve outcomes.
Does Workplace Diversity include Autism?
There has been much dialogue about workplace diversity over the last ten years. I don't believe we are doing enough. Yes, diversity is about providing inclusive workspaces that welcome people from all cultures, genders, disabilities, sexual orientation and belief systems and we still have a long way to go. However, it is also about including people with developmental disorders that are not to be confused with mental illness.
Developmental disorders like autism differ from mental illness in several important ways. Developmental disorders generally appear at birth or during childhood and are diagnosed by the age of 18. While mental illness doesn’t typically interfere with cognitive abilities, a developmental disorder may impact a person’s ability to learn or to understand certain thoughts. Unlike mental illness, which can be successfully treated, developmental disorders are lifelong disabilities.
Recently Microsoft announced its intention to hire more autistic people, not as a charitable enterprise but because, as corporate vice-president, Mary Ellen Smith said: "People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft." Employing autistic people makes good business sense.
Society’s understanding of autism is improving, but there’s still much to be done. According to a 2019 survey, only 15% of autistic adults in Australia are in full-time paid employment, compared to 31% for other disabilities.
Microsoft’s announcement and others like it helps, but employers need to be better educated about the value autistic employees can bring. Businesses need to know about potential difficulties that autistic employees might experience, the simple adjustments that can accommodate them and the wide range of skills and interests that they can bring to the workplace
Studies of attention and perception among people with autism reveal that those with the condition see the world differently. In tasks that require you to find a target hidden among other elements, autistic people are faster and more accurate. They are also better at noticing both expected and unexpected things in their visual field. Autistic people also show excellent pattern recognition, a superior ability to identify and remember sounds and are much more likely to have perfect pitch.
For me, the ability to see things differently lead me to seek an understanding of exactly how my brain functions in order to channel it and maximise it efficiently. This journey concluded that I see the world as a series of systems within a much broader and related system.
The System of Systems
Many today agree that software-intensive systems are ubiquitous. We have software embedded in our automobiles, household appliances, and even computers and sensors on our bicycles to tell us how far we have gone and our average speed. It is also easy to see, once one understands the concept of SoS, that SoSs can also be found everywhere.
Just looking within our homes we can see home security systems that are linked to the security companies as well as to our smartphones. Besides, we can turn our homes into "smart homes" by integrating our home security systems, air conditioning and power systems, fire alarm systems, and communications systems to automatically respond to problem situations.
Most business enterprises contain one or more SoSs. For example, most businesses have integrated many of their back-office systems such as employee systems, payroll systems, and accounting systems. Besides, they may also have an integrated set of customer-facing systems such as order-entry, pricing systems, billing, service monitoring, inventory management, and customer help.
However, I see the enterprise as a system of systems where the use of architecture frameworks, service design, Drucker style management and servant leadership are fused to create purposeful change and transformation at micro to macro level.
This natural compartmentalising my brain does, has served me well when it comes to breaking down problems into workable 'fixing' areas that have a linear progression that is time-efficient.
My understanding of the SoS is also holistic and includes all aspects of the workplace.
The Concoction of New Solutions
Living in a culture that values speciality, unless you work in start-ups or small populations, chances are you are hired to ‘work your lane’ and not get involved in any other functions. Throughout my career, this became a key source of unhappiness.
Thinking about problems in my role through the lens of different skills or disciplines led to the synthesis of ideas, the concoction of new solutions, and learning to translate between modes of thought.
I recreated my roles, incorporating learnings to improve capability, finding efficiencies and training or mentoring people to take over. Whilst I've simplified these actions, they taught me new skills, namely to be able to engage and empathise with a broader set of people, which ultimately led to a deeper understanding the essential role good leadership has in success.
Finding a passion for developing the people around me, I try to ‘pay-it-forward’. I’ve been the architect of global learning programmes, staff development and progression plans and a coach to over a hundred people, and that’s been enormously rewarding.
Culture is Strategy & Trust
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, (and moves onto other initiatives for lunch.)
Ever since Peter Drucker made that remark it’s been ‘common sense’ and truth known in any discussion on organisational change.
A healthy culture and a sound business strategy are not separated. Just as with any organisational transformation, if an institution does not have a strong culture, it won't be able to effectively execute any strategy sustainably. At the same time, if an institution doesn't have the focus and direction of a strategy, the (desired) culture won't survive. When it comes down to it, people always make the difference.
Your institutional journey demands an understanding that culture is strategy and is embodied through key messages such as ”if you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients” and in the principles of many of the digital era methods such as ”individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”
After all, a company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people interact and work. Corporate culture means different things to different people. It is emotional, ever-changing, and complex. Culture is vulnerable, but most of all, culture is human.
Digital business has a different culture and mindset than a traditional business. Digital Leaders are required to manage the culture and mindset which will incorporate helping set the pace of business, enable distributed decision-making and set flexible, distributed workplaces - all of which are seen as the biggest differences between digital and traditional businesses.
The key traits of effective Digital Leadership within these institutions are all about enabling the digital operational model, providing vision and purpose, creating conditions to experiment, empowering people to think differently, and getting people to collaborate across boundaries.
Most people think that trust is “nice to have” in business – that it’s a soft, social virtue. Everyone is in favour of trust, but they don’t see it as a factor that truly affects business results
There is an economy to trust. It has a value.
The reality is that trust is a hard-edged economic driver because it always affects speed and cost, and you can measure it. Trust influences speed and cost. In any business relationship, when trust is diminished, speed goes down and cost goes up. The opposite is also true. High trust equals a rise in speed and a decline in cost.
This concept is simple, real, predictable, and highly measurable.
I'm positive about the future of business. I know that's not a popular position right now but it's important to remember that all problems have a solution, it’s just about finding which system within the system is not functioning correctly.
One of the greatest advantages of a strong organisational culture is that it has the power to turn employees into advocates.
Your people want more than a steady paycheck and good benefits; they want to feel like what they do matters. And when your people feel like they matter, they’re more likely to become culture advocates, that is, people who not only contribute to your organisation’s culture but also promote it and live it internally and externally.
For me I have a simple aim, I want my next career move to be a place where I can make things better, to achieve outcomes, to improve the world, to help the people I work and interact with.
To know that I worked on something that made someone’s life better, to feel pride in an impact, that I did something of value beyond my pay packet and the share price.
Oh, and yes, I'd like to wear colourful odd socks too if that's ok.