Celebrating differences and embracing strengths
21 December 2020 at 8:27 am
Mike Tozer is the CEO of Xceptional, an organisation finding work for people with autism by celebrating and harnessing their strengths and differences. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
When Tozer’s sister, who has autism, was fired from a cleaning job for taking an instruction too literally, he was frustrated.
He knew that his sister was an excellent employee with a great memory, and followed instructions with precision and determination. But because her workplace had not been able to make small adjustments to better accommodate her needs, she no longer had a job.
Her experience prompted Tozer to start Xceptional. It began as a tech service company that employed people with autism to provide software testing services for companies.
But within a few months, he saw there was greater potential for both businesses and job seekers, and so he launched a recruitment and placement service, transforming the way businesses work with austisic staff, and helping people with autism overcome barriers to work.
Xceptional has since partnered with leading global companies, won $1 million in funding from the Google.org Impact Challenge, and more recently picked up an award at the Australian Impact Investment Awards 2020 for securing impact investment through a linked financing model called the Beneficial Outcomes Linked Debt contract.
In this week’s Changemaker, Tozer talks about the power of harnessing differences, the biggest learnings of his career, and why he has hope for the future.
How did the idea for Xceptional come about?
In 2016 I was based in Hong Kong and I was looking at transitioning to Australia. I was doing a lot of interviewing and exploring my next steps. And at the same time I came across some stats around job searching for autistic people and how much harder it was for them to find work. My sister is on the spectrum and so I started talking to her and learning about her experiences. For people with autism, it’s about 12 times harder to find work than their neuro-typical peers.
In the same year, my sister had gotten fired from her job for following instructions too literally. She was working as a cleaner in a school, and was working on cleaning tables one shift, and they said to her, “We’ve done a special craft activity and we want you to clean the tables thoroughly”. She took that instruction and spent the whole shift just cleaning the tables. She didn’t empty the bins, didn’t wipe the whiteboard, or clean the teacher’s desk. And they gave this feedback to her afterwards, explaining what she had done wrong. I saw the feedback and I thought, they’re not understanding her strengths. I’ve known my sister for four decades, and I know that actually if you take the time to understand her and really utilise her strengths, she’d be the most amazing employee.
I [thought] this looked like a missed opportunity for properly deploying skills that people like my sister [had], and really embracing them [and] supporting them, [and] using them in ways that aligned well with businesses.
What have some of your biggest learnings been since starting Xceptional?
There’s a bit of a myth that autistic people are super needy or superheroes. And actually, in most cases, neither of those is true. They have amazing strengths, but then they have challenges like the rest of us.
What we’re doing is learning how to work with autistic people, but it goes both ways, because the staff are also learning how to work better. To give you an example, whenever we place someone into work, we ask them what their communication preferences are. Do they prefer a video chat, or to be on the phone? And when we work with the managers where we place them, the managers say this is just really good management. Understanding how someone likes to communicate is a really important thing to do in this day and age for anyone.
There’s also just the incredible challenges that people face. We have people that have applied for 800 jobs, sometimes not even getting an interview. So those are the barriers that people face. The persistence and tenacity in the face of that has been a very humbling lesson for me as well.
And what are some of the best parts about your job?
One of the best things for me is that moment of connecting a manager and a new employee. Seeing the individual get that job, that dignity of work, is amazing, but also the impact on the hiring manager. We put a guy called Aiden into work earlier this year with a firm called GeoSynergy and hearing his manager, Jeff, talk about his skills and [how] he wanted to get out of [Aiden’s] way and just let him really excel [was amazing]. Those are the moments that inspire me the most.
Do you have hope for the future of work?
I think what we’re doing is moving from awareness to understanding and embracing. It’s about going a step further than just thinking it’s a good thing, but actually seeing people employ autistic people on their team.
I mentioned that my sister has been the inspiration for doing the work I do, but my son is also autistic. He’s nine, so in 10 years time he’s going to be entering work, and so I often think about him. We’ve also heard from the National Disability Insurance Scheme that there are going to be tens of thousands of teenagers with autism who are also going to be entering the workforce in that time, so a lot of change has got to happen between now and then. But we keep seeing pockets of success, other companies that spring up, other technologies, and this year has seen a real acceptance of flexible working on a whole other scale which is something that we get requests for all the time.
If you add up all the people that are neuro-divergent, it’s one in seven people. That’s one billion people on the planet, the vast majority of whom are totally locked out of the workplace.
And so our north star, if you like, is to see all those people given the opportunity of contributing to the world of work.