Theo Smith about Neurodiversity at Work

Theo Smith interviews for Teamdash

This time, we have an incredible chance to dive into the journey of Theo Smith, a LinkedIn Top Voice who is a well-known advocate for neurodiversity at work and building an inclusive workplace.

Theo’s journey has not been smooth sailing, but he has worked in almost all aspects of recruitment, navigating ADHD and autism in his career. He is now an award-winning author and influencer who is invited to give global keynote speeches being invited to talk about recruitment and DEI at company events where he was once not hired as a recruiter. Theo was kind to share his learnings and the journey of him becoming a force to reckon with.

Let’s give the floor to Theo:

How did you get started in recruitment?

I left uni as a professional actor. Acting wasn’t paying the bills, so I got into sales and then tried to get a job in HR, but it was almost impossible. However, in all the jobs I applied for, I was hounded by recruiters offering me a job to work for them.

I was then lucky enough to work for a startup with two incredible founders who invested a lot of time and energy in my development. But 360 recruitment just didn’t offer me enough variety and with my quirky brain, I went searching for more stimulation. That has led me to work in almost all aspects of recruitment, from an agency, to global exec search, to RPO, in-house recruitment leadership, to VP Customer Acquisition for an HR tech start-up and finally to the world of my own startup!

What would you say is a common misconception about the work of an HR professional? What were your expectations before moving to the field?

My first experience of this was in my first role where we went to a comedy store where my founders were asked by a comedian what they do, and when they said run a recruitment business, quite a few of the audience booed!

The reality is that there historically have been some poor agencies, sharks, and poor practices, but that was not my experience working for two hard-working people trying to do the best for their candidates and customers.

Recruitment/TA/ Strategic HR and DE&I I’ve come to recognise can make a profound difference in people’s lives both positively and negatively. As an eternal optimist, my energy sits firmly in trying to use my experience and work to make a positive difference in the world.

What kind of experiences have you had as a candidate yourself?

I’ve been fired a few times and made redundant 5+ times that I can remember, twice by the same company! So, as an employee, I’ve experienced some interesting ups and downs.

As a candidate, I’ve seen a lot of success, but I’ve also experienced rejection, bias, and poor leadership.

I’ve had interviews where the person has got up to answer their phone whilst I’m talking.

I’ve been treated really poorly by an experienced recruitment leader, who, after I paid to travel whilst I was redundant to London at the last minute, so at a high cost, berated me and pulled me apart because I could remember specific dates and times when things happened. He effectively called me a liar and made me feel worthless at a time when I needed care. I now know that my ADHD plays havoc with my brain and with remembering specific key points, and under pressure, I get worse.

Interviews can really suck for me. And no joke, I’ve probably had a 100+ in my career.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve managed to overcome or improve on during your career so far? How did you do it?

During COVID, I hit a really negative space and place. I was working for an organisation where I took an outsourced recruitment model and brought it in-house. Strategically, it was great to run this project. However, I knew I would struggle when it came in-house, and it would require more operational leadership.

COVID hit, I had a change of manager, and we brought recruitment in-house all at once. It broke me. My wife said she’s never seen me in that situation ever before! I was also at that point coming to the understanding that my brain may be ADHD/Autistic whilst also going on that challenging journey with my child.

The positive that came out of this, is that I learned a lot about myself, my triggers and my brain. I learned what situation I never wanted to see myself in again. I also went on that year to write the book Neurodiversity at Work with the incredible Prof Amanda Kirby, which won the DE&I Business Book of the Year award and was a finalist for the biggest learning impact in a European book award.

This really did change the trajectory of my career…

What are some of the most rewarding experiences or achievements you’ve had in your career so far?

