What dyslexia has taught me about building a business
By Chris Kemp, founder & CEO, Ingenuity
When someone tells you at an early age that you’re “stupid” it can spur you on or consign you to a lifetime of self-doubt. In my case, the teacher who denied my dyslexia and decided it was an IQ issue made me the entrepreneur I am today.
I’m not an avid reader, try to avoid writing, and sweat over spelling and grammar when I send emails. (You’ve probably guessed that I had help drafting this article – though all the points it makes are my own.) But my dyslexia diagnosis in childhood left me determined to focus on other skills I could develop to be successful in business.
You’re doubtless aware of famous entrepreneurs with dyslexia. Possibly the most prominent is Richard Branson, who calls dyslexia his “superpower”. What you might not know is the extent of dyslexia in the UK workforce, something Dyslexia Week prompted me to investigate. It turns out senior businesspeople with dyslexia are just the tip of the iceberg.
The UK Government estimates 10% of our population is dyslexic. In addition, research from trade body the Data & Marketing Association revealed that of the 6% of employees with a diagnosed neurodevelopmental condition, 37% state they are dyslexic.
I was surprised at the extent of dyslexia at businesses today. Those statistics have also made me consider more closely how organisations can embrace neurodiversity within their teams.
Moving forward with dyslexia
The best advice I can offer people is not to shy away from the difference, and difficulties, presented by dyslexia and other conditions. That goes for fellow entrepreneurs, whether they’re budding Bransons or have already been successful; employees who are keen to get on; and business leaders in general.
I’ve always enjoyed meeting people, hearing about their business challenges, and discussing how to solve them. I believe being dyslexic has actually strengthened – or even created – this side of my personality and soon became a key skill that drove me forward in business.
Saying “I’m a people person” sounds like a bit of a commercial cliché. It also might seem an obvious component for someone who runs an 80-person business development consultancy. But I meet lots of senior business leaders who clearly don’t take the time to sharpen up their communication skills. Personally, I think their organisations will be weaker for that.
Decision-making with dyslexia can be different, too. I won’t sit at my desk with lengthy lists of potential strategies or operational issues. I’ve learned to visualise problems and possible solutions, and quickly choose the best way to proceed. And I like to surround myself with people when I’m doing this.
Occasionally I might be too quick to make decisions. But because of my dyslexia it’s not in my character to analyse and agonise over details when clients or employees just need a quick take on something.
On a practical level, I don’t like to spend time reading lengthy texts if I don’t have to. I prefer to have conversations whenever that’s possible. Podcasts and audiobooks are my go-to for business news and views. I find it’s the best way to absorb information.
Don’t hide it, hone it
Of course, the problems that come with dyslexia still occur every day. It isn’t something that just disappears when you get a diagnosis. I’d be lying if I said I don’t get anxious about writing an important email – or at least checking it a thousand times before pressing send.
But I prefer to focus on attributes I can control, improve, and use. Business relationships and decision-making are two skills I might not have built if I wasn’t dyslexic. There are plenty of other qualities people with dyslexia have, too, as described in Ron Davis’ brilliant book The Gift of Dyslexia. These include:
- vivid imagination which assists with conceptual ideas
- deep curiosity to explore business strategies
- empathy to understand many points of view
- high awareness of environment, aiding communication
- strong intuition to drive fast – and hopefully accurate – choices
- resilience – if we can overcome this, we can achieve anything
I’d wager your business could use some of these characteristics, which dyslexics in your team – possibly yourself included – might be keeping hidden. Our job is to tease them to the surface, help people hone them, and harness their power.
Dyslexia has played a big part in shaping my career and the way that I deal with commercial issues and opportunities as they arise.
Things have undoubtedly moved on since the days when businesses were dismissive of “different” employees. But that doesn’t mean we’ve fully fixed the problem. We must seek to remove any remaining stigma and recognise people’s differences are a good thing.
You could say it’s time to read the room and understand what dyslexia can do for your business.