D&I Interview Series #2: Jake Hobson, CBRE

April 24, 2020

Following on from our interview with Leng Montgomery earlier in the year, it is our pleasure to release the second interview in my D&I series for the year with Jake Hobson, Diversity, Inclusion and Responsible Business Associate Director at CBRE, with a focus on neurodiversity.  

Sometimes though we find that the D&I space has not developed as it should within business and it is interesting to hear the stories of how we are not advancing this very important topic. We want to share some of these experiences via a series of interviews with some of our contacts and would love to your story as well. 

Please introduce yourself:

I’m Jake Hobson, CBRE’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager for our advisory business which is approximately 3000 people. I also work closely with our global workplace solutions business who are often onsite with clients supporting the operational roles needed to keep a building running.

As the standalone lead for D&I at CBRE, what has been your biggest challenge to date?

Firstly, there isn’t enough hours in the day to be able to achieve everything that you would like to which for me has been a real challenge for me to overcome. It can be really easy to put a lot of pressure on myself because I care about wanting to make a positive difference and see the results of the work that I do. Secondly, and what I wasn’t prepared for, was the Imposter Syndrome. Having previously worked in a team with others, moving into a role where you are the face of D&I really caused me to have self-doubt in my own ability and knowledge. Thankfully the People team at CBRE soon made me feel at ease but that feeling took me by surprise.

If you break down Diversity & Inclusion, there are lots of moving parts in there, could you tell us a little more about one of the ‘newer’ parts: Neurodiversity?

The phrase neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990’s by two individuals: journalist Harvey Blume, and autism advocate Judy Singer, so it’s over 20 years old – we’re just hearing about it in the mainstream now.

Neurodiversity refers to the normal variation in the human brain, both in its makeup and its functioning. Every brain is different; there are no two brains exactly alike. Even identical twins that have the same genes will not have the exact same brain. Our brain is shaped by our genetic make-up and our environment so identical twins experiences will have shaped their brains differently. But in some brains, including my own, the differences end up in a sort of ‘hard-wiring’ where I process information in a slightly different way. These result in conditions that include Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD and Dysgraphia and the term is often used as a collective title for these hard-wired differences.  

It’s important for us to understand the language around neurodiversity. Just like with other types of diversity, an individual cannot be diverse. The term refers to groups or trends e.g. “neurodiversity enriches my team”. If you are speaking about an individual whose brain functioning differs from the norm they are neurodivergent e.g. “This role would be suited to someone who is neurodivergent”.

Being a more niche area of diversity, how have you worked to communicate and educate leadership on including this population group?

This is a great question. One of the ways that I have engaged leaders on the benefits of having neurodiverse talent is using the idea that we no longer live in a market share economy, which I describe as “I have something you don’t so I sell it to you and now you have it”. We’ve shifted into what I call a mind-share economy where ideas, innovation and solutions are needed for tomorrows problems, today. I tell leaders that “I have an idea, you have an idea, lets combine the best of both ideas and now we have three ideas. What is the best for this situation?” That is what a mind-share economy looks like. Neurodiverse people are hard-wired to think in a different, often more creative way than neurotypical (those without a condition) people.

Are there businesses or organisations that support on neurodiversity initiatives?

Being diagnosed with Dyspraxia when I was 9 years old, I have seen first-hand how there has been a huge shift in the appreciation and benefits of having neurodiverse talent in the workplace. I mean, even in my own career, if you had told me at 16 years old that one day I would be leading the development and implementation of a strategy for a global organisation, I would have laughed.

It’s no surprise that a number of entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson are neurodiverse (Richard has dyslexia) because the world of work hasn’t been set up for neurodiverse people to thrive. However increasingly, companies such as Auticon, EY and Goldman Sachs have realised that there is a real benefit to changing the way they are structured to create a culture that is inclusive for neurodiverse people. Remember, the people don’t need fixing – the company does.

How sensitive is this topic? Do you find that those who class themselves as neurodiverse are open to talking about it?

I guess I can answer this from both personal and professional views. Personally, there absolutely is real sensitivity with talking about their condition.

It’s deeply personal and often people worry whether it will put them at a disadvantage because the understanding is still not mainstream enough to feel safe to share. It wasn’t until I began working in D&I did I actually tell anyone about having Dyspraxia because of this very reason and I have spent the past five years crafting my own voice and narrative on this.

Professionally though, I think companies can do so much more in creating safe spaces for people to connect. I launched CBRE’s Ability Network in December last year, and have been working to raise the profile of neurodiverse conditions. Since doing so, we’ve formed a community within the network just for neurodiverse people to come together and allow me to understand what it is like to work at CBRE and what we can do to improve.

How would a company ensure that they being inclusive towards neurodiverse candidates during a recruitment process?

From a recruitment perspective, you have to break this down into attraction, recruitment and onboarding as each of these stages need to be considered.

When it comes to attracting neurodiverse people, your first step is knowing what you’re hiring for. What are the skills needed for this role? What are the critical outputs for success? The most successful neurodiverse hires are the ones where you have thought about the skills needed for the role. At CBRE, we’ve identified some roles within our research team where we able to hire more people with autism because the skills needed plays to the strengths that people with autism have in spotting patterns and inconsistencies.

When it comes to recruiting, the best thing you can do is to be transparent about each stage of the interview process and ensure you consistently ask candidates whether they need any adjustments throughout the process. Equally, question whether your interviewers are trained to be confident with hired a diverse array of candidates. A majority of neurodiverse people do not find out that they have a condition until they join the world of work so its highly likely that you will have interviewed someone already who hasn’t told you they might need an adjustments.

How would a business ensure that a neuro diverse candidate had the right support & setup when starting a new position

The onboarding is critical and often the weakest link in bringing people into a business. If you have made an adjustment to a candidates interview process, you should also consider what adjustments they might need to the job. You might organise an Occupational Health referral for their first week to ensure they have the adjustments they need to perform the job effectively – if you do not do this then you are setting your candidate up to fail.

But also remember that sometimes, people won’t know about having a condition, or even tell you and so providing ongoing opportunities to discuss what you offer your employees in terms of support encourages more open and inclusive cultures.