‘We need to talk about how to change’: Institute of Directors boss reveals she is autistic
This article by James Moore is taken from The Independent’s Premium business pages so is reproduced in full below.
“It’s a bit scary,” says Charlotte Valeur, the chair of the Institute of Directors who is today speaking publicly for the first time about her autism. “I have for some years wanted to serve as a director of a FTSE 100 company but even now at 56 I’m afraid there may be some board positions I will not get as a result of this.”
That statement is a good example of why attitudes towards autism in Britain are in need of radical change. Because I fear she might be right.
The fact that Valeur isn’t on a FTSE 100 board now rather puts into perspective the whines one sometimes hears from its constituent companies about the difficulty in finding female candidates for their boards. The situation has improved: all male boards are now a no-no. But the fact that progress has been glacially show is not as much about a lack of suitable candidates as corporate spin-meisters would have you believe.
As for autistic people on boards? People with disabilities? It’s still vanishingly rare. Too many public companies also have a lamentable record when it comes to black and minority ethnic directors.
If anyone’s capable of changing that it is this Danish-born former banker turned evangelist for diversity, who had a successful career in finance before she became a serial non-executive director, with stints at Societe Generale, BNP-Paribas, and SG Warburg.
As well as being founder and chair of Board Apprentice, a non-profit aimed at improving boardroom diversity, she has served as a director of seven public companies. Among them, Laing O’Rourke, an international engineering company, and Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Estate, where, as chair, she oversaw its $8 billion merger with its New York Stock Exchange-listed parent.
As the chair of the Institute of Directors, she also oversees one of the UK’s premier business organisations, one that has sailed into calmer waters having endured a degree of turmoil under her predecessor that spilled out into the media.
Valeur discovered she was autistic only five years ago. Her son, whose passions are artistic and musical, had already been so diagnosed.
“It wasn’t close when I went for the test. It wasn’t a marginal diagnosis,” she explains. Looking back on her childhood, she says the clues were all there. As is too often the case, they just weren’t picked up on.
This was perhaps partly because Valeur, the daughter of a butcher, endured a major childhood trauma: the loss of her mother to breast cancer at the age of seven, which some may have viewed as the explanation for her being withdrawn and reluctant to speak.
“It wasn’t super easy at school. I was put into an extra class with just two and a teacher so the rest of the children deemed the two of us to be stupid. The teachers expected nothing of me. At one stage they said I was too inside myself. I didn’t communicate I was just there.
“I also had this thing where I’d write out great lists of car number plates. I found it was calming to me.”
She says she saw some improvement in her teenage years, but was still “bullied incessantly by people I didn’t event know”.
“Boys would lift me up and threaten me. I was hit by someone in the street until I had bled. I said to my sister why do they bully me? I was quiet. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what I was doing to make them target me.”
As the parent of a high-functioning autistic child, those words make me shudder. But they don’t surprise. My son has also been targeted, not to the extent Valeur reports she was, but targeted all the same. He has regularly heard classmates using the phrase “that’s a bit autistic” in a derogatory manner.
As such, I can only cheer her decision to speak out. Her stated reason for doing so is to highlight the work of UK charity Autistica. She is leading its “Know More” campaign. She wants to help it to raise funds for research into understanding how Covid-19 has impacted those with autism to ensure they aren’t left behind. And she wants to see a cut in the interminable waiting times faced by those seeking a diagnosis.
“We need more research and understanding and awareness,” she tells me. “We need to make a sustained change to the society around us. To do that we need strong research. I’m not interested in talking about why. We need to talk about how to change. We need research, we need facts.”
Valeur looks set to be a powerful advocate for that sort of change. She might have barely spoken as a child but she is now a confident and articulate interviewee, a better communicator, in fact, than many of the FTSE 100 CEOs I’ve interviewed in the past.
But how did she succeed in a business environment that is still often intolerant of difference, something that can readily be seen in any number of statistics.
“Well I started off in a bank branch at 18. It was very structured. There were clear rules as to how to do things and I did very well doing what they needed. I got headhunted because I delivered.
“When my old employer asked me to come back I said I’d only do it if I could become a trader. They let me.”
The trading floor is an infamously tough, often testosterone-driven environment. How did an autistic woman who didn’t, at the time even know she was autistic, handle the intense pressures there?
“I was lucky. I found myself in the right place. The dealing room is a bit of a jungle. For me that worked. It was fine. It was straightforward. You do or you don’t. There wasn’t too much politics. It was just very straight forward: you either can do the job or you can’t.”
Valeur still wasn’t entirely conventional. She eschewed boozy socialising with clients, for example: “I was the one in the dealing room that never took clients out. I didn’t need to do that to perform. I was always in the top ten so I tended to have clients that also didn’t do that. When we met up we would do something different.”
Some of the autistic traits she has, notably her single-minded focus – “I never watched TV. I was always focussed on the job” – clearly helped. She wonders whether a lot of her colleagues weren’t also on the autism spectrum to some degree.
But she is justifiably irked by the pop culture cliches that bedevil people with her type of autism. “People ask what’s your schtick, are you an IT nerd or like Rain Man? What’s you special thing? There’s a lot of ignorance out there, a lack of understanding.”
This can make it particularly difficult for women and girls with autism. They are often better at masking their symptoms, and battle against the perception that it is a “male” condition. A lot of them are therefore wrongly diagnosed as suffering from depression or anxiety or other conditions. These are sometimes symptoms of the underlying problem that isn’t recognised.
Valeur’s mission is to help correct this, and improve the understanding of autism in the workplace at the same time.
“I feel there is a lot of talent and thinking that businesses are losing out on because the world is not that accommodating. I would like businesses to be focused on being open, to train their staff to understand what it means to be autistic so they can better accommodate people. There should be a training organisation where this can be discussed in an open and friendly forum. Awareness is the first step.”
Valeur is clear about one thing: “We need to get employment up. We need to ensure that in an interview that it [autism] is taken into account. The focus should be on what a person’s abilities are, what they can bring to the job. We need to do more with this because we are losing out on talent. We need to change the narrative.” Valeur has taken a bold step towards achieving that. Given the obstacles she’s already overcome, you wouldn’t want to bet against her.
External news article – all publishing rights and copyright remain with the original publisher and author. Image of Charlotte Valeur – copywrite @ Fenby Miskin 2018