Podcast Episode 72 Everyone has unique skills; everyone is a specialist in something. This is something this week’s guest Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne understands completely. Specialisterne translates from Danish as “The Specialists” is an organisation focused on helping young people with additional needs find meaningful employment. The focus is on matching the skills of the individual with the role not trying to make the person fit the job.
Specialisterne have also developed a unique approach to assessing the skill of individuals in a way that enables them to showcase their individual skills as well as show how they work in a team. This is in recognition that traditional interview approaches limit the opportunities for young people with additional needs to fully illustrate what they are capable of.
Specialisterne also work with employers proactively, to not only help them maximise the skills of their employees but, with practical support around what reasonable adjustments might be necessary in any workplace.
Specialisterne also has a much wider purpose than just helping people find work, they are on a mission to show employers how they are missing out on utilising an incredible pool of talented individuals with specialist skills that could give their organisation a competitive advantage.Show Full Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 72 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode, I’m talking to Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne which is an organisation that aims to change people’s mindsets around what makes a great employee. Thorkil explains why and how Specialisterne came to be, but this one to highlight a couple of things that I think are really important. The first is about the interview process. And speaking for my own personal experience with my daughter, I can already say that a formal interview process won’t really bring out the best in her. It won’t show potential employer what she’s capable of. So one of the innovations that Specialisterne has is an interview process that actually doesn’t include an interview.
And second, the idea of training and supporting employers. I think this is really key when it comes to increasing employment options for young people with additional needs. There are already schemes out there that help people get into work. The challenge for many seems to be staying in their jobs. And one reason I think for this is (and this is really coming from speaking to lots of employers on the podcast interviews) is an employers need to be trained as well and they need to be supported. And making this a key part of what we do to increase employment opportunities is in my opinion key to going forward because as it is being said by many people on the podcast, it’s about understanding, it’s about awareness, it’s about acceptance– acceptance of an individual’s skills, acceptance of the individual, and also seeing what they bring to the workplace and to a team. And Thorkil talks about that as well. Certain more about how Specialisterne is helping employers to harness the under-utilised talents of so many young people.
DEBRA: Today I am talking to Thorkil Sonne from Specialisterne which is based in Denmark. Welcome, Thorkil.
THORKIL: Thank you, Debra.
DEBRA: Can you tell me a little about the story of Specialisterne?
THORKIL: So 20 years ago, I was technical director in an IT company. The traditional family life– 3 kids. When my youngest son was diagnosed with autism, the idea of a perfect family was challenged because we didn’t know better at that time. Suddenly to have a disabled child among us, it made us reflect on a lot of things and we’d read books about autism and that kind of documented why we should not expect too much and why our son should not expect too much. But even though we as parents took some tumbles then nothing changed for our son. He was the same wonderful child the day before and the day after the diagnosis.
So when we realised that, we skipped the trap of pity that many fall into at that time and we thought, well the most important thing is how can we support his development and how can we do what we can to make sure that he’s included like everyone else like his older siblings, like everyone else. So we came to a conclusion, instead of trying to train our son to behave like a non-autistic child so he could get a job, one day rather see if we could change the labour market so be more understanding and accommodating and creating zones for everyone where they can excel instead of having a few standards to you had to fit into.
In my career as an IT professional, I knew how difficult it is to find people who will hide pride in what they do, high accuracy, attention to detail, critical thinking, honesty.. they’re hard to find. But I also learned that there are a lot of people out there with those characteristics who don’t get a chance just because they don’t live up to the social expectations in any occupation. So I decided to try to change that and I quit my job and started as a social entrepreneur with Specialisterne in 2004. Specialisterne by the way is Danish for Specialists who want to create a room in the labour market for those who are not just generalists and fit the expectations from recruiters.
DEBRA: When you started the organisation, did you partner up with employers? How did it kind of started?
THORKIL: It started in a way where my former employer, I went to the HR Director and said, “I love working here but I feel I have to do something else.” And I told him about my son. My experience from them when I was acted being in Autism Denmark, so many who don’t get a chance while there are so many unfilled jobs. And I feel I need to try to make a change here. And then, my former employer we agreed that I should discuss with managers in my former employer company to see if they could be the first client and so I had talked to my former colleagues and a lot of them said, “Makes sense. We need to have tasks sort and many of these tasks good be a good fit such as software testing, data-analysis, data entries.”
