Summary

ENABLING POWER
Leaders with disabilities are under-represented in senior roles. Tailored coaching has the power to change that.
Yvette Sargood and Caroline Dove report

There is a stark under-representation of leaders with disabilities at senior levels in most organisations today. From the complexities around personal disclosure to systemic and cultural barriers, the reasons are complex. But these challenges are not insurmountable, nor should they be a barrier to individual or organisational growth.

In this article, based on our own lived experiences of disability, coupled with our expertise in working with leaders and executives, we highlight what can be gained for both organisational and individual success by investing in tailored coaching opportunities for high potential leaders with disabilities (purple leadership talent – so-called because of the use of the colour purple in disability rights and awareness campaigns).

The business case for change

While DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) has been prioritised as a strategic agenda item by many organisations in recent years, a focus on disability has been conspicuously absent. This, in spite of the fact that 1.3 billion people in the world live with a disability (World Health Organisation, 2023), nearly one in four in the UK (Department for Work and Pensions, 2023), making this population the largest minority group.

Thankfully, things are changing. Some 500 of the world’s most progressive businesses recently came together through The Valuable 500 to collectively lead a business agenda for disability inclusion, not as a social response but because it makes great business sense as a source of competitive advantage (Luisa & Vermeulen, 2023).

It’s an overdue recognition of the many unique skills and perspectives that disabled employees can bring to the workplace through their lived experience, and the positive impact this can have on organisational performance and culture.

However, this progress in disability inclusion hasn’t yet translated into increased representation at the leadership level. In fact, in a 2021 report, there were no executives or senior leaders in the FTSE 100 who disclosed a disability (Tortoise Media, 2021). Hopefully, more recent data being reported by some organisations will begin to change this statistic.

Complexity surrounding representation

One reason for this is the lack of space for meaningful discussions at senior level around disability inclusive leadership, and the associated reluctance that some disabled employees may have around disclosure. Consequently, there’s a lack of representation and limited data available in organisations to either reflect the true picture of a business or encourage purple leadership talent to see themselves reflected within it.

A recent global study showed that only 3% of senior leaders and executives speak out about their disability (The Valuable 500, 2023). Co-author Yvette Sargood herself recalls how she made this same choice while working as a leader in organisations for fear of bias stalling her career progression, adding: “Many disabled employees choose not to disclose their disability for complex reasons. Moreover, people with disabilities cannot see or hear role models like them in senior roles in their organisations, empowering them to imagine what is possible for their career.”

This lack of disclosure may compound this under-representation as this future talent could be missing out on the adjustments organisations could make to create a more conducive working environment.

Co-author Caroline Dove adds: “Whether the issue here is ultimately down to lack of disclosure, limited capture of data on disability in organisations or a true reflection of under-representation, the result is the same. There are limited meaningful discussions at the top of organisations of the importance of disability inclusive leadership.”

Some of these issues need to be addressed through systemic and cultural change, such as creating environments where purple leadership talent feel psychologically safe to disclose their disability, and ensuring equity in access to developmental opportunities and progression. This would go some way to address the shortcomings revealed by recent employee engagement surveys, which indicate that colleagues with disabilities are less engaged and less likely to say that their manager shows a genuine interest in their career aspirations (Webber, 2023).

Alongside shifting workplace culture, organisations would do well to provide targeted support for purple leadership talent through one-to-one coaching.

Coaching purple leadership talent

One-to-one coaching is recognised as a highly effective intervention to help prepare high potential leaders for senior roles. This investment is even more necessary for purple leadership talent, given the unique nature of each individual’s disability journey. In addition, the personal evolution of living with disability is often complex, sometimes resulting in unpredictable changes in health. This can have a knock-on impact on how people relate to themselves, their disability and their stakeholders around them.

Identity

Part of the coaching therefore needs to involve an awareness of the inner conflicts that people with disabilities might have about their identity. As organisations lay the foundations for disability inclusion, this targeted support will address the complexities of disability, thereby accelerating the growth of purple leadership talent and preparing people to engage with the kind of personal transformation that can support them in their career progression.

Strengths and wellbeing

Many of the potential derailers or over-used strengths synonymous with high potential leaders, may be further heightened for people with disabilities, and need to be taken into account. For example, striving, or the tendency to over deliver, perhaps coupled with a personal determination to prove themselves despite the odds, may encourage purple leadership talent to forsake their wellbeing in favour of reaching for external achievement. For purple leadership talent, this is a particularly precarious risk given that their wellbeing is a critical factor in their capacity to thrive.

Dove explains: “Conversely, some people may be reluctant to put themselves in the spotlight if they haven’t had a chance to reconcile their experience of disability or a diagnosis. Or they might perceive it to be psychologically unsafe to do so. It may also be that some physical and environmental challenges may create a sense of exclusion from certain organisational activities such as social team building events, making purple leadership talent less visible to senior stakeholders. Nevertheless, being disabled can be a catalyst for great wisdom.”

Those individuals who have worked out how to transform significant disability and translate this into high performance at work, may have superlative skills and experiences that are highly valued in organisations today, such as resilience in the face of adversity.

Carole Pemberton (Hall & Ellison, 2015) compares resilience to a slinky toy: “it extends and stretches over a challenging step, then springs forward, gathering itself together again”.

Related skills may include dealing with ambiguity and adapting quickly to change, strong interpersonal skills and creativity.

Sargood says: “Many of these behaviours relate to learning agility or the ability to ‘learn, adapt, unlearn and relearn to keep up with constantly changing conditions in the workplace’ (Harver Team, 2019) a concept used in many organisations to identify and develop leadership talent.”

