Ed Thompson of Uptimize: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Don’t assume everything is perfect. There is a danger with organizations and individuals to assume what they are used to is “normal” and therefore acceptable. Within that “normal”, however, there may be people who feel very uncomfortable, who feel forced to mask their true selves, who are not able to perform at their best. It’s important to be open to the idea that wherever you are at as an organization isn’t necessarily a neutral baseline: it may be something far more suboptimal, and something requiring urgent attention.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Ed Thompson.
Ed Thompson is the founder and CEO of Uptimize, the leading neuroinclusion training company, whose mission is to help organizations embrace and leverage every type of thinker. Born and raised in London and educated at Oxford, Ed founded Uptimize in 2016, recognizing the urgent need for greater understanding and appreciation of neurodiversity within the working world. His role with Uptimize has afforded him unique insights and connections with pioneers in the neurodiversity-at- work field across the world, and he is now a frequent speaker on the topic and the author of “A Hidden Force — Unlocking the Potential of Neurodiversity at Work” (Greenleaf, 2023).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in London, and studied history at Oxford. Soon after that, I had a serious car accident, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. I slowly went back to work, and a decade or so ago I was on the leadership team of a tech company in London. At that point, my career had been focused on more commercial aspects of business, but my boss (the CEO) and I started to focus more on people: specifically, how we were going to hire and develop a truly 21st century workforce, one that could be truly innovative and a competitive advantage. That got me into strategic corporate diversity programs in London, specifically in helping to connect tech-savvy young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with tech jobs. From there, I got interested in the very embryonic world of “neurodiversity at work” through conversations with autistic family members: the needs, and potential, of the neurodivergent struck a particular chord with me, too, after my own brain injury. I founded Uptimize, the neurodiversity training company, to help ensure organizations across the world understand the importance of embracing and leveraging different types of thinker — and know how to do so.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I particularly enjoyed “The Power of Neurodiversity” by Thomas Armstrong (2011). Armstrong is a compelling advocate for neurodiversity, and I loved how he reframed neurodiversity and neurodivergence from to include powerful strengths, as well as (better-known) challenges. Armstrong was careful not to cast neurodivergence as a “superpower”, or overlook challenges, but chapter names like “The Joy of the Hyperactive Brain” and “The Positive Side of Being Autistic” represented a valuable and belated challenge to the stereotypes that to that time (2011) had cast neurodiversity only in a negative light. Multiple passages have stuck with me ever since, for example how he challenges the conventional metaphor of brains as computers (either “working” or “broken”), suggesting instead that we make a better parallel with brains as forests; highly complex, living organisms.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One quote I have always liked, and I quoted in my book “A Hidden Force”, is the Islamic proverb “a lot of different flowers make a bouquet”. For me, this gets to the essence and power of diversity itself, and I think it’s a simple step to see how the same thing is true when it comes to team-building. Part of my own work as CEO of Uptimize is to continue to advocate not just for neurodiversity and neuroinclusion but for diversity, plain and simple — and there’s no doubt that human neurodiversity has been far less acknowledged and appreciated than, say, biodiversity in the natural world. With some of these simple metaphors in mind we can all see the importance and potential of (more) diverse teams, with greater diversity of thought and greater collective potential.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Well, I think we can view leadership in terms of motivation, strategic direction and so on, but what interests me most about leadership is team-building. It is the function of leaders to build and retain teams of individuals that ultimately can achieve more than the sum of their parts — that’s how a leader can achieve maximum leverage, as of course no leader can do everything themselves. It’s interesting to me too that we view leadership differently in different fields: in the corporate world, we tend to think of leaders setting out a vision, and so on, but in the sporting world we look at General Managers and actively recognize their key role is really about assembling and refreshing the best talent that they can possibly find.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?
We at Uptimize are in a field adjacent to the field of racial equity and ethnic minority inclusion, but it was clear at the time that there were some unique features of the events of that summer. Two that struck me were, 1) the sense of “enough is enough” — that people wouldn’t no longer stand idly by in the face of such injustice, and 2) how widespread and collective the voice for change felt. I think it actually had some positive ramifications in the working world, with organizations engaging and listening to their staff, and actively reconsidering and rejuvenating their diversity and inclusion efforts. This came at a time, too, where economic conditions were unfavorable, and at such times “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (“DEI”) can (wrongly) be overlooked. That didn’t happen in this case.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
The company I founded, Uptimize, is a neurodiversity training company that works with organizations to help them embrace talent that thinks differently. Initially, organizations focused mostly on small hiring programs (starting in the mid 2010s) but now most recognize they already have neurodiverse teams, and set about more holistic inclusion initiatives.
We have seen an incredible reaction to our training — from neurodivergent individuals (“”Having this forum and this level of attention takes my breath away”) and also from managers and others who admit to previously being cynics about the topic and its importance (“I was a little skeptical about this but it was a real eye opener…I walked away thinking this has made a real difference to me”).
