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One former bank executive’s quest to make the workforce more ‘neurodiverse’

Editor’s Note: Done with the private sector, but not ready to retire? A Harvard fellowship program gives high-powered baby boomers the tools and knowledge they need to take on a second career in the social sector. Economics correspondent Paul Solman traveled to Harvard University to talk with the program director and participants like Lynne Wines. A former bank executive, Wines came to Harvard looking to scale and fine-tune a program to get businesses to hire more more “neurodiverse” employees — that is, people with Asperger’s, autism, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress disorder, Tourette’s — people whose brains are “wired differently,” she says.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length. For more information, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: What was your career before this?

Lynne Wines: I’ve been in banking for 35 years.

Paul Solman: And why did you switch?

Lynne Wines: I have run several commercial banks throughout the state of Florida. And after I sold the last one that I ran in 2014, I decided it was time to do something else with my life.

Paul Solman: And not just golf.

Lynne Wines: Definitely not golf, nobody wants to play golf with me!

Paul Solman: So what were you thinking about as a next career?

Lynne Wines: I’ve always been involved in the community. And really what got me most excited was either mentoring other people who worked within my companies or giving back to the community. A friend of mine who had attended Harvard as an adult in his 60s sent me a link to the Advanced Leadership Initiative Program. And as soon as I saw it, I knew it’s what I wanted to do.

Paul Solman: Did you have a specific project or perspective project in mind?

Lynne Wines: I was already working on a project with a business partner in Florida on advocating for the neurodiverse population — particularly advocating for employment for neurodiverse adults, because there are so few services for adults. That’s the project I brought with me to try to scale and fine-tune and make more successful.

Paul Solman: What do you mean by neurodiverse?

Lynne Wines: So the concept of neurodiversity is that all brains are wired differently. We all think differently, we all learn differently, we all react differently. And yet many of our institutions, including many of our employers, educators and the military, are designed for one type of thinking. And what we want is for people to understand and open their hearts and minds to people who think differently. The neurodiverse population that we are focusing on includes people that have Asperger’s autism, dyslexia, post traumatic stress disorder, Tourette syndrome, ADHD — those types of cognitive disabilities.

Paul Solman: Do you think of them as disabilities or just diversity?

Lynne Wines: Well, that’s a great question, and it really depends. Some people self-identify as disabled, and they can get some benefit from that. It also depends on the severity of their thinking and the way they perform in different circumstances. Other people don’t want to identify with that at all.

And there are some brilliant people. Almost 50 percent of people on the Asperger’s and autistic spectrum, which is considered autism today, have average to above average IQs. And many of them have graduate degrees, and it’s a matter of being able to train the employers to understand that they many not interview the same as you and I would interview, they may not take a written test the same, and they may not behave in certain social circumstances, the way that we would. But that doesn’t make them not valuable employees. And so our focus is really to educate employers.

Paul Solman: So what is the project? What is the business?

Lynne Wines: We are creating online modules that are training programs. We really are in a very embryonic stage at this point, but certain people, like CEOs and HR executives, we would go and train one-on-one. And then we might train line managers in a seminar environment. We or other associates in the company would probably train workers through online modules. And it’s a training on acceptance, awareness of differences and not perceiving somebody’s differences in a negative light.

Paul Solman: What would the teaching be like? How would you be sensitizing me to a person with whom I wouldn’t naturally or normally be comfortable?

Lynne Wines: Alright, so let’s take somebody with Asperger’s who may not be comfortable making eye contact in an interview. Many of us who have hired and interviewed people throughout our careers, we consider eye contact important.

Paul Solman: Crucial.

Lynne Wines: Well, this person could have a very high IQ and be very gifted at a particular skill, but they might not make eye contact in an interview. So that is something that we would try to help people understand. We would also help the HR director understand that somebody with dyslexia may not be able to take a written test or submit a written application, but they may be the best employee that they ever had.

Paul Solman: What was it like going back to school after a successful career?

Lynne Wines: I think many of us consider ourselves to always be in a learning environment, that’s why a lot of us are successful — we’ve always been learning. But to be back in an academic environment is very unique and to live in what feels like a cocoon of academia here is freeing.

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