So when I signed my resignation, I also signed the first client contract. So that gave me room to work on the essentials; how do I organize. I never went to business school, I did not know how to start a company but I feel I had to. So I tried to figure out how do I figure out what autistic people are good at? My competitors, they’ll hire the ones with the best resumes, CVs, job experience, education. I claim that there’s a lot of raw material among autistic people that can be utilized but what is it, how do I find it and how do I create environments where autistic people can excel, what they’re good at instead of trying to predict how to interact correctly the next situation.
So I went to Lego because I found out when meeting with other parents that one of few areas where many autistic people excel is when they play with Lego, so there’s some kind of systematic that could be a window to view on what are autistic people good at, motivated for. Communication is one of the challenges and when they’re not good at selling themselves and writing above themselves, how do I find out so that it would end. I thought if I can make them show me instead of telling me about themselves, that’s one way to grow.
And I went to Lego and came back with a Lego mindstorms robots that turned out to be a wonderful tool for creating playful environments where autistic people thought they were playing but actually they were showing us a lot about motivation, vulnerability, individual skills, shared skills and professional skills. So that worked out well.
I started up in a small city. I didn’t have any startup capital, I had to ask my wife if it was okay to mortgage the house. She said yes and we’re still married but I had no money when we started, only the contract with the employer and upfront payments. So whatever chances came we have to sold it because it was not a parking ticket it was a family’s economy that was at stake almost from day 1.
So I went to employers and with the case from my former employer that’s now called TDC in Denmark. I went and got my second employer and third employer and then BBC Worldnews came along and suddenly it was a story globally. And there I receives requests from all over the world from more than a hundred countries who were saying, “For our kids’ independent future, please come and do something in our country.” And when families contact me I cannot say no because I’m also a parent. I do understand their frustration and their hope. I guess I can say, “Be patient.”
And then I founded Specialisterne and the foundation in 2008. The goal to generate 1 million jobs for autistic people and people with similar challenges around the world. So this is now the platform where I’m the chairman of the foundation. I’m associated with the world economic forum as what the foundation social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow global network of social entrepreneurs and Specialisterne Foundation is associated with United Nations. So we have some big stages to work from and then we started Specialisterne in other countries. We now have operations in 12 countries. We worked with big employers around the world and we’d been copied by so many. We love to be copied. So probably my estimate is that probably 10,000 autistic people have gotten a job because of what we started back in 2004.
DEBRA: Let me go back to the bit about the robot, so what you got was the guys I’m assuming playing with the robots and from that you work out what their skills were, what did you then do in terms of going to the organisation and saying, “We have a person with these skills, these skills, and these skills.” How did that work? Because obviously you’ve identified in the young people what they can do, how do you then translate that to the employer and say, “This would work with this job.”?
THORKIL: Well we basically have two models: one is that we assess and hire the autistic people ourselves. And then we go out and offer consultancy services to clients. And in that situation, then we would know very well what the autistic people is good at and then we’ll go and sell that as a service. And then we can target clients that has a need in the area where the autistic people excel. So that’s kind of straightforward. We are the managers, we are responsible that everything works. So that’s one way. It’s a kind of a low-risk way because we’re in control of it all. But 90% of the autistic employees work at the client’s site so that’s a lot of engagement but it’s our employees. But it’s hard to scale and it’s very cost-heavy. The most scalable solutions is to help pick companies recruit autistic people. And in that case, if it could be Microsoft, SAP, EY, PWC, there’s many examples out there who have said, “Well, the autism in my brand it’s sounds interesting to us so we have some jobs here, maybe inside the security or in data design or data mining or something, could this be a good fit with autistic people? Then we go and visit the company, we meet the leadership, the management, the grass roots in the company because in all companies, there are family members who have a big patient for autistic people or people with similar challenges. And we like to contribute as buddies or mentors or somehow else take part in this.
Then we go through the job descriptions and kind of feel–“Do you really have to have many balls in the area to be flexible, to be good at selling yourself for a role in data mining?” And often they say, “No, actually not.” But this is kind of a standard job description. So we take some parts out typically that is not really relevant. And then we get an impression from the employer is this an employer who is willing to adapt the management style in order to support autistic people in the workplace. We don’t want to work with any employer. We expect 4 values; one respect that autistic person can add value to a diverse team and that yes this person has a formal disorder but you should expect the same as you would from anyone else because you should work with us because of talent acquisition and not because of CSR.
The second is accommodation. We had to create workplaces where autistic people excel so if it’s an open office environment, it should be okay to have noise-canceling headsets and small dividers if that’s what is needed for the person to feel comfortable in the work zone. And of course, there are flickering lights, we’ll have to deal with that but there’s always a solution to organise that.