Dove adds: “Some purple leadership talent may possess unique and unconventional strengths such as neurodiversity and an aptitude for radical creativity, alongside less well-developed skills that may currently be holding the talent back. The challenge for organisations is how they best leverage these unique skills and perspectives within their system.”

Implications for the coaching process

Establishing clear expectations of success for the coaching between the coach and the organisation and a contract that attends to these unique characteristics is a key step in ensuring the coaching offered to purple leadership talent serves both their needs and those of the organisation.

There are challenges and learning points involved for everyone in the process. Crucially, the coach will need to work through difficult dilemmas in the equity discussion with the organisation. For example, is the organisation prepared to suspend expectations of strengths in all the required competencies for a more senior level role? How can the organisation be encouraged to creatively leverage the unique strengths and perspectives of purple leadership talent, compensating for lesser developed skills or challenges through other team members or support activities?

Sargood and Dove highlight that there’s an onus on coaches as much as the organisations to finetune their approach when working with purple leadership talent, to create a transformative rather than a transactional outcome. For instance, it’ll be important for the coach to be aware of their own personal bias and triggers, and to feel confident in their abilities to effectively work with the client. Equally, coaches need to be cautious about not colluding with or dwelling on the complexities of a particular disability, at the expense of the client’s primary goal to move forward towards a more senior leadership role.

Just as systemic and cultural change takes time, so does a meaningful coaching intervention – typically a six-month intervention is needed to effect impact and change with regular three-way check-ins that involve the sponsor/organisation, the coach and the client.

Delivering success

In addition to the updated Core Competencies identified by the International Coach Federation (2019) and experience as corporate coaches, Sargood and Dove suggest that “empathy and understanding of disability” should be at the heart of this kind of intervention in order to realise a successful outcome.

Figure 1: Empathy and understanding of disability at the heart of the coaching relationship

Sargood says: “It would be unrealistic to expect a coach to understand the full breadth of people’s experiences given the huge variety of unique disability journeys. However, a lived experience of disability, or personal experience and connection to it, brings a unique perspective to the coaching, and in our experience, an immediate credibility and authenticity to the coach-client relationship. A recent leadership client described this lived experience as a ‘game changer’, saying that it… ‘added an invaluable dimension to my work with them’.”

This approach can create an immediate connection and rapport; a sense that the coach understands some of the physical, emotional and wider social challenges of living and working with a disability. The coach’s role is to help the client navigate the complexities of their mind, body and emotions in context of the organisation.

By creating a psychologically safe container in which people can explore their relationship to themselves, their disability and their attitude to leadership, coaching can empower purple leadership talent to develop a positive identity as a base from which to advocate for themselves. This will invariably benefit the organisation when the barriers to progression are navigated and resolved at a more personal level.

If done well, this tailored coaching has enormous potential to effect change at the individual, systemic and organisational level. It can address the under-representation of purple leadership talent in senior roles, empower leadership candidates with disabilities to see what is possible, and in turn begin to dismantle barriers in organisations, creating a more disability inclusive culture for future leadership talent with disabilities to thrive.

Disability: a definition

This article uses the definition of disability set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). This is a standard that the Valuable 500 encourage its private sector member companies to use. The Convention defines persons with disabilities in Article 1 as including “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

References

Department for Work and Pensions. (2023, October 26). Official Statistics: Employment of Disabled People 2023. GOV.UK. https://bit.ly/3w1DEqL
Hall, L., & Ellison, R. (2015). Resilience – Think of a Slinky. Coaching at Work, 10(5), 2015. https://www.coaching-at-work.com/2015/09/03/resilience-think-of-a-slinky/
Harver Team. (2019, August 22). Learning Agility: What it is and how to assess it. Harver. https://harver.com/blog/learning-agility/
International Coach Federation. (2019, October). International Coach Federation Core Competencies. https://coachingfederation.org/credentials-and-standards/core-competencies
Luisa, A., & Vermeulen, F. (2023, July 1). Disability as a source of Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Review. https://store.hbr.org/product/disability-as-a-source-of-competitive-advantage/R2304H
The Valuable 500. (2023). The importance of inclusive leadership. The Valuable500 Trend Report (11). Valuable-500-Trends-Report-Issue-11-FINAL_a11y-2.pdf
Tortoise Media. (2021). The Tortoise Disability 100 Report. An in-depth look at reporting by FTSE100 companies on issues of disability inclusion and representation. Tortoise Media. https://www.tortoisemedia.com/disability100-report/
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (2006). Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Disability. Article 1 – Purpose. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. https://bit.ly/3vZnPRf
Webber, A. (2023, April 4). Disabled employees displaying lower levels of engagement. Personnel Today. https://bit.ly/49mkxWB
World Health Organisation (2023, March 7). Disability. World Health Organisation. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health

About the authors

Yvette Sargood, MSc is founder and head of coaching at Purple Leadership Coaching focused on increasing the representation of leaders with disabilities in senior positions. This strategic agenda is very personal to Yvette – a sweet spot between her personal experience of disability and work as a senior talent leader in global high-tech organisations and executive coach. Her ambition is to effect significant change at the organisational level and enable future leaders with disabilities, through her coaching, to make it to the top.
Caroline Dove, MBA, is a collaborator and coach at Purple Leadership Coaching. Caroline brings her corporate experience in leadership development, talent management and coaching in financial services and consulting to the world of disability and inclusion. Lived experience allows her to help her clients build game changing insights and an ambitious focus through their career transitions; now coaching increasingly more neurodiverse and disabled people or those living with chronic health conditions to progress into senior leadership roles.

Jurgen Muress
Jurgen Muress

I support the development of high potential people with disabilities in organisations around the world

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