KPMG has started shifting the way they facilitate the interview process, particularly at the entry-level. This has allowed them to recruit based on skills and not on social rapport, opening opportunities for neurodiverse individuals who typically would have been left out of these positions.

Research suggests that up to 15–20% of the U.S. population is neurodivergent. There has been a slow but vitally important rise in companies embracing neurodiversity. How can companies support neurodiversity in the workplace? What are some benefits of including neurodiverse employees? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Neurodiversity in the Workforce”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Gibson, Chief Strategy Officer, Melwood.

Scott Gibson is Melwood’s Chief Strategy Officer. He joined Melwood in 2013, bringing more than a decade of public policy expertise, strategic planning leadership, and enterprise-wide human resources management to his role with the organization.

Gibson shapes Melwood’s long-term strategic objectives helping the organization respond to market changes and drive service innovation. By forging partnerships with industry leaders and community stakeholders, he has launched innovative new programs such as abilIT, which prepares people with disabilities to launch careers in IT.

Gibson is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program, as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, where he earned a Master’s in Public Administrationmaster’s in public administration. At Fels, he was awarded the top prize for excellence in political leadership. Gibson earned his Bachelors of ArtsBachelor of Arts from Mount St. Mary’s University, where he later served as an adjunct professor of Political Science for 11 years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

Like many people working in this field, my story starts as a family advocate. Growing up, I saw two relatives navigate the world with a disability. After years of working at a shipyard, my Papaw required an oxygen machine and used a wheelchair. I also had an uncle, who was born with a congenital condition that caused him to lose mobility and motility over time.

It must have really dawned on me as a child that the world was full of barriers. The other day I was looking through albums, and I found this note that I wrote to my Papaw when I was in third grade inviting him to grandparents day at my school and noticed that I took the time to say that he could bring his portable oxygen machine and that I knew his wheelchair could make it to my classroom. Later as a teenager, who could drive, I remember going somewhere with my uncle alone for the first time and thinking: Does the restaurant have a ramp, is it accessible? I think when you grow up seeing your family face these barriers, it inspires you to advocate for change.

Later on, I’d launch my career and I was heavily focused on policy and public administration, but wanting to change the world for people with disabilities never went away. At first, it was just extra projects. Like when I was at Harford County, I partnered with the vocational rehabilitation agency to start an internship for people with disabilities to gain work experience. I’d volunteer for causes like therapeutic riding non-profits.

Then one day, I got a call inviting me to join Melwood and to merge all these experiences into one great job focused on advocating for and empowering people with disabilities.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

A huge part of it is preparation and taking in information. I used to teach a college course that was targeted at upperclassmen. I would always tell them, the easiest way to set yourself apart in any class or any meeting is to read the materials in advance. In every class I taught, the students that consistently impressed me the most weren’t necessarily the smartest — they were just the ones who were the most prepared.

It’s shocking how often you will find yourself in a meeting, where it is apparent that no one read the material. All of a sudden, you will be answering questions and clarifying points. People will look at you like you are a genius, when all you did was the homework. Looking back, I think this is what opened the door to most of the opportunities that grew my career.

There is also a healthy dash of candor in there. Leaders must be able to talk about things even when — or perhaps most especially when — it is uncomfortable. When the group is headed in one direction and you see a problem, it can be hard to speak up. But that is what’s required. Radical candor is something that folks with Autism are often critiqued for, but I believe there is generosity and value in giving honest, respectful feedback. Often we’re too concerned about the short-term implications or potential hurt feelings, but sometimes when the filter comes off is when we can get to the most productive solutions.

I also take pride in surrounding myself with the right people. I’m very comfortable with recruiting people who are smarter than me and who think differently than me. I know my strengths, and I intentionally seek out team members whose thought processes complement, rather than match, my own. This is another way neurodiversity can benefit your organization. A young gentleman who graduated from Melwood’s abilIT program (program preparing people with disabilities with the technical and soft skills to enter the tech workforce) interviewed with MITRE for a job, and they asked him a question that they ask every prospective employee. This question isn’t really designed to have a right answer. It is designed to highlight how you approach a problem. Historically, there were three consistent answers that interviewees provided. He posed a fourth solution. Coming away from that interview, MITRE shared that this individual’s response was the most thoughtful and comprehensive they’d ever received. Surrounding yourself with people who think differently than you do can push you out of your comfort zone and unlock entirely new opportunities.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

I think leaders must show their human side at work to be effective, and that’s a challenge for me sometimes because of habits I formed early in my career.