The third value is clarity or transparency. It has to be understandable what is expected from you. So, say what you mean, mean what you say. Set expectations clearly. In return, you will get a very honest feedback and you will learn to appreciate that. And the fourth is accessibility. So if there’s need for guidance, if the person is getting stuck, the person should always know where to go.
So with respect, accommodation, clarity, and accessibility– this is really good management and what the examples from employers is that it creates a better workplace for everyone in that department. So, we claim that a workplace where autistic people thrive will be a better place to work for everyone. So, we have a 4 week standard assessment and on-boarding program where it all takes place at the employer because many autistic people have never been in a workplace before. Some have but that had been a bad experience. So we need time to kind of create the individual’s comfort zone in the workplace.
We train Lego Mindstorms, we get settled in the workplace in week one. Week two, we grow from an individual to a team comfort zone. We introduce Lego Mindstorms robots in a scrum setting. Scrum is an agile development framework where you learn how to work with others, how to optimise your own contribution compared with what is the capability of your team members and you learn how to deal with rapid decisions that takes place in most workplaces. So we have a scrum week where we give the challenge. They have to solve with Lego mindstorms robots in a team setting framed by the scrum methodology. So that’s actually it. Very often, I make it a moment when someone realise that they can actually work in teams and contribute to teams. They may have been told otherwise until then. But when you create these environments where people thrive and think they’re playing then a lot of things are possible.
And then the last two weeks we engage more in the assessment of professional skills, individual skills, motivation, work ability and we train the manager, buddies, mentors. So the workplace, it’s introduced to how to understand and work well with these new colleagues. And then we set up a support structure. So, the autistic people when hired, they have peers, a go-to person for understanding daily routines, a go-to person for kind of workplace questions and there will be HR person connected and then we’ll have connection to a professional outside the workplace. Someone who have more expertise in autism and can deal with (if there’s) anxiety issues or something else.
Beyond the 4 weeks we describe a personal business profile of the individual and we translate that to the employers. So we create these environments where autistic people feel welcome and we do not just depend on one person, it has to be real inclusion.
DEBRA: So you very much sound like it’s focused on IT, is that the only thing that Specialisterne does or do you have other industries that you operate in?
THORKIL: We operate in many industries but the IT was the starting point and it has been hooked on to our brand, so far. Also thanks to the first big clients like SAP and Microsoft and these IT giants but we work very much in other industries as well. We have a lot of experience in the financial sector in Australia. We’re also strong in pig farming which is one of my favourites because in the outbacks of Australia, it can be difficult to recruit people who want to do a career in pig farming, but there’s a lot of autistic people who love working with animals. They’re just not thought of pig farming as a career but it has been a fantastic match and the autistic people have all enjoyed of work that has had a positive impact on the whole of the organisation.
So, from cyber security to pig farming, you can just imagine where good memory, sometimes better recognition skills, high accuracy in repetitive tasks, but also new ideas to solve traditional challenges. And honesty, and dedication can be used all over. I claim that in any business area, you would be able to find at least 5% of tasks that would be very well suited to autistic people and no one have clip me wrong in that assessment.
DEBRA: You talked about having specialists and I think there has been a trend, hasn’t there in the workplace to go to sort of generalist being able to do different tasks in any job, do lots of different tasks and that’s obviously something that a lot of people with additional needs don’t find very easy to do. So the whole idea that you could specialise must be key part of it as well why it’s successful because people can focus on what they’re good at.
THORKIL: Yes, that is the way you build your comfort zone but my experience is that as you build your comfort zone, you will feel more comfortable also to try out other things. So it’s important for us that it’s not enough to get a job, you should also kind of grow your comfort zone and your self-confidence and your skills so that you can also try out other things because in this job of mine, things change. That’s the only thing we can say. And it’s not enough to be an expert in one area and then close the door and work on that, you have to be ready to kind of find your opportunities as things change over time.
DEBRA: You’re saying that people’s skills just develop anyway because their confidence develops. A lot of people don’t have great social skills as you mentioned but you would get those just by being in an actual, real-life workplace.
THORKIL: I think so. And the way we grow social skills is a two-way streak, really. So, we help the autistic person understand how the workplace works but we also teach the workplace how autistic people think and how they can contribute the most. So, it’s not a one-way saying, “We have to practice social skills for the individual.” We’d like to do that but we also… it’s just as important to focus on preparing the environment because autistic people, they have their specialties that should be an asset in a workplace that competes in a global knowledge-based market economy, where being the same will be more of a problem that being different.
