By Kat Snodgrass, mthree's Head of Alumni Talent for the UK and Europe.
At an early age, I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is neurodiversity – a variation in the brain. Like other types of diversity, it helps organisations achieve their goals by bringing in new ways of thinking. That’s easy to say, but as a candidate with dyslexia, why exactly do you add value? What’s it like working with this learning difficulty? How will you manage the bits that are difficult? I’ve been there myself, so I wanted to share my experience as Head of Alumni Talent at mthree.
Dyslexia is very personal. No two people will have the same set of symptoms. It affects language processing, and I struggled with my speech, reading, writing and concentration. The diagnosis came before I had even started school, and I was lucky enough to have speech therapy and literacy sessions until senior school.
During senior school, the fear of being asked to read out chapters from Of Mice And Men was paralysing! The anxiety was excruciating and I can still get stressed about reading out loud today. In my current job, I’ll prepare a script that includes words I struggle to pronounce properly. But now I know I can take these words out or find creative ways of getting around them.
Many people with dyslexia need extra time because information doesn’t digest quickly for us. Even with the extra time, it doesn’t always stick. I had to work whilst at school and university to earn money, and looking back, it may have been beneficial to use this time studying. But the life skills I learnt when working in restaurants, bars and retail helped me secure the role I’m in now. Some recruiters say to take off irrelevant work experience from resumes – I disagree. I think it’s all relevant because it develops soft skills and contributes to the person you are today.
Traditionally, the way the education system works is that you spend your time reading, writing and listening, trying to take on board a vast amount of information to pass exams. But the working world relies on soft skills, like common sense and emotional intelligence, not just writing a lot of information all at once. It’s a feeling of relief, realising that the other skills you’ve picked up can help you achieve success, whereas getting top grades at school didn’t always feel attainable.
So when organisations hire dyslexic people, they get driven individuals who work hard to succeed. I may be stereotyping here but it’s true for me and I’ve seen it true for lots of candidates. I’ve been lucky in my career because my first corporate employer saw where I needed extra support. My manager was an amazing mentor, they sat next to me and corrected my emails until it became second nature.
Like anything, with practice we pick up tricks that help us in our jobs. I’ve built templates and I have a bank of sentences that I regularly use for replies and email etiquette.
Spell check also works wonders, although it doesn’t recognise half the words I try to write! While I don’t run every email by someone else nowadays, if I have an important email to send, I leave it in my drafts, re-read it, and read it out loud to check it makes sense before sending. It may sound long-winded but I have it down to a fine art now.
Writing a report or building a business plan can still sometimes be daunting as I know it requires a clear writing process. The idea of having to transfer my thoughts to paper, makes me immediately think “I’m not capable”, but I swiftly remember that I can and have done so before. I take on the challenge and once I’ve broken down a task into bite-size pieces, I always have the ability to deliver.
It’s all about making your work your style. You may find diagrams or charts easier than words, so go for it – as long as you’re getting your message across and delivering on what you need to, feel free to make it your own!
In group meetings, I sometimes struggle to articulate what I want to say. I take two approaches here – being assertive is part of my job, and so when it’s needed, I’ll give an immediate response. However, where necessary, I also jot down my thoughts, collate them and then re-address at a suitable time. I have a reactive nature but I’ve learnt to allow thinking time on topics and to come back to the group with well-thought-out views and points.
Companies often want to find people who take a different approach to solving problems, and that’s one of the benefits of neurodiversity. A dyslexic person has a different thought process to someone who isn’t dyslexic. Your colleague thinks one way, you think another way.
For example, after you’ve watched a presentation with your team, you might find that you come away from it with unanswered questions that nobody else has. This can be really useful because it helps catch more potential issues before they happen, with a bigger range of questions getting looked into in more detail.
I’ve also found that having dyslexia can make meetings more productive. I have a short attention span, so whenever I lead a meeting, I prepare a plan in advance to make sure I remember what I need to mention. This means we get down to the key points quickly. It can reduce the risk of meetings going on and on... especially big meetings...
One downside here is that it’s easy to forget the all-important small talk at the start of a meeting because you’re so focused on getting into it, so that’s something I’m working on. But because you’re prepared, at least your meeting is likely to do the job it’s supposed to.
This need for structure and clarity as a dyslexic can also help with project management. One time, when we were working on a location launch for the mthree Academy, we needed everyone to have a clear direction and clear action points. There were lots of moving parts, lots of people involved, lots of complications. In this situation it is helpful to be incredibly direct when communicating. I tend to be pretty direct all the time, having planned what I’m going to say in advance, unlike some people who can think on their feet.
Another trait of dyslexia is becoming frustrated, partly due to struggling with detail. Things like long forms, administration, becoming easily distracted, difficulty remembering names, being hard on ourselves when we make a mistake – the list goes on. This can actually be a good thing as it enables others to look at the bigger picture. Firstly because dyslexic people don’t get so weighed down by the detail, and secondly because we tend to need to simplify something in order to digest it. Often it’s not just you who’s having trouble – what if your colleague is struggling to understand too, but they don't realise it, or they don’t have the confidence to say so? Another way dyslexia seems to help with relationships at work is to do with reading nonverbal signals. Being not so good with words, I’ve found I pick up on other signs, like body language or a general vibe, that suggest when someone is uncomfortable or needs support.
Yes, dyslexia is challenging, but it also means you have something to offer that others don’t. Just be transparent with colleagues and feel comfortable to be yourself! Don’t let what you may see as weaknesses hold you back, these aspects in fact are your strengths. That’s why diversity in mind is so important for all teams.