I was appointed the director of a county agency in Maryland at twenty-four. All of a sudden, I had lots of authority but very little life experience. Don’t get me wrong, I was smart and I was relatively accomplished. But at 24, you don’t know what you don’t know yet.

A lot of people expected me to fail, and when your job is a high-profile, public position the scuttle isn’t whispers in the hallway. You read how people expect you to be too immature in the local newspaper.

I don’t like to fail, and I love to prove the people who doubt me wrong. So, when I read all these things, my natural response was to kick “professionalism” into overdrive. I was formal. I was data-driven. I was by the book without exception.

After a while, I started to realize that this approach to professionalism was like the volume knob on a TV. Turned down to low was full of problems, but turned up too high was problematic too. Sure, I was getting things done but I wasn’t really connecting with people on a human level.

I am not confident you ever overcome a challenge. I think you learn to manage it. (I get afraid that if you think it has been overcome, you ease up on what is keeping it at bay, and the challenge returns.) The first thing that I needed to do to manage it was to be honest about the challenge. I sought a lot of feedback. I even got some coaching. But I think the single most important thing is that I have sought out a truthteller. When I sense that I may not be striking the right balance, I talk about it with this colleague.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As the Chief Strategy Officer, I can honestly say that almost everything I do is exciting because my job is to push the boundaries and to figure out what is next, or what will be needed down the road. I’m hardly ever working on maintaining the status quo.

For example, right now we are looking at Melwood’s real estate portfolio and wondering how we can better leverage it to support our mission.

Like most organizations, COVID fundamentally shifted how and where we work. And our field of work — supporting people with disabilities — has shifted to serving more and more people in community settings. The result is that Melwood has this huge footprint in prime locations in the DC-metro area that fewer and fewer people are visiting.

At the same time, there is this massive need for affordable housing in our region, and the need is even more pronounced for people with disabilities. Currently, about 75% of adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities live with their parents or other family members, and half of those caregivers are older than 50. (Nearly 10% of them are 75 or older.) A housing crisis for people with the most significant disabilities starts to occur when family caregivers are no longer an option, because the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC is about $1,800 and the annual income for a single adult living alone on SSI is less than $10K.

So we’ve started asking: Can these problems — our underutilized space and the need for inclusive, accessible affordable housing — solve each other? And we are pretty confident that we can forge a path to do just that.

For our first venture in this space, we’re redeveloping our Arlington Property into a mixed-use building that will house both programming space and first-class inclusive, affordable housing. It’s going to solve an unmet need for many of the people we serve, while transforming the property into a valuable asset that can produce income to be reinvested in our programs and mission.

Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

Certainly. Having an inclusive work culture is not just a legal or moral obligation, it’s also a solid business strategy. When we foster an environment that embraces all people, including people with disabilities, we’re tapping into a rich, often overlooked talent pool, and this diversity brings a wealth of benefits:

Inclusivity fuels innovation. Different life experiences can lead to fresh viewpoints and unique problem-solving approaches. This is even more true when we are discussing neurodiversity — the variation in how all of us learn and process information.

An inclusive culture better reflects the diversity of your customer base. Businesses thrive by understanding and satisfying their customers’ needs. Up to 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has a form of disability. One in 36 children are now diagnosed as on the Autism spectrum. These are not niche groups. Having employees who mirror that diversity can give us crucial insights into what customers want.

The “war for talent” is real. Unemployment has been hovering around 3.5%, and we know that generationally we do not have as many people entering the workforce as we have leaving it. Companies must broaden their talent search, considering those often overlooked, including people with disabilities. It’s not just about filling positions, it’s about finding untapped potential and diverse skills in an increasingly scarce talent pool. All the effort to get new people in the door will be for nothing if you don’t have an inclusive culture that entices them to stay.

It’s good for the brand. A strong commitment to inclusivity sends a positive message to customers, shareholders, and potential employees, reinforcing the company’s brand.

Inclusion is not just a ‘nice to do’ — it’s a necessity for any business looking to succeed in today’s diverse world and lead on innovation.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles to including neurodivergent employees? What needs to be done to address those obstacles?

The entry-level hiring process is probably the biggest obstacle neurodivergent people face launching their careers. I hate to be so blunt, but that process is completely broken. It must be overhauled if we want to embrace neurodiversity in our workforce.

Today’s entry-level hiring process forces recruiters to sift through a lot of candidates with thin experience. So, what do they do? They hire folks with whom they’ve built a quick social rapport. We’ve all heard the advice — hire for fit, train for skill — or some form of it. Well, when you consider that pervasive struggle with social interaction is one of the diagnosis criteria for Autism, you start to realize that a very specific group of people are being unfairly disadvantaged under that principle.

