A top EY executive who built the 'Big 4' firm's $10 billion global consulting practice is living with dyslexia. Here's how he's overcome his diagnosis and what you can learn from his personal strategies.

  • Norman Lonergan is the global people advisory services leader at Ernst & Young, the "Big Four" professional-services firm that's also known as EY.
  • Lonergan has spent his entire career living with dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read and interpret words, letters, and symbols.
  • More than 40 million Americans are living with dyslexia, which represents upwards of 80% of people living with learning disabilities in the country.
  • Despite the prevalence of people with learning disabilities at work, many companies don't have systems and policies in place to embrace neurodiversity.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Norman Lonergan always gets anxious when he presents in front of his colleagues.

Most people can relate to this experience; it's not unusual to feel a little nervous speaking in front of a group.

But when you can't read or write very well, it becomes incredibly stressful.

Lonergan, the global people advisory services leader at EY, has numerical and alphabetical dyslexia, a lifelong learning disability that makes it difficult to read words, letters, and symbols.

Lonergan has worked at EY's London office for nearly 15 years in various leadership positions. He's been named a leader in eight advisory divisions including operations, risk assurance, cybersecurity, and innovation.

"My greatest accomplishment remains building EY's global consulting practice from scratch into a $10 billion business in just ten years," he said. "Doing so has allowed me the opportunity to work alongside incredibly talented people and help best-in-class organizations solve their most complex challenges."

But despite his impressive track record as a former global vice chair and now the executive in charge of helping the firm navigate through workforce changes, Lonergan silently battled with his insecurities even as he led a team of 65,000 people.

He spent years convinced there was something wrong with him because he struggled to read and retain material. He thought he was undeserving of his leadership positions when he first joined the firm. And for him, the thought of analyzing data in front of his teammates — a common practice for consultants — was mortifying.

"I'd do anything to avoid going up to the whiteboard," he said. "The fear of the dyslexia would just take over my whole body, and I'd freeze. It's the intense embarrassment and feelings of insecurities that really impacted me."

When Lonergan first started working with accountants and consultants, he quickly realized they retained numbers differently. Accountants can look at a spreadsheet and see a pattern instantly. Lonergan can't.

Instead, he'd make sure to study that same spreadsheet at home until he knew it inside and out, every single number on it, and how those numbers were derived, in time for his presentations.

Dyslexia is common and it — like other learning disabilities — is becoming an increasing part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation. More than 40 million Americans are living with dyslexia, estimates indicate, representing upwards of 80% of people living with learning disabilities.

A 2007 Cass Business School study found 35% of 139 American business owners surveyed were dyslexic. Prominent business leaders including former Cisco CEO John Chambers and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson received formal diagnoses of dyslexia. Leaders with dyslexia have spoken of how having the condition forced them to be resourceful and innovative, since they often rose to prominence in systems that weren't designed for their success. 

That systemic piece is slowly starting to change, though research suggests not fast enough. A 2018 survey of neurodivergent people in the UK conducted by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission for Dyslexia and Neurodivergence found that 43% of respondents said they had felt discouraged from applying for jobs. Fifty-two percent said they had experienced discrimination during interview or selection processes.

While few company policies specifically accommodate dyslexic employees., a growing list of major corporations — like Goldman Sachs, Deloitte, and EY — are just at the early stages of developing new human-resources processes to recruit this group. It's part of an ongoing movement, as part of DEI, toward "neurodiversity": not just having cultures and systems that benefit the neurotypical, but also people who don't have patterns of thinking and perceiving like the normative person does.

In many ways, it's about opening up.

"My most important and greatest confidence boost was actually being diagnosed as a dyslexic," Lonergan told Business Insider. "I thought there was something wrong with me, but now I really understand that it's an issue that I can overcome."

Wrestling with self-doubt

Lonergan began his professional career in the 1990s, working for a manufacturing company and at IBM before finding his way to EY in 2006. Known as one of the Big Four, EY is one of the largest professional-services firms, with nearly 300,000 employees and global revenue of over $37 billion.

For a long time, he didn't know why he struggled. He doubted himself and felt alienated from his peers, many of whom had Ivy League degrees and could read and write at an exceptional pace.

Lonergan developed a strategy for abbreviating words, drawing pictures, and using directional cues like "on the left, right, or center" whenever he can't spell something while presenting.

But when his daughter was found to have mild dyslexia, Lonergan decided to get tested as well. He received a diagnosis of dyslexia in 2004.

Daniel Pearson, the global consulting strategy execution leader at EY.Courtesy of EY

Daniel Pearson, an EY global consulting strategy execution leader, has known Lonergan for 16 years. The pair worked together at IBM before joining EY's consulting practice. But throughout most of that time, he didn't know that Lonergan was struggling with a learning disability.

One day, while Pearson was confiding in Lonergan, he shared his diagnosis.

"I had no idea that he was dyslexic, and I'm genuinely inspired by the fact that someone who faced a challenge like that can still become so successful," Pearson said.

It's not uncommon for those with learning disabilities to keep it quiet at work. Margaret Malpas, the former chair of the British Dyslexia Association, told the BBC that workplaces were not always accepting of learning disabilities like dyslexia. Those who have experienced discrimination for a learning disability in the past are even less likely to talk about it on the job, she said.

"If you have been given negative comments or experiences about your dyslexia throughout your education, which is very common, then most adults would prefer to put that behind them and not refer to their dyslexia," Malpas said.

The importance of neurodiversity

The EY office in London.Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Diverse companies are found to be more profitable, successful, and productive. This includes neurodiversity.

The business-school professors Gary P. Pisano and Robert D. Austin wrote in Harvard Business Review that the neurodiverse population, in particular, was a "largely untapped talent pool." Several Fortune 500 companies that have expanded hiring efforts toward neurodiversity have seen positive results, they wrote.

For example, Hewlett Packard Enterprise's two-year-old hiring program for autistic IT staff members found a 30% boost in productivity among neurodiverse teams. SAP previously shared that one neurodivergent employee helped the company save $40 million by developing a technical fix. Other major corporations that are starting to reform their HR processes and invest in neurodiverse talent include Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, Deloitte, and Dell Technologies.

Lonergan's employer, EY, also has six Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence, which are focused specifically on hiring people with neurological differences. So far, the company has hired 40 employees on the autism spectrum since it launched the program in 2016 — a start for the 300,000 member firm. 

Pearson said he learned people skills from observing the ways Lonergan would navigate difficult situations and influence others.

"That's why it's so important to bring in neurodiversity, where we can tap each other's strengths and work better as a team," he said.

Though he was initially embarrassed by his dyslexia, Lonergan said he'd learned to embrace those differences and use it to his advantage. He's hoping others can do the same.

"I'm trying to encourage others who may suffer from the same affliction to realize that it's actually OK," he said. "I'm different, and I recognize that. You shouldn't be embarrassed about it and know that you can actually build on it."

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