So I think autistic people can add value to most teams in a knowledge-based market economy. No one have to be able to excel in everything. So if you’re really good at your expertise and you’re good at working in teams and finding out how can your knowledge benefit beyond the task itself or if you’re in an environment where others can help you will contribute the most, then that’s the best way to prepare for the development in the labour market.
DEBRA: Yeah, I think it’s interesting what you said before about jobs specifications always saying the same thing like must be able to work in teams, and good communication skills. And there’s many people don’t have those so it’s stop from getting into jobs that they would excel at, as you say, so it’s actually about making the job fit to the person rather than the person have to fit to the job.
THORKIL: Yes, but I also think, we used to assessing autistic people who are outside their comfort zone, and then we can see a lot of challenges. But how does it look like if you get autistic people in their comfort zone. So, being outside the comfort zone for example communication is a challenge because it can be hard to read what is not had been expressed so that scene has a problem today. But actually, it’s a problem for everyone. So, if you’re in a workplace where there’s a lot of ambiguity, then you never know what you’re getting in return. So, if workplaces get more used to setting expectations clearly, then they can, I think, improve their communication capacity in the whole department. So, an autistic person well included in a team could actually raised the whole department; communication capacity and if the workplace understand how to get the most out of this autistic person, not just the skill sets but also the kind of personality.
So I think workplaces can learn a lot from autistic people but we have to turn things on their head sometime and say, “Okay, so communication is not a problem for this individual or is it the canary in the mine shaft saying if that’s a problem for this person, is it also a problem for everyone else?” And often, it’s the latter and if we look at the eyes at the world through the lens of autistic people sometimes, then I think we can see a lot of room for improvements in workplaces that could reduce the stress-level and grow efficiency into one.
DEBRA: You talked a little bit about the future, so where does Specialisterne go now? What are the plans for the future? You said the foundation, so I’m assuming that the organisation that does the consultancy and gets the guys in there is just running itself in a sense? Or are you still actively involved in that?
THORKIL: I’m not actually involved. My last involvement was to start Specialisterne in the US. So, I lived for 5 years in the US but I’m back in Denmark now, and I’m working on models that can lead us to a one million job goal by 2030. We still have 990,000 to go. But the next focus area will be large populations in the developing countries and we have most of our experience from the Western world, but we also have some experience from Brazil and India and China. But now, we need to invest more in learning what we have learned over the first 15 years, 12 areas, and what is the experience working with partners and how can we support employers and followers who want to follow our example. And then how can we work on the supply side with governments and the school system because we want to remove the divide, not just build bridges. So how can we get back to the roots and say how can we help families realise that there are some other learnings in life you will get out of this. Some will hit you, some will give you a lot of joy.
We have to create environments, not just in the labour market where autistic people will be welcomed, but also in the education system. So I think, that is the long-term contribution from Specialisterne and the foundation, that we will try to help companies with more inclusive workplaces and help the education system and governments kind of looking at this area from another angle.
DEBRA: You mentioned before as well that people have copied you, a lot of people will do amazing things but then, they’ll do it by themselves rather than taking information from other groups. So I’ve got some examples of employers over here in the UK that started something and then they’ll go and talk to someone else who started something similar and they never talk to each other. I mean I’d imagine, that you’d rather that people sort of came and looked at what you’ve done rather than sort of trying do something themselves… because it’s 15 years in and you’re still as you say, learning.
THORKIL: Yeah, I think what we’re looking for is more capacity in our foundation to kind of see not just what has been done in the Specialisterne and the group but also, a lot has been learned from followers, so this is one of our ambitions; to see if we can grow the market together instead of working as individuals. So, this is also I think one of the major areas to focus on. And another way is to see how can we use technology to help identify personalities and skill sets, and how can we also use technology to match the tasks with the talent. Not just jobs with job seekers because jobs are often a bundle that includes a lot of things that autistic people may not be so good at, but if we can identify tasks at a more differentiated level, then a lot of autistic people will feel they can contribute more.
Lots to bid on but I think the biggest effort will be to change the mindset globally that this is a different journey and there’s a lot of untapped talent that societies, employers should not miss out on. It’s too costly not to benefit from this talent anyway.
DEBRA: Thorkil, thank you so much for your time.
THORKIL: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Debra: Key takeaway? Employers need to be embracing new ways of assessing the skills of potential employees. By not doing this, I am missing out on many talented people– some of them specialists, who would enhance their workplaces.
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