This EY exec pitched 'neurodiversity' as an innovation strategy, and it's a case study in managing up
Courtesy of EY
- EY executive Hiren Shukla convinced his boss to launch a neurodiversity program because it would boost the firm's bottom line.
- The initiative would change people's lives, too. But Shukla focused on the business case: Many individuals with autism are quick learners and adept at using new technology.
- Shukla's pilot program was a success. Today, EY has Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence across the US.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The first thing Hiren Shukla will have you know about the neurodiversity program at EY (formerly Ernst & Young) is that it's "not charity."
In 2016, Shukla -who helps lead Automation Central at EY - launched an initiative to recruit individuals on the autism spectrum to the professional-services firm. His goal wasn't to offer people handouts in a way that would compromise EY's bottom line.
The objective was to make EY more innovative.
At least, that's how he pitched it to his boss back in 2016.
And it's a lesson to anyone trying to drive innovation in their company.
Making the business case
If you want to get your manager's attention, talk to them in terms of the bottom line.
That's what Shukla did. He explained his approach to Business Insider at the From Day One conference in New York.
"You have this population of neurodiverse individuals that are known to be extremely detail-oriented, extremely logical, and process-focused," he recalls saying. "We are moving into emerging technology and we need to think differently to disrupt ourselves - where are we going to find this skill set?"
Neurodiversity holds the perspective that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal variation in the human genome, not abnormalities. While Shukla acknowledges that not every neurodiverse person fits the exact profile, he suspected that some autistic hires would be quick learners and adept at using new technology. The National Institute of Mental Health website, for example, indicates that many autistic individuals are able to learn and remember things in detail. And they often have an intense interest in numbers, details, or facts.
When he approached his boss with the idea, Shukla had already been working at EY for two decades, and had a proven track record of success. Still, his manager told him in no uncertain terms that, when it came to the neurodiversity program, failure wasn't an option.
The pilot program - four neurodiverse individuals at EY's Dallas office - was a success. According to a following EY report, "neurodiverse individuals could perform as well as their neurotypical peers, and at the same time, generate key process improvements." EY considered only business metrics when evaluating the pilot, the report emphasized.
In one of the pilot projects profiled, neurodiverse EY employees saved roughly 800 hours for the firm (which translated to $100,000 in cost savings) when they redesigned an automation process for one of EY's largest business areas.
Today, there are EY Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence in multiple cities, including Philadelphia and Dallas.
Focusing on the business case is a proven strategy for pitching your manager
In pitching the initiative, Shukla used a proven strategy for pitching anything to your manager, whether it's a new program or a new position: focusing on the business case.
Psychology research finds that leaders tend to be thinking in a more abstract, goal-oriented framework than their direct-reports, so literally describing initiatives in terms of their desired outcomes is the most effective way to get heard.
Sharfi Farhana used a similar tactic to create a new job for herself at the holding company IAC: head of executive recruitment. When she initiated the discussion about the new role, Farhana previously told Business Insider, "I tried to keep myself out of the conversation as much as I could," focusing instead on facts and figures. She made saying yes a "no-brainer" for her boss.
To be sure, Shukla also described how gratifying it's been to change people's lives. Some neurodiverse individuals that EY hired had previously been unable to find employment. Shukla mentioned an email he'd received from the mother of a neurodiverse EY employee, saying she'd never seen her son happier.
In the last few years, a number of other high-profile organizations have started recruiting neurodiverse talent, including Microsoft and Ford, according to the Harvard Business Review. Managers at those companies say the initiatives have resulted in increased productivity and greater innovation, among other benefits.
Shukla described EY's program as doing something that "transcends a business transaction" and "really makes a difference in the world." EY gets talented employees; the employees get a workplace where they can thrive.
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