A crisis of confidence?

We need to overcome ignorance around disability to create better leadership pathways Ben Hewlett Jan 30, 2024

In an era that desperately wants to be marked by progress and inclusivity, society and business at large has come a long way in recognising the importance of diversity in leadership.

Much is discussed and actioned around gender, race, sexual orientation, and social mobility, but an issue that continues to face challenges in corporate leadership is disability.

An estimated 1.3bn people in the world live with a disability – equating to one in six of us – but despite advancements in workplace inclusivity, disabled talent remains drastically underrepresented. According to the Valuable 500, the number of CEOs who have disclosed a disability comes in at 4%.

The time has come for a paradigm shift – a concerted effort to create more opportunities for disabled individuals to thrive in leadership roles – and it is on executive search and recruiters across the board to help make this happen.

But are we scared? Do we have the tools, the confidence to help us navigate what can be sometimes awkward and even emotionally challenging situations? Has our social upbringing created a lack of awareness bordering on ignorance meant we just can’t deal?


At the close of 2023, I attended a fascinating debate event held by the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) entitled ‘Disability Confident Question Time’ event, hosted by The Right Honourable Chloe Smith MP at the Houses of Parliament - Portcullis House.

The panel included industry heavyweights: Neil Carberry, CEO, Recruitment Employment Confederation; Kate Headley, Director, the Clear Company; Mark Lomas, Head of Culture at Lloyds; Jaqui Sampson, Director EU Workforce Staffing at Amazon; and Maria Zedda, Workforce Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, HS2.

Based on the format of the well-known television programme Question Time, RIDI and the headline sponsor Amazon, held a frank and open discussion together on the major disability inclusion recruitment priorities facing us all.

From the provision of accessible application systems, through to getting the workplace right for disabled people from day one, the panel shared their views and experiences on the entire recruitment process. They will also offer practical actions for how the sector can work together towards a more inclusive and equitable workforce.


Helpful insights included:

"Not to overthink it and just get started, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and not let lack of preparedness be an excuse for inaction. Tap into external specialist organisations for advice and support and listen to your current and future disabled talent to understand what you need to do." - Jaqui Sampson

"Don’t expect to be perfect - doing something is better than doing nothing. Start by looking at the Disability Confident video series that RIDI, Clear Company and REC worked together on."
- Neil Carberry

"To be authentic with a genuine desire to be disability confident which will naturally lead to the right behaviours, accept a need to self-educate and learn from those with lived experience."
- Kate Headley

We know that the first step towards this transformation is the acknowledgment that disability should not be viewed as a limitation, but rather as a unique perspective that enriches the corporate landscape.

Our job in exec search is to ensure that companies recognise the untapped potential within disabled talent and actively seek to harness it. This shift in mindset is crucial in dismantling the prevailing stereotypes and biases that hinder the professional growth of disabled individuals.

Our key advice in making simple inroads to improve confidence and capability:

  • Prioritise accessibility and accommodation, ensuring that workplaces are designed to be inclusive for all. This involves not only physical accessibility but also the implementation of technologies that facilitate the seamless integration of disabled talent into the workforce
  • Embrace flexible work arrangements and use assistive technologies to help empower disabled individuals to contribute effectively and showcase their leadership capabilities
  • Mentorship and sponsorship programs tailored to the needs of disabled employees can play a pivotal role in nurturing leadership skills. Establishing connections with seasoned leaders who have successfully navigated their careers despite disabilities can provide invaluable insights and guidance. Companies should actively encourage the formation of networks that facilitate mentorship and create a supportive community for disabled professionals aspiring to lead.

Ultimately, what we have learned over the past few years is that equity is about creating workplaces and cultures based on the needs of the individual, but until organisations can combat the prevailing stigmas associated with disabilities this will not be a functioning whole.

By fostering a culture of empathy and understanding, companies can create an environment where disabled individuals feel valued and encouraged to showcase their leadership potential without fear of prejudice or bias.

Embracing diversity, fostering inclusivity, and challenging preconceived notions about disabilities will pave the way for a more equitable future, where everyone, regardless of ability, has the chance to lead and excel.

We know the time is ripe for a transformation that will redefine the landscape of leadership and create a more vibrant, innovative, and inclusive corporate world – do you?

Want to talk more about how we can help you improve leadership culture?

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