Who comes to mind if you’re asked to think about an autistic CEO?
Chances are it’s probably a (white, cis) man, maybe in a tech-related field, whose autism is often presented as an explanation for their controversial behaviour or management style. Think Elon Musk, or closer to home, BrewDog CEO James Watt, both of whom have been widely criticized for creating toxic work environments and have cited their diagnoses in mitigation. After all, autistic people lack empathy and have poor social skills, so it’s not surprising that having one as CEO would cause problems, right?
I’d like to think not! I’m an autistic CEO and developing a person-centered, psychologically safe, and egalitarian working culture has been a key aim since I joined Quest for Learning in 2018, and one that my team tells me is working. Creating a culture that acknowledges difference and allows for flexibility has benefitted me personally – for example, I’m notoriously not a morning person, so flexible hours mean I get to work when I’m actually able to be fully present and effective, rather than when I’m ‘supposed’ to. However, in my experience, the fact that I’m open about my needs and limitations makes it easier for others to do the same and to expect that they will be respected and adapted for.
The autistic tendency to disregard hierarchy means I don’t feel my role in the charity is any more important or meaningful than anyone else’s. Starting from this point means that I don’t need to feel threatened if someone ‘less senior’ has a better idea than me about how we could change, improve, or innovate. It also means that I don’t lose sight of the people behind the job titles.
Meticulous attention to detail and the ability to hyperfocus on particular topics are hugely beneficial when it comes to governance, financial oversight, and strategic planning. Having confidence in my knowledge of the terrain, while retaining an open mind about the possible gaps, has made it much easier to communicate my vision to trustees and staff and to bring people along with me, rather than imposing change unilaterally. A strong sense of justice has meant prioritizing fair pay and conditions, despite the challenging economic landscape, rather than relying on the goodwill of charity workers to take the financial hit because they believe in the mission.
Of course, there are areas where the way my brain works isn’t an advantage – for example, I typically find networking events an overwhelming sensory experience and making small talk exhausts me mentally and physically. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel like this is a failure, but in reality, it’s an opportunity to let someone else in the team, with a different skillset to me, shine. For me, being CEO isn’t about status or being perceived as the one and only ‘face’ of the organization.
Shortly after I joined Quest for Learning, I had a coaching session in which I was asked whether my loyalty lay primarily with my team or with the charity. When I replied, ‘the team’, I was told that this was the wrong attitude for a CEO and I needed to distance myself in order to be an effective leader. Nearly five years in, I’d reject the premise of the question: for me, there is no charity without individuals who constitute it, and I’m going to continue to put them at the heart of what I do.
Sian Renwick is Quest for Learning’s Chief Executive.