I always remember one time when we were in discussions with the learning and development team at a huge company about buying our training. They said — before they had bought it — that they already had a testimonial for us! They’d been hiring into their team, and the best candidate on paper, Jason, had struggled with some aspects of his interviews. He was a little awkward, and hadn’t struck up immediate rapport in the same way other candidates had. The team admitted in the past, they might have chosen a different applicant, but because they had just been reviewing (and taking) our training, they knew what questions to ask him to appraise him fairly and make him comfortable. They ended up hiring Jason — but it’s scary to me how easy it would have been here for the best candidate on paper to not be selected.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Famously, there is data that shows that diverse leadership teams lead to higher performance: for example, a report by McKinsey found that more ethnically diverse teams are 36% more likely to be top performers in their industry. Much of the “diversity business case” like this rests on the idea of diversity of thought, which is an idea that resonates with most of us with or without any data: have people who think differently, due to their background, their experiences, their brain wiring, or whatever else, and you will have a greater capacity for better decision making and more innovative outcomes. I’d add to this a couple of things: 1), diversity without inclusion isn’t enough, and just having diversity in your team or even leadership team isn’t enough if people don’t feel valued and appreciated. And 2), representation is key, and this is one of the other major benefits of a diverse leadership team: it’s so important to demonstrate that people of any demographic can make it to the top in your organization, and this will help motivate and combat bias.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Of course — here we go:
Step 1: Don’t assume everything is perfect. There is a danger with organizations and individuals to assume what they are used to is “normal” and therefore acceptable. Within that “normal”, however, there may be people who feel very uncomfortable, who feel forced to mask their true selves, who are not able to perform at their best. It’s important to be open to the idea that wherever you are at as an organization isn’t necessarily a neutral baseline: it may be something far more suboptimal, and something requiring urgent attention. For example, we’ve worked with organizations where some key executives weren’t necessarily bought in that the topic of neurodiversity was important. Once they saw the response to a neuroinclusion initiative, and the amount of employees then feeling comfortable to disclose, this soon changed.
Step 2: Embrace difference. This is a difficult one: in societies such as the US, we are often taught “not to notice” differences like color, and there is a strong logic in this. With some differences, though, for example neuro-differences, ignoring can be counter-productive, and can lead to norms that work for the 80% but not the remaining 20%. At times, we as colleagues or managers need to be willing to have conversations that accept and embrace that we are not all the same — we each have different perspectives, and have had different experiences — and that that is a key contributor to (greater) diversity of thought. I think to some extent you saw organizations start to do this more in the wake of the George Floyd incident and national protests: more listening, and more appreciation of the reality that people can face particular barriers based on their demographic.
Step 3: Ensure representation. As mentioned above, representation is key: having an all-white, all-male leadership team signals to the rest of the organization that only certain demographics can make it to the top. We know, too, that more diverse leadership leads to better performance, so working towards this being a reality is critical. However, this also relates to working for greater diversity and inclusion at all levels: organizations that do this find, not surprisingly, that they develop a stronger, more diverse leadership pipeline.
Step 4: Focus on inclusion, not just diversity. As mentioned above, there is a danger of stopping at diversity, and thinking that a more diverse team = success. There’s a danger, however, if inclusion is not focused on just as seriously: people, especially those from minority groups, need to feel truly welcomed and appreciated to be able to be themselves and perform to their potential. An example here for business leaders: don’t only focus on diversity reporting. Make sure you have tools in place to really listen to employees, to understand the realities of their experience. And continue to focus on culture above all — and making this as inclusive as possible.
Step 5: Appreciate neurodiversity. I left it til last, but this of course is my and Uptimize’s focus, and I think — given maybe 20% of people may be neurodivergent in some way — it can’t be left off this list. Neurodivergence also relates to people in every other demographic, so if we as organizations are committed to ethnic minority, gender or LGBTQ+ inclusion, we cannot achieve this without appreciating the fact that people within those groups also think differently. Today, many top organizations have significant neuroinclusion initiatives, that address culture, hiring, management and more.
We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?
I’m from the UK, and we at Uptimize do business all around the world, but I’m also based in Denver and so is Uptimize. So, I think I have quite a good perspective, here! I believe the US — and organizations within it — have an unusual willingness to lead, to be bold and experiment, and that’s led to many of the first organizations to truly embrace neuroinclusion being US-based. I also believe US-based organizations to be highly pragmatic: this can be seen as a negative, but I’m convinced that as the case for greater appreciation of neurodiversity (as, indeed, for diversity and inclusion overall) becomes overwhelming that we will see the US truly be a leader in this field.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
You probably won’t be expecting this answer from a Brit, but I’d like to connect with John Lynch, General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Though from London, I’m a fan of the team, and I love how he has led the organization and built his team over the past few years. I suspect, though, that he and his team (like most organizations) haven’t really considered neurodiversity and neuroinclusion in their efforts: I think I could help give them a competitive edge!
How can our readers follow you online?
I blog and participate in our virtual events series at Uptimize.com, and I’m also active within the neurodiversity at work community on LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ed-uptimize/. For more on my book “A Hidden Force”, you can visit www.ahiddenforce.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Ed Thompson of Uptimize: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.