WIP Nat Lyckowski

IBM’s neurodiversity advancement initiative supports employees revealing their authentic self in the workplace

A conversation with Nat Lyckowski, global neurodiversity advancement leader, IBM

In this episode of Work in Progress, I’m joined by Nat Lyckowski, the global neurodiversity advancement leader for tech giant IBM.

“Neurodiversity is a concept to respect and accept neurological differences as a natural part of human variation. Just like eye color or our height, it’s part of who we are,” explains Lyckowski.

Neurodivergent differences includes things like dyslexia, ADHD, autism, Tourette’s, dyscalculia, and more. “It’s basically people who think differently based upon the way our brains are wired – whether we were born this way or acquired over time, either through injury or illness – but there are people who think differently, and it’s as simple as that,” she says.

For more than 100 years, IBM has been embracing diversity, according to Lyckowski. IBM was “one of the first companies to focus on equal pay for equal work, or hiring people regardless of race or religion, and one of the first to cover same-sex partners with medical benefits,” she says.

About ten years ago, IBM started its neurodiversity advancement program, which she leads. She explains that the company has targeted hiring programs in over 11 countries and have “touched IBMers in over 65 countries. We’ve also had over 13,000 IBMers complete our Neurodiversity Acceptance Training.”

In the past year, the company also started its Neurodivergent-Out Executive Program and its Neurodivergent Executive Allies initiative.

“If you stop and think how wonderful it is to have an IBM vice president come out and say, ‘I’m bipolar, and I’ve been here.’ ‘I’m dyslexic, and I’m here.’ and to be able to talk about these things, and talk about not only accommodations for being who you are, but just a success enabler of how best you work. And that we want your talents, and we want your energies to focus on the business and not have to mask or not have to be worrying about hiding your authentic self.”

Lyckowski understands the discomfort some people have had in the past with revealing their “authentic self” in the workplace. She self-identifies as neurodivergent.

“I’ve been with IBM about 30 years, and I did not come out at work probably until 2015, 2016, when things were harder, where I was spending a lot of time worrying about being me, worrying about ‘is that acceptable.’ Double checking, triple checking things, wasting a lot of time and energy, trying to fit in, trying to read the room.”

She says one in 20 people you may meet are neurodiverse.

Awareness, acceptance, and advancement are the three As of IBM’s global neurodiversity inclusiveness program.

“Awareness is a great place to start. That’s where you’re learning about what things are and are not. But awareness can be passive, and if you stay at that awareness phase, you run the risk of actually being discriminatory. You run the risk of being a well-intentioned ally that might be doing more harm than good.

“You can be aware that someone is autistic or dyslexic or whatever, but if you don’t want them on your team or if you don’t want to work with them…you’ve checked the box that you’re aware, but you haven’t stepped it up to that sense of acceptance.

“Acceptance is where you’re putting that knowledge to use to make sure that individual feels accepted.

“The last stage is advancement, and that’s where you are actively pursuing to help ensure that that individual advances, whether it’s a career path, whether it’s a development opportunity, whether it’s just ensuring that their voice is heard at a meeting or that their thoughts are being able to be expressed at a function, making things accessible.”

Lyckowski says all three – awareness, acceptance, and advancement – are needed to make the workplace more human-friendly. “When you make things more neurodivergent-friendly, you make them human-friendly. It’s really a win-win-win across the board.”

She makes the case that being more inclusive is also good for business.

“If we all think the same way, you are not going to get that innovation. When companies can embrace neurodiversity and help remove those biases, there is a firm business case that it leads to revenue, it leads to value, it leads to new innovation. So, it’s a matter of why not, especially when a lot of businesses are battling this skills gap.”

Lyckowski adds, “We are very proud that we are run and led by neurodivergents. This is something I can’t leave at home. It comes with me. It’s like me saying I’m a woman. It’s part of my identity.”

You can listen to my conversation with Nat Lyckowski here, or download it wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 289:  Nat Lyckowski, global neurodiversity advancement leader, IBM
Host & Executive Producer: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch and Melissa Panzer
Theme Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4
Download the transcript for this podcast here.
You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts

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