Leadership Performance Development and Aspergers

I was giving a thought to performance reviews, development plans, and being on the autism spectrum. What kicked this off was a friend on the spectrum who was pushed into a management role from a mid-level engineering role by upper management. It happens often. My friend has disclosed his Asperger’s to his employer. He has resisted moving up to a management role because he knows he’s lacking in the competency as a leader and manager due to gaps in soft skills. However, like in many companies, career growth means a vertical move¬†to middle management. This is a recipe for disaster unless handled differently.

I’ve been through a similar situation when I was at Sun Microsystems. I had a boss that was all hot to promote me without discussing my life and career goals were first. I knew what my career and life objectives were at the time and being a supervisor¬†was not it. I was in a process of getting a personal life and the last thing I needed were additional responsibilities and a Blackberry. My boss did not take my wishes well. He increased the pressure. I resisted. He tore me apart in a performance review a few months later and put me on a performance improvement plan (other Asperger issues contributed as well). I ended being managed out of my job.

I believe that given the right environment and development plan, a person with high functioning autism or Asperger’s can grow to be a good boss or leader. We’re pretty smart people and we’ve had our share of s**ty bosses to observe what not to do. Just speaking personally ūüėČ

There are¬†situations where people on the spectrum want to be leaders and bosses. They’re say 80% the way: high functioning enough to have passable¬†communications skills and good¬†emotional intelligence for their abilities. The 20% gap may be with executive function, skills gaps with communication, or strategy development. They should not exclude themselves from being bosses or executives of their own companies if they want to step up to be a boss or executive. What they need is an appropriate development plan based upon a SWAT analysis to help them grow into their new role. Persons on the spectrum often (case by case basis)¬†need clear goal setting and milestones to meet because of their executive function issues. To a degree, soft skills can be developed with proper coaching. The autistic person should be provided with a plan to “level up” to the competencies needed to perform the role of an executive of middle manager. This development plan would be drafted by¬†the upper management or board of directors this emerging executive reports to. Ideally there should be a career development consultant knowledgeable on developing the careers of high functioning autistics on board. Then the execution of the plan would put an executive job coach in the loop of the process to ensure fairness. That way goals, training, and expectations will be properly set for that person’s flavor of autism spectrum disorder. As long as the newly minted executive is progressing with the development plan and execute competently, they should stay in their role unless they performance drops off or they fail to follow through. Also the upper management or board of directors need to be reasonably supportive of this person and willing to forgo some short-term gains for a bigger long-term payoff.

The problem with my proposal is that sometimes boards and C-suites are stupidly short-sighted or lack time and resources needed to develop a person on the spectrum as an executive with the equivalent of an Individual Education Plan. So that person with ASD gets passed over for a promotion or is managed out. Which in my opinion is a total lose-lose situation.

Also there is the issue of a lack of support resources for that emerging executive. It’s tough enough that there are barely any career support resources for adult high-functioning persons with autism. The non-profits that are busting their butts to bring support resources all professions with ASD can’t barely raise money because their cause barely a blip on the public’s radar. The non-profits¬†that have the big grant money are playing the “help the poor little autistic children” card¬†because frankly that’s where the public’s focus is on.

I think a possible solution would be peer-run by autistic persons leadership workshop where persons on the spectrum interested in moving up to an executive role can work with other executives on the spectrum. The more experienced executive¬†can advise and coach¬†using an development plan reviewed¬†by an executive job coach for persons with ASD. The upcoming executive can practice in a simulated environment or serving on a board¬†for a non-profit where the board members have been trained. Business schools can participate by donating classes that don’t earn credits towards a degree.

A full-blown non-profit organization to support the workshop may be overkill as the business of running the non-profit sometimes overwhelms achieving the mission. Just enough structure to secure a 501c3, a few grants to keep the lights on, and maintain¬†the day-to-day operations. The “mini-me” non-profit would be nimble¬†enough to be attractive to industry so that sustaining partnerships could be made to grow the incubator.

It’s a grand idea. I did my stint as an co-founder of a non-profit that supports autism employment¬†of adults.¬†Hopefully someone with ample capital to launch these leadership incubators¬†will read this post and run with the idea.