  • Mentoring the incredible Milimo Banji, the CEO of Tap-In, and seeing my mentorship turn into reverse mentorship, which has been incredible.
  • As someone who is dyslexic, who still can’t hold a pen properly or write more than a few sentences without getting cramped, and is pretty bad at grammar and spelling, writing an award-winning book of c.110,000 words!
  • Being invited to host a session for the UN autism global event. As someone who did really poorly at school and then failed after 3 years in college, and had to wait until I was a mature student to go to Uni, being invited to the University of Bocconi in Milan to inspire their students and lecturers on the topic of neurodiversity.
  • The 100’s of talks I’ve done across the globe for companies, events and governments. Like the Gov of Jersey, EY, IBM… the list goes on and continues to grow. These are the places that wouldn’t hire me as a recruitment leader, but now they are lining up to bring me in as an influencer and consultant. That is powerful!
  • Partnering with my longstanding friend Marian Temelkov and the Dynamis Consultancy to influence leaders at the highest level to adapt their thinking to neuroinclusion.
  • Being invited to work with the cool kids at Social Chain, who I’ve followed from the early days. Seriously, I thought I was too old for them, but here we are: never give up on your dreams.

The list now grows, but it’s through recognising my strengths and my challenges, understanding where my value is and doubling down on it.

I’m worried about the TA industry more generally because of global and economic factors that are not of their making.
I’m really excited by seeing the interest in companies working on becoming neuro-inclusive because I really believe this could be a major key in opening up opportunities for many people who’ve historically been locked out. Honestly, beyond my family and party because of my family makeup, it gives me a reason to get up every day.

What do you feel is unique about your current place of work?

We are a unique set of people and personalities, and we reflect exactly what we are saying companies are missing out on. We are ODD, and we truly care, which brings a huge amount of support, appreciation and opportunity.

What tools or software that you use in your day-to-day work are the most valuable to you? What do you use them for?

  1. LinkedIn for my personal brand.
  2. Xero is irreplaceable for a small business owner.
  3. ChatGPT for almost everything. It gets me off the floor so I can do the things I do best.
  4. Loads of creative tech for video production, etc… I’m constantly trying stuff out.

In your opinion, what are the most critical skills and qualities a recruiter should possess to be successful in this field?

Care, empathy, compassion, creativity, adaptability…

How do you approach diversity and inclusion in the hiring process, and how do you ensure fair and unbiased recruitment?

My work is more around advising others on this topic. We audit systems and processes to look at the gaps, biases and potential barriers. We then advise how to remove them. It will be no different for how we run our processes.

Recommend us 3 books/TV shows/podcasts, and let us know why you love them.

  • Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. There is so much you can learn from the human experience and why people of power go on to do the things they do. It also led me to write a blog, ‘Why your recruitment process is Stalin
  • Neurodiversity at Work by Theo Smith and Prof Amanda Kirby. And, yes, it’s my book. Blood, sweat and tears went into it with a lot of lived experience.
  • The Start-up of You: Adapt, Take Risks, Grow Your Network, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman and Bes Casnocha. Because LinkedIn has been such a big part of my life, I use the platform; I’ve been employed by them several times as a consultant, I’ve been a part of their creator accelerator program, I’m now a LinkedIn Top voice and reading this book felt a pivotal moment in that transitional part of my career.

Do you have any role models, leaders or peers whose advice has impacted or helped you develop professionally?

  • Prof Amanda Kirby, I have so much love and respect for her and her work
  • Marian Temelkov is just such a giving person who, with all his success, still thinks about the little things to make a difference to others. I eat, sleep, work, and live better because of his advice and mentoring.
  • Bob Marley, for all the life lessons…

How do you know when it’s time to take some time off to avoid burnout and take care of your mental health?

Time away with family, cooking, walking… I don’t always know, but I try to build it into my life so that I don’t ever reach those dark places I’ve been before.

What motivates you professionally and personally? What kind of a change or impact do you wish to make in your career?

Positively impact the lives of people who are stuck and not for their own doing.

How would you describe your job to people considering transitioning into recruitment/talent management?

I honestly don’t know. I’m an author, founder, talent advisor, neurodiversity specialist, recruitment leader, influencer/creator…

Thank you for participating in our “Meet the Expert” series. You truly are a full-stack human! 🤗

Merilyn Uudmae


Content Marketing Manager

Read about author
Next up

Alex Her – leading the global Employer Brand at the world’s largest web services platform

Read more