Family Office Fundamentals – Extract

“Without beating around too many bushes, we see neurodiversity as a gift. As David Murrin, an asset manager and CIO of 35 years’ experience, polymath and writer, reflects on dyslexia – and we believe his comments apply to all forms of neurodiversity – “dyslexia is not a ‘disorder’ but an evolutionary advantage that can be harnessed in times of entropic change. Because the dyslexic gene appears to be the personification of the lateral-thinking or adaptive human gene, enabling people to see problems in visual form, dyslexics embody an ability to perceive patterns where others see nothing.” 

 That said, we are not, for one moment, suggesting that all of our clients are neurodiverse. Nor are we suggesting that every individual that has a strong sense of their own views is neurodivergent. Instead, through conversations with experts in the field, as well as our own experience and research, we believe that we have developed a thorough and up-to-date understanding of the best people – and particularly the best styles of communication – to place around neurodivergent principals and families, where appropriate. And that is what we want to go through here.

 “You make your own reality,” says Logan Roy, the patriarch of the HBO hit series Succession, “And once you’ve done it, apparently, everyone’s of the opinion it was all so f****** obvious.” Whether or not Logan sees the world through a neurodivergent lens is a question for his creator, Jesse Armstrong. But taken with a large pinch of salt, this comment chimes with a core element of neurodiversity, the subject of this chapter.

In our experience, many wealth-creators have been successful because they have been able to shape the world around them so that it fits with their original view. As James Horrax, chief communications officer at neurodiversity in Business, an online community platform that specialises in recruitment, retention and empowerment of neurodivergent people, explains later in the chapter, certain forms of autism go hand-in-hand with highly idiosyncratic and robust world-views.

 What is neurodiversity?

 “Neurodiversity is a bit of a broad term,” explains James Horrax, “that gets used to cover a multitude of different conditions.” Language is very important in this context, and the word “condition”, implying a recognised medical trait, draws attention to the distinction between medically neurodiverse individuals and people that sometimes behave in a neurodiverse manner.

 The most common forms of neurodiversity that we work with in the world of family offices are dyslexia, dyscalculia and autism. With dyslexia, the non- normative processing applies to the written and read word: dyslexics consume writing differently, and they also produce it differently. Dyscalculics have a similar processing idiosyncrasy but with numeracy. They might process dates and times, for instance, in a manner that seems unusual to the neurotypical individual. Autism is the hardest form of neurodiversity to pin down. As James puts it, “in the same way no two family offices are alike, no two autistics are alike.” At its core, however, autism is also about a difference in processing, whether the thing being processed is sensory, environmental, or human.

James gives the example of a young child with autism who struggles to process environmental factors. Most of the time, the relevant stimulus is noise, but it can also be light. He struggles to focus when it’s bright or noisy, but in a quiet and dim environment, he is phenomenally engaged with whatever is in front of him. For example, when the boy was just 2 years old, he could complete a 150 piece jigsaw puzzle without help. And he could do it upside down, using the outlines of the pieces as a guide rather than the picture that the puzzle created. These particular manifestations are unique to the individual, but there is an underlying principle of divergent processing here that can shed light on autism in general terms.

If we take focus as the variable, it becomes clear that, depending on the boy’s environment, he can either be far more or far less focused than the neurotypical individual. This is indicative of a more general trait that has been observed across the neurodivergent spectrum, the so-called “spiky profile”. If you plot a graph of most neurotypical people’s skills and abilities, you will see a smooth ribbon dipping over and under the median ability. By contrast, a neurodivergent individual’s graph will be spiky, soaring above and plunging below the median across skills and environments. As recruiters, we aim to put in place the team that enables the neurodivergent individual to cruise at high altitude for as long as possible.

Jessica Meredith, founder of Differing Minds, an organisation that supports businesses to embrace neurodiversity, reflects on her recognition of her own spiky profile, as someone who sees the world through the lens of ADHD, and the way that has impacted the team she has put around herself:

Since I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, I’ve realised I have a pretty spiky profile. So, I’m no longer trying to force myself to be better at things that I’m not so great at. It also impacts the team I put around me. I have people on my team that are good at the things that I don’t find so easy – scheduling and prioritizing, for instance. And that means I can focus on the things that I am very good at, like coming up with new business ideas.

I’m an ideas driven person. I have lots of ideas, and I’m pretty good at strategic thinking. And once I’ve focused on something, I’m pretty good at getting it done. What I’m not so great at is taking all of my ideas and figuring out which one or two to engage with. Without support, I spread myself too thinly, which means I don’t achieve a great deal with any given project.

I have a partner at Differing Minds who is the yin to my yang. She is incredibly focused. She is very good at figuring out what the priorities should be, and where we can make the biggest impact. Once she’s figured out that, she will align me with it, so that I can channel my energy and get the thing done. Whenever I go charging off on another idea, she is fantastic at bringing me back down to earth so I can finish what’s in front of me.

Similarly, one of the things I’ve recognised in myself is that I’m not great at some basic things like planning a diary: booking appointments, scheduling things, re-adjusting when events pop up. I just can’t do it. So, I have someone that can work on the admin side of things for me, someone who takes all of that out of my hands. Now, I just don’t worry about it. All of my brain power can be focused around where we are taking the business.

Different ways of framing neurodiversity

Clearly, a wealth-creator that acknowledges their neurodiversity negatively will require different people and communications to someone who regards their neuro-perspective as a gift. In our experience, many more neurodiverse principals fall into the “gift” camp. And this makes perfect sense. If you have spotted an opportunity that everyone else has missed; if you have achieved the unachievable, it makes sense to see your unique perspective and character in a positive light: financial success will reinforce belief in the particular worldview that facilitated it. Business is also increasingly coming round to the gift view. LinkedIn, for instance, has recently added “dyslexic thinking” to its menu of skills, a move vocally endorsed by Richard Branson, one of the most famous dyslexic entrepreneurs.

Branson is not the only highly successful neurodiverse individual, of course. This isn’t the place for a quantitative analysis discerning the causal relationship between neurodiversity and financial achievement. What is more important for our purposes is the fact that a significant minority of the wealth-creators we work with are neurodiverse, and in their cases, their novel ways of seeing the world have been of great monetary benefit.

Beyond our radius, the world is full of examples of neurodiverse uber-achievers. Take the following illustrious list of dyslexic multi-billionaires: Henry Ford (Ford Motor Company), Ingvar Kamprad (Ikea), Richard Branson (Virgin), William Hewlett (HP), Steve Jobs (Apple), Steven Spielberg (Dreamworks), David Neeleman (JetBlue Airways), Tommy Hilfiger (Hilfiger Clothing), F.W. Woolworth (Woolworths) and Walt Disney (Disney) to name just a few.

Bearing in mind the importance of the manner of communication and the variable of the individual’s self-awareness, there are a handful of general principles that can be helpful for employees to follow when communicating and working with the neurodiverse community: get to know the person inside out; ascertain the level of detail they require; don’t try to change their mind overtly, and try to create novel environments for challenging topics of conversation. When we are recruiting, we will look for employees that are already well versed in these communicative styles.”

Family Office Fundamentals is available for sale  @Somers.Partnership from 27 March. Mark Somers is a top 100 Family Capital influencer.


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