Having Asperger Syndrome (AS) can be a lonely experience. In the world of business it can be lonelier still: not being as innately adept at forming lasting and working relationships as others and being an “outsider” can, amongst other things, make working effectively more difficult in the corporate world.
Having a mentor can be extraordinarily beneficial. Mentors are increasingly common in the commercial world per se, but for someone with Asperger Syndrome, having a mentor who understands the condition can be invaluable.
During my career I have been incredibly lucky to have worked for three great bosses. Each was different in their own way and possessed different attributes and, as a result, I was able to learn enormously from each of them.
As a person with Asperger Syndrome (AS), I found their support invaluable in areas such navigating the political landscape, understanding personalities and forewarning me of my own shortcomings and limitations. As one of them once told me “you are not very good at thinking on your feet”.
He was right of course, though he didn’t know about my condition. What was happening was I would need to reflect on an issue before arriving at my answer because of my slower cognitive processes.
This is why I believe that a mentor in the workplace can be even more advantageous for a person with Asperger Syndrome. The key is to find the right type of person.
In a recent article, Professor Adrian Furnham outlines and evaluates the benefits of a business coach. He identifies the C words: a coach as: someone who trains a performer by instruction and practice; a confidant to whom secrets are entrusted and; a consultant, an expert who provides professional advice.
During my time in business I have only divulged my condition to one boss, my one at the BBC and that was after I had left the organisation. However, whilst working with him I would indirectly refer to my condition and ask questions that would seek the answers I needed to issues that emanated from my condition.
He possessed all of the required, aforementioned qualities; not least of all because a family member of his was afflicted with quite a severe disability. This, in a way, made him [my boss] unique: he understood the difficulties that someone with a disability faces and was personally pre-disposed to assist them.
As a Coach he was incredibly helpful. Being a BBC 2lifer” he knew the organisation inside out and was able to inform and guide around the labyrinth of numerous, inter-twined departments, personalities and egos.
He was a great Consultant. His technical knowledge was profound and sound and crossed across more than his own technical area of expertise which was finance. He understood business and other areas like marketing and operations.
But key to me was that I could trust him as a Confidant. He was totally straight and, although he didn’t know about my condition, was someone I knew would be positively disposed to any personal concerns or insecurities that I had – he was totally trustworthy.
Professor Furnham then refers to M words including mentor: one who provides wise, disinterested support. The idea is that new (young) people in an organisation need help, advice and nurturing. Mentoring is about education, support and management via regular meetings to facilitate learning.
Some organisations support mentoring and make it an employee development priority. The BBC was, perhaps understandably, one of these and my boss fitted in with this organisational objective.
It is also about modelling desired behaviours whilst being impartial and non-judgemental. The mentor should seek to build awareness and confidence, and deepen and strengthen networks both in and outside the organization.
Prior to joining the BBC I had had a bitter personal, career experience. I had lost a job I loved and had been knifed by my then boss. My boss at the BBC intuitively understood this: “something has happened to you and I see it as part of my role to re-build your confidence!” Let’s be frank: you won’t come across many managers who will adopt that position.
All good. But the next point that The Sunday Times article makes is interesting: it is not a mentor’s job to become a personal therapist and try and sort out someone’s psychological problems and personal relationships.
A key to success according to Professor Furnham is that any programme has to be voluntary on both sides; that both mentor and mentee are well suited to each other. Organisational support for any programme is also important: mentors need to be trained and selected carefully.
The problem in relation to Asperger Syndrome of course is that most people don’t know about it, let alone understand it.
This relates to the next point in the article. An important question is how any mentor and mentee are paired. What are the criteria? Should it voluntary or compulsory? The actual process is also important.
With Asperger, all the points become more pronounced. For example, if a proposed mentor is unsuitable, then a compulsory pairing is likely to exacerbate the problem and be highly damaging. Does the mentor have the required skills to effectively develop a relationship with an employee with Asperger? Does the process need to be different, i.e. more regular meetings or written contact to provide clear, literal instructions?
It is for these reasons that I believe it is the individual with Asperger who needs to initiate and drive any mentoring relationship. Added to this is the issue of disclosure. If ones’ condition is not disclosed then this becomes even more important.
Though my boss at the BBC didn’t know about my AS during our working relationship, I was able to guide him via my preferred mode of operation: indirect disclosure. By informing him indirectly of needs by telling him that I needed my personal [office] workspace; by specifically asking for clear instructions.
I am not saying that a mentor is absolutely essential for a manager with Asperger Syndrome, but it is hugely beneficial. Considering the above and locating and working with the right type of individual can be a game-changer!