Fit for Purpose

Over the years, whilst working in organisations, I have noticed that those who have got on have not necessarily been the managers with the best technical skills (though that is, of course, important), but more those with strong political, inter-personal and influencing skills.

I prefer to use the word “gravitas”. What I mean by this is that some managers seem naturally able to exert influence by “punching above their weight”. In my book Managing with Asperger syndrome, I identify them as Important Others.

If I am totally honest, I believe that I have established insufficient gravitas during my career; or, at least, not as much as I would have liked or needed to.

Had I been able to do so, I believe that I could have achieved even more than I have and, perhaps possibly prevented the biggest disappointment of my career by realising the objectives – both personal and professional – that I wanted to in what was my biggest opportunity in the world of work.

Not establishing and projecting the required gravitas was the result, to a high degree, of issues relating to my Asperger syndrome, (AS). Issues such as more pronounced anxiety, heightened introversion and a different mode of communication have all hindered or prevented me from exerting my desired influence.

I was interested therefore in another article by Professor Adrian Furnham in The Sunday Times, (I wrote a previous article for my Viewpoint section about another issue he investigated – Seeking Promotion – see: in the UK recently entitled: “What Makes Leaders Look as if They’re Fit for Purpose?”

The piece is basically about impressions and appearances; not just physical appearance, but the way people project and present themselves. It starts by referring to top performing people who deploy “spin doctors” who ensure that leaders engage, and are seen to engage, in positive activities such as being seen out jogging or not smoking for example. As Professor Furnham says “they [leaders] must always look alert, have a happy, healthy, perfect family and they must be expensively dressed as befits their status.”

He then goes on to investigate how, when leaders get such things wrong, great damage to personal standing can be done. I well remember when the late, former leader of the Labour Party in the UK, Michael Foot was deemed to have dressed inappropriately at the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in London he was castigated in the press. It was an image and impression that stuck and did enormous damage to his personal standing and hiss image and – ultimately – his success as a leader.

The article then asks the question: “but do we really vote for people on the basis of things so trivial?”

I have to say that it was a question that I have often asked myself given that my Asperger hasn’t ever really made such things of much relevance to me. With reference to the issue of dress sense mentioned above, the key requirement for me has always been dressing for comfort so as not to exacerbate sensory factors.

I have also tended to adopt the view that, providing I am doing my job satisfactorily from a technical perspective, then less overt or issues such as the way I look will remain irrelevant.

I have learnt the hard way of course that, in the corporate world, this is very much not the case. People very much judge you in a number of informal, less obvious ways: dress code, mannerisms and what you say and how. All of these, of course, are affected by Asperger syndrome.

The article then goes on to outline how psychologically we expect and gravitate towards strong, healthy and successful leaders who protect and lead us. Good leaders are dominant and ensure group survival. Professor Furnham cites how the Russian Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin understands this by projecting a strong, almost macho image. As the piece goes onto say, fitness means health and growth.

But perhaps most pertinently and interestingly of all, the text then moves beyond the physical to the subject of emotional intelligence. Obviously this is an area that can present significant challenges for someone with Asperger.

Emotional intelligence – or as Professor Furnham lists – social skills, charm, charisma – are all things that I have had to work hard at and develop in my career; as, as he correctly goes onto say, they are also essential for leadership positions.

Over the years I have developed my social skills and associated competence via learned behaviours. I have done this by observing others. One example that immediately springs to mind is how, before discussing a negative issue or delivering bad news, effective managers have started with something less sensitive or complimented someone on how they have done something to smooth the subsequent path of criticising them or something they have done.

Exuding and projecting “charm and charisma” is something that I have found harder. My more innate introversion has meant that it is not something that I am always naturally pre-disposed to do.

However, if I prepare myself mentally beforehand, tell myself that I can be outgoing and ensure that I am knowledgeable and fully on top of what I am about to say and deliver, then I can be very self-assertive. As one commentator, (Susan Jeffers) rightly asserts: “feel the fear and do it anyway!”

This relates to Professor Furnham’s next point. The good thing is that social intelligence is related to real intelligence – which, I believe, many people with Asperger syndrome have in abundance. In other words, if you have sufficient intellect you can identify a way forward: learned behaviours, observation of others, etc. and develop the necessary skills to advance in a corporate context.

A caveat to this however – and a very important one, I believe, from the perspective of having AS – is that this must not spill over into arrogance, something which a person with AS is – sometimes incorrectly and unjustifiably – accused of doing. ATTWOOD

Why is all the above important – especially for a manager with Asperger syndrome? Well, as the article outlines, real (and associated emotional) intelligence is attractive because its signals career success, money and security. To this I would add as a personal with Asperger, it is also a means of achieving personal work satisfaction, preventing discord or conflict and enhanced work productivity.

To achieve this, I have found, a key requirement is getting the image right. This, of course, is not straightforward either and can vary by personal circumstance. According to Professor Furnham getting the image right for a female leader is more problematic. They cannot appear too feminine, otherwise they seem less powerful; if they are perceived as too warm they come across as less determined.

In the case of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the image-makers had the opposite problem: she came across as too strong and strident and, as a result, insufficiently caring or compassionate. The answer here was to change her image: to lower the voice and alter the hairstyle.

So where does all this leave someone with Asperger syndrome working in a more prominent, managerial style position?

Well for a start, I believe that I have had to challenge the misguided assertion that success at work only requires me to perform my job to a high level technically. I have come only too well to appreciate that is the soft-skills that have been under-developed in my workplace arsenal that I have needed to address the most.

There are a number of factors that impact here both directly and indirectly. First is adopting a calm demeanour and NEVER allowing myself to be provoked or become agitated in front of others. As soon as one is observed as unsettled or not in control, then people will sense it.

Remaining calm whatever the provocation, not engaging in individual mannerisms such as fiddling with ones’ hands whilst in meetings or when speaking to someone, maintaining eye contact, acknowledging the other person and being the focus of their attention at all times whilst engaging and interacting with them are all pre-requisites that I have set myself in a corporate setting.

I also ensure that my appearance never falls below a certain level. I take significantly more care with my dress code, ambience etc, right down to quite small detail. If the cuffs of my shirt get noticeably worn for example, I ditch it.

Another obvious action – or least it is to me now – is being respectful at all times: to people in general, to those in authority and towards my own personal requirements. I may disagree with people, and it doesn’t mean that I have to accept any unacceptable actions or behaviour towards me, but it does mean I still need to demonstrate for other people, for their views and values even if they digress from mine.

As a person with Asperger syndrome the way I speak to people is fundamental to this. As people have said to me a number of times: “it’s not what you say but how you have said it!” I’ve worked hard to moderate my tone and choose my words carefully and more selectively.

I have also worked hard to ensure that any personal discordance with someone is not demonstrated in my communication and interaction with them. I know I am going to meet people at work that I don’t particularly like or resonate positively with, but I ensure I disguise this and accept it as part of working life.

Above all, I try at all times to maintain balance and a modicum of being philosophical which, at times, my AS has meant I have found it hard to do. I have come to accept that there will inevitably be times when, for whatever reason (corporate politics, the personal preference of others, lack or available resource etc) when I am not going to get what I want or, possibly, even be treated unfairly.

However, if I remain true to myself and demonstrate the behaviours and responses appropriate for a senior manager, I find that I am at ease internally and able to maintain and exude personal gravitas and be assertive when I need to be.

The article concludes with the question: “does all this PR stuff work?” The answer according to Professor Furnham is: “you bet”.

That is something with which from an Asperger perspective, I wholeheartedly concur.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome