Why stammering didn’t hold back my career at E&Y

WHAT do Moses, George VI, Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Emily Blunt, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have in common? They all suffered, or suffer, from a stammer.

Today is International Stammering Awareness Day. And an increasing number of organisations in the UK are now waking up to the potential that stammerers hold. They’re taking an interest in a group of employees who will succeed regardless of this communication impairment.

It can be easy to miss the potential of stammerers. They’re only 1 per cent of the UK workforce and sometimes don’t speak out, because that’s exactly what they’re uncomfortable doing. In today’s business world, where fluency is prized more than ever, it’s unsurprising that many stammerers hide their problem by avoiding doing what gets you noticed – presentations, asking questions in meetings and leading pitches.

That was my experience for the first ten years of my career at Ernst & Young. I was progressing well and it made no sense to reveal my biggest weakness – my inability to speak in public without stammering.

Except I was wrong. Years of avoidance meant that my confidence in public speaking had fallen behind my peers. I was underperforming. The feedback from my first partner assessment was that I took far too long to make points during discussions. The reality was that I was trying to hide my stammer by searching for words that I wouldn’t block on.

A few weeks later, one of our most senior partners explained that it didn’t matter if I stammered. What mattered was the quality of what I said. This was a defining moment in my career.

That was nearly 20 years ago and I’ve had many public stammering experiences since. Leading pitches, reading to hundreds in Southwark Cathedral and speaking to groups of my fellow partners have all been occasions when I’ve stammered badly. But nowadays, I hardly ever stammer, and if I do I don’t care anymore. It’s just me.

In those early years, I nearly left the firm because I felt I couldn’t do it. But, having been a partner at Ernst & Young partner for 16 years, I realise that leaving would have been a loss of talent for the firm and unfulfilled potential for myself.

We now have a network for people who stammer. We provide formal support through external therapy courses and coaching, and less formal internal mentoring support. We’ve also changed our recruitment and development processes to be stammering aware.

We’re soon launching the Corporate Stammering Network, an alliance between employers and the British Stammering Association (BSA). Other organisations are already interested, including Lloyds Bank, BT, Credit Suisse, Deloitte, Logica, PwC and Accenture. The aim is to create a culture where people who stammer can achieve their full potential.

Iain Wilkie is a senior partner and a member of the UK and Ireland leadership team at Ernst & Young.

If you’re interested in learning more, email chief executive of the BSA Norbert Lieckfeldt on nl@stammering.org