As part of Spencer Stuart's focus on diversity, equity and inclusion we invited Nigel Fletcher, a senior UK retail leader, to talk to our team in London. This article is drawn from his reflections on a career shaped by change, transformation and disability. He explains why having just 30 per cent vision has enabled him to grow in capability, beyond what would have been otherwise possible.
If you were to see me walking down a corridor, chances are that you wouldn’t suspect that I can’t really see where I’m going; that’s because over time I have become particularly good at masking the fact that my vision is only about 30 per cent.
It might be more obvious to you in other situations. Bright, sunny days are a challenge — I could be walking in the shade and turn a corner into bright sunlight and suddenly I am blinded by the light, unable to see a thing. Or in meetings, when I turn a piece of text vertically, because its far easier for me to read that way, rather than horizontally like everyone else in the room.
But to be honest, it goes against my nature to define myself by my disability. My approach has always been to talk about being born blind and my limited eyesight only when it’s relevant; like in this blog, or during an internal podcast or before meeting a client for the first time. One thing’s for sure, though, having this disability has never held me back in my career. On the contrary, if I were given the option today of having perfect sight, I’d almost certainly decline the offer.
Now I admit that might sound surprising — who wouldn’t want to have 20:20 vision? But my disability is something that has helped propel me forward and has given me stronger capabilities than would have otherwise been possible. I now call them my ‘disability superpowers’.
Let me explain.
The vision thing
Firstly, a note on language. I personally describe my limited vision as a ‘disability’ but I am very aware it is different for every person and there are many other words that could be used. For me, though, I use ‘disability’ as it’s a word that is part of everyday language.
So, how has this ‘disability’ impacted my career and life?
When answering this question, I find it is best to pinpoint specific incidents that I have experienced — moments of personal growth. One shining example is from early on in my career, when I had just started working at Tesco’s head office. This coincided with the launch of 24-hour opening — the first time it had been done in the UK. We had a list of the first 100 stores which were going to open 24 hours, and my very first task was to take a bunch of pins and place them on every single store on a big UK-wide map which was on our office cubicle wall. Think ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ — Tesco style!
I hadn’t worked with my new boss before, he certainly didn’t know about my disability, but his assignment was incredibly challenging for someone with restricted vision. It should have taken about 15 minutes, but it took me about four days because I had to go out into the corridor and literally hunt for people who could help me find the places on the map. Today I’d just use Google-Maps but back then that wasn’t possible. I joke about it now, but it was stressful at the time. My graduate colleagues were busy doing great work, and I was handed what should have been a straightforward assignment that I just couldn’t do quickly because of my eyesight.
The lesson I took from that experience was that I would need other people to help me overcome my disability — I couldn’t do it by myself. Up until that point, I had tried to hide it. Looking back now, it was ridiculous that I hadn’t told my boss and had been pretending my eyesight was normal.
A few years later, I found myself giving my first presentation to the managing directors of the various parts of the business — quite a significant moment for anyone.
We were in the centre of a large space and the presentation and Q&A went well; I was very pleased with myself. However, internal panic soon struck when I turned to leave, I couldn’t make out the door, nestled amongst the panelled walls. And, as these senior leaders watched on, I walked the full perimeter of the entire room before I finally — and thankfully — spotted the door handle.
Whilst it was mortifying at the time, I can not only laugh about it now, but also recognise that it created a keen sense of resilience — which also happens to be one of my ‘superpowers’, all of which are rooted in real-life experiences during my career.
Introducing my ‘superpowers’
- Ambition: Even though I was already highly motivated, my disability has fuelled extra ambition because it has made me want to prove people wrong. I’ve wanted to go the extra mile to prove to them that I can and deserve to take on that next promotion.
Resilience: As an individual, you can’t go through experiences like the two incidents I have mentioned above without building resilience and having a strong willingness to push through when times are difficult.
Determination: This is linked to being ambitious but an extra layer in that it’s about that ability to get after something new in the moment. It’s energising and adds an extra motivation to your working day.
Empathy: My life experiences related to having a disability mean I have a strong sense of empathy towards colleagues and clients. It’s about being able to walk in other people’s shoes and my disability has absolutely enabled me to do that.
Vulnerability: As soon as I talk about my own disability, it demonstrates a vulnerability, and this means other people open-up and often reveal their fears, problems, or vulnerabilities. For example, one colleague in their mid-50s told me that they were severely dyslexic — it was the first time they'd ever told anyone at work about this condition let alone consider what adjustments could be made for it.
Leadership connection: Being open about my disability means that I can be on the most senior of teams and there is an extra level of approachability and connection throughout the organisation. I find repeatedly that being comfortable and open with personal vulnerabilities in this way, creates improved work relationships and deeper employee loyalty.
Self-awareness: This can be best explained through examples. Due to my eyesight, I tend to stare, lean forward and look intense in meetings — purely because I am just trying to see and make out the room. I’ve learned that this can be disconcerting to some people and so I have had to accept that I can’t see the room and not even to try. Another example is that when someone is talking about something they can see, I will always look in the same direction, despite not being able to see it, so they know I’m paying attention and am interested in what they’re saying.
Points of view
Over the past 25 years of my career, I have learnt that when I tell people about my eyesight, I get a variety of different responses. These range from apologetic, embarrassment, awkwardness to, on occasion, excommunication — some just don’t know what to say or how to deal with it.
What this shows is that disability can still be a difficult subject to talk about. It can often come down to whether you have experienced it in your life — either yourself or someone you know — and this affects your response. The conversation most disabled people would be happy to have is something along the lines of, “that’s really interesting, can you tell me about it?”
Being curious is always a much better approach — and that goes for people with superpowers by virtue of disability as well.
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