He was born, in his own words, “white, male and very privileged’. It was a background that helped him scale the very heights of the business world.
But he spiralled from having the perfect family, with a mansion and swimming pool to being sectioned and unemployed.
James was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition which causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs and lows – and which had left him struggling with depression.
During his years of recovery, he discovered the difference between applying for jobs as an Eton alumnus to doing so with the stigma of a chronic mental health condition.
These days, James runs his own inclusive talent portal, Bridge of Hope Careers – which Reed Talent Solutions works with closely, which aims to connect people with 'barriers to employment' to inclusive employers seeking to diversify their talent pools.
I spoke to him about his story and how he is hoping to provide that ‘bridge of hope’ between ‘untapped talent’ and inclusive employers seeking to expand their talent pool.
Q: How did you get where you are today?
A: My back story is I was born white, male and very privileged. And life was great. Aged 13, I was sent to the world's most famous boarding school.
I ended up going from Eton to Edinburgh. Life continued to be pretty gilded, and then I went into the drinks industry.
I climbed up the corporate ladder fairly swiftly to a fairly high level. In the end, I got transferred to the US and by 2008 was running most of their biggest customers in North America. I was happily married with three kids, a swimming pool, mansion and two acres. What could possibly go wrong?
Q: When was the first time you had an inkling everything wasn’t quite right?
A: The first sign was probably when I was working for Guinness in the UK. Everything was golden really.
Suddenly things just didn't feel quite right. I went from performing at a high level to not really being able to perform at all without understanding why.
A few people started asking if I was alright because I clearly wasn't behaving like the normal animal that I am.
And then I ended up getting offered another job within the organisation, that sort of triggered me back to my normal self. My mojo came back, and I was fine.
I was terrified it would happen again. It felt like a loss of confidence, and it never crossed my mind it might be depression or anything. Depression was when people just felt sorry for themselves. I had little understanding about it, or about neurodiversity.
Q: At what point did things eventually catch up with you in a big way?
A: By 2008, I was working in America and I got laid off for the first time, of five times, in four years. And then anything that could go wrong did – on a really epic scale.
There was one fateful day I still vividly remember. I had to go and buy the shopping and all the credit cards were maxed out. The only money I could cobble together was $5.41 and I had to buy food for a family of five.
That was probably the starting gun for my full unravelling.
For the next three weeks, I was completely hopeless. I was turning up to work, shutting my door not even turning on my computer. Eventually, I was sent to the doctor.
I thought I was just stressed, but it was just three days later when I heard the scariest sentence of my life – I was going to be sectioned.
I was going to be locked in. As you can imagine, it was all petrifying. It was a combination of feelings, mainly denial, but secondly, a huge amount of guilt.
Everything unravelled. Within four weeks my marriage had gone, my kids were gone, my career had gone, all my worldly goods had gone, and I was diagnosed with bipolar.
Q: When you were eventually discharged, how did you go about getting your career back on track?
A: The doctor advised me not to try to get an executive position or start my own company, so I had to get a manual job.
I tried going to the local pub to get a job as a bartender, but they wouldn’t give me anything. They looked at my CV and just howled with laughter.
Having been white, male and very privileged, I had never even known there were barriers to employment.
Luckily there was a frozen meat factory down the road, so I tried them and fortunately all they wanted to know was if I was prepared to get up at 4am and work 15-hour days at -55 degrees as a janitor.
Eventually, I clawed my way back to the drinks industry in a mid-size company, which was a huge break. I'd now come to terms with the fact I was bipolar.
But a new CEO came in and said I was quite expensive, and I was out.
That was five years ago. It was a very seismic moment.
Q: How did you get from there to Bridge of Hope?
A: The other times I’d been made redundant, I’d been devastated. But this time I felt there was something more meaningful to do.
The only thing I had as a North Star was around jobs. I’d had two-and-a-half decades of being gainfully employed and life was golden. And then I'd had six or seven years of hideous unemployment. I had this first-hand experience of the power of a job.
I started talking to a lot of charities who helped people get back on their feet, and it didn't matter whether those people were homeless or veterans or ex-offenders.
That was the genesis of the Bridge of Hope. I thought, ‘why don't we help connect those people coming out of charities to inclusive employers?’.
The majority of these people had some form of mental health situation. It's impossible not to if you've been homeless, in prison, or through a high level of trauma.
Mental health and neurodiversity became a bit of a catch all for everybody we were working with. Many of them come with a gap in their CV, but we know the research proves this group, that we call untapped talent, work harder and stay longer at organisations.
Q: What work do you do with neurodiverse talent?
A: When it comes to neurodiverse talent, we believe this can be the best talent pool.
I read a great article about this, which described it as if you were Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola would you want eleven Steven Gerrard’s? No, you’d want a right winger and a left back and a specialist goalkeeper, etcetera.
So why are you just trying to get 11 Steven Gerrard’s for your business? Why are you trying to hire the same person over and over again?
Instead, you should be saying ‘we need some people who are phenomenal at focus and attention to detail because somebody's got to make the trains run on time’. In which case, why are you not looking at the autistic talent pool? - only 15% of whom currently have a job. They could do an unbelievable job.
They don't have to work in an office - which can be a big turn off for many people who are autistic who are good at working from home.
Or if you’re a marketing agency, why not proactively look for dyslexic people? We all know that if you are dyslexic, you’ve had to work around a system your entire life – and as a result you’re probably incredibly creative.
Q: How do organisations go about finding and recruiting those people who may not come through traditional routes, but may be brilliant?
A: Organisations need to look at their processes and systems.
If you're serious about inclusive hiring, you need to go back and say, OK, let's have a look at all our steps in our process.
Potentially do that with people in your organisation who are neurodiverse. And say, let's look at our sourcing process, are we going after the right people? Are we expanding our net wide enough? Are we missing a whole bunch of people for X or what? Then look at your job description, is it alienating a bunch of people? Does it require people to tick 75 different boxes perfectly or don’t bother applying.
Q: Is part one to have that inclusive mindset and be open to such opportunities?
A: Yes, you can’t just pay lip service to it and that mindset has to come from the top.
We do a lot of talks, and a large amount of those talks are aimed at helping organisations change their mindset.
Sometimes, the answer is, ‘no, I'm sorry. We're not taking anybody who's neurodiverse or who has been in prison. That's just in the too difficult bucket’. We will do our talks, perhaps a ‘lunch & learn’ about inclusive hiring and we can change hearts and minds.
Once you tell a story - and you’ve heard mine – it’s more powerful. By the end, companies are asking why they don’t do more of this.
If you’re looking to reach a more diverse talent pool or want to discuss your organisations equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging needs, speak to one of our experts.