June 19, 2018 in Entrepreneur Advice

InReturn Strategies CEO Jim Atwater: People with disabilities represent untapped talent

Jim Atwater runs InReturn Strategies, a company that we’ve been following for years at Village Capital. Jim, a hard-of-hearing entrepreneur, helps companies tap into the untapped potential of the disabled community. This month InReturn Strategies reached their 100th provider partner.

Disability inclusion hasn’t hit the fan like other diversity hot topics yet, but it’s rapidly gaining steam. People with disabilities are the largest minority (about 20% of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control) and the final frontier of the civil rights movement.

Unlike other diversity and initiative efforts at the company you lead, disabilities impact all of your current employees regardless of race, sex, or their general diversity makeup. Disability inclusion could be your company’s easiest, most engaging, and most economically impactful D&I initiative. I’ll explain how.

Do any of the following companies sound familiar? Maybe one of them is yours.

Company A has a decision-making executive with direct experience of a disability. Perhaps she has a friend or family member who is affected, so she brings her passion and knowledge for inclusion into an initiative at work, centered around the disability type she is familiar with.

Company B has Federal contracts and is being pressured to hire 7% of their employees from the disabled population. Or, as a large employer, there may be a perceived compliance or marketing need. This company might go so far as to have a “diversity” director or dedicated resource targeting the effort.

The CEO of Company C, being community-minded, looks for local opportunities to partner with charities and/or disability support organizations. These efforts often form around volunteers and draw on Community Outreach dollars.

Executives at Company D recognize that there is an opportunity, specific to their industry, to create value by hiring a segment of people with disabilities. It is an initiative often dependent on access to local solutions in specific markets with limited supply.

What is really happening?

Regardless of what type of company you are, what is the impact you achieve for the bottom line by hiring people with disabilities? And, most importantly, as a CEO, why should you care?

The opportunity with regard to disabilities is not what it used to be. CEOs should take a quick look at the reality within their companies and shift expectations for immediate and future rewards.

Many companies, not sure what to do but realizing they want to or have to do something, fall into the “George Costanza Trap,” working extremely hard not to work as opposed to smartly building lasting value.

To achieve results from any diversity initiative, your company can’t fake it. It has to have a level of internal competency equal to the expectation you set for results. Plain English: If you do not employ people with disabilities, you will not learn from them.

The business case has already been proven. People with disabilities match or outperform workers without disabilities and they, and their families, are a loyal market the size of China with trillions in disposable income.

If you think someone using sign language or a wheelchair in your television commercials makes up for an absence of disability inclusion in the office, you’re mistaken.

An honest, legitimate strategy and process of inclusion must be in place to attract a population weary of decades of being ignored and approached as a charity.

I’ve talked to many diversity leaders, and a vast majority of them view engaging people with disabilities strictly as “doing good.” In other words, it’s not a legitimate revenue-generating initiative in the company. This is where the opportunity is lost between execution and results. And when I talk to CEOs, their expectation is often the opposite, they simply are unaware of the disconnect. “Aren’t we already doing that?”

Expect results beyond basic social acceptance.

A popular way to measure disability inclusion is as a percentage of total employee population. “Our goal is to hire 12% by the year 2022.” A percentage, or any other set quantity, does not correlate to matching skills to core competencies, and works against your efforts to hire the best employees.

These types of metrics won’t be on any leader’s priority list at the end of the day. Lasting value comes from financial impacts to cost centers across organizations, not arbitrarily set values.

The first and easiest step as a CEO striving to lead a company into the future is to change one’s own, basic expectation of how a company is approaching the vast potential of people with disabilities. It’s important to ensure your expectations are clear to move beyond a reactionary and charitable approach.

Essentially, it’s the CEOs role to ensure the company is approaching the disabled as the potential valuable asset they are. And drive the conversation to, “What can this group of people do for us?” And move away from, “What can we do for these people?”

Because what people with disabilities want is the opportunity to be contributing members of mainstream society. They need jobs.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded when established metrics have a direct line of sight to creation of financial gains and shareholder value — and are correlated to metrics on your own priority dashboard.

Results matter. And they are not as hard to achieve as you might think.

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