Neurodiverse talent   //   April 18, 2024

How a major brain injury changed this leader’s management style for the better

This article is part of a series that will spotlight the biggest challenges and opportunities for desk-based professionals who are neurodiverse. More from the series →

Eight years ago Jeremy Filko, chief scientist at Booz Allen, got struck in the face while playing softball, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. He initially took about three months off work to physically heal, but also to relearn basic tasks, and learn to live with a new condition causing brain fog, migraines and an array of other symptoms impacting his day-to-day life.

“I was scared because in my opinion, the thing that made me special was my mind, and that’s exactly what I damaged,” he said. 

He returned to work post-recovery but struggled greatly dealing with his new condition and working around it with others. “I didn’t want to tell anybody that I had ongoing challenges, that I had ongoing symptoms, that I had significant memory loss,” he said.

After about nine months he took another leave from work, this time for about six months, to work with doctors and get himself back on track. That was a turning point, when he realized making his condition known to others and opening up about it vulnerably was necessary for him to successfully move forward.

He feared others wouldn’t understand or take it seriously without a physical anchor, like the facial wounds he initially bore post-accident. But as his condition became less physical, disclosing his circumstances with others remained essential. “I will never go back to being neurotypical,” he said.

“I was scared because in my opinion, the thing that made me special was my mind, and that's exactly what I damaged."
Jeremy Filko, chief scientist at Booz Allen.

The experience taught him a range of lessons that have since influenced his perspective and leadership style, as he remains in his role at Booz Allen — which provides technology services and consulting to the federal government and employs over 34,000 people — today. Here are some key lessons he learned:

“Allowing them to have a little bit too much of a net, we can really hinder their growth.”

Filko ended up taking a significant amount of time away from his role running a data science lab. He and his team would typically give presentations to senior leaders and government officials.

Given the complexity of the topic and Filko’s expertise in the area, he tended to deliver most of these presentations himself. But after his injury he had to delegate this more to his team — a task he’d have thought too risky before. But he needn’t have worried. They stepped up, and knocked it out of the park.

“One of the folks who had maybe mentioned their projects on occasion, and I would have thought wasn’t ready to take on a greater role, well, now it wasn’t any choice, he had to,” he said. “What was really fantastic was we realized that it wasn’t [that] he wasn’t ready, he just needed the opportunity. And to have that opportunity without a safety net.”

That experience taught him to further consider the impact his presence has on certain staff and whether it is “preventing somebody else from really developing and growing the way that they should and could,” he said. 

“My presence in the lab — it held him back,” he said. “Allowing them to have a little bit too much of a net, we can really hinder their growth,” he said.

The power of admitting what you don’t know

As Filko learned how to live with his new condition that impacted his brain functioning, he also learned to be more open with admitting to his staff that he doesn’t have all the answers. As a leader, he found that openly admitting he doesn’t know the answer to a question or way something works helped his team in two key ways. First, it fostered greater connection and trust with others as an act of vulnerability, but it also gave more junior staff the opportunity to showcase their own knowledge and expertise in new ways. 

It gave people several levels his junior a chance to feel good and exercise their own understanding, he said. “The best way to learn something or prove that you know something is to teach somebody else. And I’ve found that when I’m working with people who are newer or junior on the team, when they can teach me something, the benefit that they get is tenfold the benefit that I get,” he said. 

“Admitting a weakness, admitting an area where you know, maybe you’re a little thinner on a capability, really helps develop teamwork,” he said.

Realize you don’t know the challenges and demands placed on someone else

Filko’s experience disclosing his own condition gave him a new perspective on others in the workplace who may also be neurodiverse. One of his team members disclosed they are autistic, which can impact how one socializes or processes verbal information. They had one request for Filko: please do not send me a text or email saying, “give me a call later.” For that employee, a message from the boss on an unknown matter that had to wait until the end of the day would send them into a tailspin, they told him. 

Filko had no idea, but later heard the same from other people with autism on a panel he spoke on, and realized what an impact it had and could be having on other staff who also have autism but may not know, or be afraid to disclose it. So he made a simple fix.

“All that I had to do as a leader is say, instead of give me a call, just give me a call about line seven on your recent report,” he said. “Costs me seven seconds of typing, and it tells that person what I’m interested in, and the beauty is even for a neurotypical person, just adding those extra couple words, it’s good for them too,” he said. 

Miscommunication is often the root cause of organizational challenges, whether it’s related to how teams deliver a project, launch a new product, or deal with other members of their teams. And for those with neurodiverse needs, that can be amplified.

“For that neurodivergent person [who doesn’t welcome vague texts] I am having an undue impact on their life, just by omitting a couple of words,” Filko said. “And that was a core lesson, how we communicate, and the impacts that can have, is one of the key things I would want leaders to take away. Because we frequently don’t know the challenges and demands placed on someone else.”