Or think about the hiring venues. How many of us had our first hiring conversation at a job fair? You have this large, crowded room. Hundreds of people are talking. Imagine what that is like for someone who is audio-hypersensitive. They aren’t just hearing a gentle hum of background noise. They may be hearing ten conversations going on. Imagine having to put your best foot forward while dealing with that.

What we need to do — and what Melwood has done in partnership with employers like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — is build assessments that quickly evaluate skill. This allows us to rely less on forced social interactions.

Recognizing that 85% of autistic adults with a college education are unemployed, we also need to get comfortable being a person’s first employer. It is shocking how often entry-level jobs are looking for some work experience. We can’t lift people out of unemployment or underemployment if we require candidates to have work experience.

How do you and your organization educate yourselves and your teams on the concept of neurodiversity and the needs of neurodivergent employees? Are there any resources, training, or workshops that you have found particularly helpful?

We are specifically in the business of supporting neurodivergent and disabled employees, and we still find ourselves wanting to learn more. We’re committed to doing this by listening — not just to medical experts, and neuroscientists but to the people we are serving.

With the prevalence of Autism and other forms of neurodivergence, the reality is that you likely have someone affected either directly or indirectly in your workforce. The best way to learn about how to meet the needs of neurodivergent people is to ask them. Establish an employee resource group. Create mechanisms for your workforce to make suggestions and offer feedback directly or anonymously.

To kickstart your efforts, I think there is no better resource than the Autism At Work Playbook, which was written by Dr. Hala Annabi and industry leaders from organizations like EY, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, and SAP. It is full of practical, easy-to-use suggestions.

Can you please share five best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people who are neurodivergent?

Melwood has been privileged to partner with organizations that are pioneering accessibility and inclusion in their hiring practices. These organizations recognize the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace and work with Melwood to design research-based strategies and programs.

Some of the best strategies I’ve seen from partners include:

KPMG has started shifting the way they facilitate the interview process, particularly at the entry-level. This has allowed them to recruit based on skills and not on social rapport, opening opportunities for neurodiverse individuals who typically would have been left out of these positions.

GDIT has created an exceptional culture of psychological safety. With her “how are you, really?” campaign GDIT President Amy Gilliland has established a positive environment that helps employees feel comfortable talking about their challenges at work. This can help managers and supervisors identify any stressors that may be affecting team members with disabilities. She’s telling people it is okay to be who you are, and you to discuss what is bothering you. Imagine how empowering that must be for an employee who is weighing whether to request an accommodation.

MITRE is pushing the envelope on what jobs are possible. Jobs in the tech space — particularly the high-security federal tech space — have been historically inaccessible for people with disabilities, but MIRTE is opening doors for folks who have the skills and work ethic to enter this field. MITRE is even driving on new employment opportunities in the most traditional spaces like the federal government.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency started by listening. Their team sought out Melwood’s expertise to ensure that their policies, strategies and programs best represented all groups. They also asked the self-advocates in their workforce where they experienced challenges in the workplace. The best programs are not designed “for” people with disabilities, but rather “with” people with disabilities.

NFP (National Financial Partners) has been leading the push for leadership opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I am so thrilled to see Jason Carr, one of our program graduates, serving as their DEIB Disability Chairman. There is a saying — “nothing about us, without us.” It is great to see employers empowering disabled employees to have a meaningful role in shaping not only these programs but their organizations in general.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

I should probably say I was inspired but something I read in a book by a renowned author to try to come off as impressive, or deep thinking. But if I’m being honest, my favorite Life Lesson quote is a pearl of wisdom from the feel-good TV show, Ted Lasso.

There is this scene where Ted is playing darts with a guy named Rupert at a local pub. Rupert has constantly been underestimating Ted throughout the series, viewing him as a simple-minded American with no understanding of “real” football. During the game, Rupert confidently challenges Ted, expecting him to lose. As they play, Ted tells a story about how people always underestimated him and how he never understood why. Then one day, while driving his son to school, Ted drove past a sign that read: “Be Curious, Not Judgmental” and all of a sudden, it clicked for him. All the people that underestimated and belittled him — none of them were curious.

So “Be Curious; Not Judgmental” is my favorite life lesson quote.

I love it because it really sums up what we need to do to accomplish a more inclusive world.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was naturally inclined to be judgmental. But since watching that scene, when I find myself starting to judge something, I have started asking: Am I being curious enough?

We wish you continued success and good health!