When Richard Branson left school aged 16, he struggled with reading, comprehension and dyslexia. His autobiography ‘Screw It, Let’s Do It’ tells the story of a man whose ability to think differently led him to succeed in a world where he didn’t seem to belong. ‘I seemed to think in a different way from my classmates,’ he says. ‘Over the years, my different way of thinking helped me to build the Virgin Group and contributed greatly to our success. My dyslexia guided the way we communicated with customers.’
History is full of inspirational leaders identifiable not by their disability but by a driving belief in their power to change the world – consider for a moment, leaders like Franklin D Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking or former Cisco CEO John Chambers.
The truth is business has some way to go to include disabled people and nurture future leaders like these. The current employment rate for the 1.3 billion disabled people around the world is half of that of non-disabled people. And we don’t have anywhere near enough disabled people in positions of executive leadership in the UK.
According to research released by EY, one in five senior executives with a disability do not feel comfortable admitting that to colleagues. EY also found that more than half of senior executives rarely or never discuss disability on their leadership agenda; it’s still a taboo subject for many of the world’s leading businesses.
The reality is, while 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% are focussed on making offerings inclusive of disability. This highly problematic behaviour I call ‘diversish’. Businesses cannot be truly inclusive if disability is ignored on leadership agendas.
Without competent leaders proactively addressing disability inclusion, encouraging conversations, and taking accountability for driving progress on it in their businesses, nothing will change. When competent business leaders prioritise disability inclusion, they release resources that fund real, tangible, progress.
The business case for diversity and inclusion is rock solid. Firms with the highest levels of diversity at board level have 19% higher revenues than their rivals. The best businesses are waking up to the benefits of neurodiversity in their workforce. They are the firms ready to address the issue head-on. Take Microsoft with its autistic hiring programme. Or Lloyds Banking Group’s work with Remploy to provide a work experience programme for people with disabilities.
In January this year, I stood shoulder to shoulder with global business leaders in Davos to launch the Valuable 500: the global movement I founded to put disability on the business leadership agenda. Leaders such as former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, Barclays Global Head of Consumer Banking & Payments Ashok Vaswani and Fujitsu President and CEO of Europe Duncan Tait, all spoke about the need for businesses to become accountable for disability inclusion.
These companies and business leaders prove that there is no longer an option to cherry-pick on diversity. True diversity cannot side-line disability. We live in an age in which consumers are pressing brands for accountability like never before. It’s no longer good enough for companies to say, ‘disability doesn’t fit with our brand’ or ‘it’s a good idea to explore next year’.
Today, business leaders have a chance to take stock, be inspired by those companies and take action. The Valuable 500 exists to create a critical mass of influence to generate significant progress for disability inclusion; to support leaders to take accountability and make their businesses truly inclusive.
By joining The Valuable 500, leaders make a pledge to put disability inclusion on their board agenda. Members will make a difference by leading the charge in implementing widespread, systematic change, taking a definitive and collective stand on disability inclusion.
Firms that continue to ignore disability will suddenly be under the spotlight. It’s time for all business leaders to take a stand for true diversity and inclusion.
For more advice and ideas on improving diversity and inclusion, CBI members can visit My CBI's Ideas Forum.