There’s a great saying: All leaders are learners. We talk about that a lot in this blog, but do we ever stop and ask, “What type of learners?” I actually think about that often.
If you are a regular reader, you know my twin girls have dyslexia, which is a learning difference, not a disability. As I write that, I can almost feel people rolling their eyes, perhaps thinking I’m just playing with words – but I’m not. They may learn differently, but they do in fact learn and grow, just like everyone else. It is a subtlety that leaders need to understand.
When my wife and I first discovered our girls had dyslexia, it was overwhelming. We did a lot of research to help them reach their top potential. Fortunately for us, we found AIM Academy, an amazing school that caters to children with language-based learning differences. At this school, the focus is not on “fixing,” but understanding the difference and teaching to it.
This approach forever changed these kids for the better. This type of teaching created an environment where they could thrive, embrace their differences and truly excel. They were no longer embarrassed about their learning differences, nor were they trying to hide from it. They were free (and encouraged) to be who they were. And why shouldn’t they? After all, they were (and are) perfectly fine. They just learn differently.
This school changed not just my daughters’ lives, but our entire family’s life.
Educators are lifelong learners – and we all benefit from that.
Fast forward seven years after my daughters’ dyslexia diagnosis, and we have seen so many innovations in education. A big part of this: Educators are lifelong learners with a passion for research-backed advancement.
I recently had the great privilege to take part in a very special event hosted by The AIM Institute for Learning and Research. In conjunction with the Haskins Laboratories, an independent, international, multidisciplinary community of researchers conducting basic research on spoken and written language, AIM conducted the 2019 IGNITE Center Summer Institute. This innovative program focuses on the future of education and included 3 days of engaging sessions, led by renowned researchers and top experts in the fields of neuroscience, technology and literacy.
Over the course of the event, participants worked in small teams to address the question of how to apply the knowledge of neuroscience, technology and literacy gained each day into practical applications in their own classrooms. They were given “mentorship time” with the experts to provide support and coaching and at the end of the week, each team had the opportunity to present their literacy solution (in the form of programs, training models, products, etc.) to a panel of esteemed Philadelphia community members. (Pictured, from left to right: Denean Williams, Russ Kliman, Al Chiaradonna, Stephanie Cramp and Gina Mingioni.)
Their proposed solutions were so creative and brilliant. But what struck me the most was the passion I saw. These are teachers who chose to give up time during their summer break, pay to attend an event like this, and work hard all week because they believed so passionately in our future – our children. They believe everyone deserves the best education possible and they recognize their own key role in helping all types of learners achieve their greatest potential.
It inspired me, and it reminded me of another event that left me feeling the same.
A couple years back, I had the great privilege to get involved with the Hill Top Preparatory School, a local school focused on educating individuals with learning differences such as autism. I was honored to be a judge in the school’s Shark Tank®-inspired competition. These high school students had amazing business ideas and unmatched energy. It was clear I was in a room of brilliant innovators, who just needed to be given a chance.
Events and moments such as these do more than inspire you. They make you think differently about every aspect of life. Through my involvement with schools like AIM Academy and the Hill Top, I realized learning and neurological differences are another form of diversity. The diversity may not always be physically visible, but it’s present nonetheless. It’s very important for all of us to be accepting of diversity as humans and open to employing it as leaders.
Are you actively looking for neurodiverse talent?
On the heels of my recent experience at AIM, I went back and reread a fascinating HBR article from 2017, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage. The article covers not only the opportunities in front of companies willing to hire talent with learning differences, but it also provides a candid assessment of why so many do not. As a leader, we should all read this article and conduct a serious, honest assessment of our own approach to talent acquisition and management — how diverse are we?
Like teachers, leaders need to be lifelong learners. The learning never stops, the questioning never stops. I constantly reflect and ask myself: How am I thinking about talent and diversity? How am I even defining diversity – is the scope too limited? Where am I looking for talent? What am I doing to develop talent? Am I following the “mainstream” recruiting process, and if so, am I missing this extraordinary talent that learns differently?
The best advice I can give you is to get outside the walls of your own company to find inspiration and opportunity. So many at SEI were inspired by our friends at the Hill Top School. So much so, that they met with local companies who implemented a program to bring neurodiverse talent more proactively into the workplace. My colleagues’ personal passion in this area led to our company’s own research-backed experimentation and pilot program. And I couldn’t be prouder to say that I work for a company who recently launched an official Autism at Work program.
I would love to hear from you. What have you done to embrace and employ talent that learns differently? If you have experimented with or implemented any type of program that supports diversity, equity and inclusion in unique ways, please share it with us in the comments below. After all, we become even stronger leaders by sharing and learning from each other.