Ten years ago his words would’ve put me firmly on the back foot, but these days I grab such playground comments as an opportunity to talk about how enlightened employers are now viewing stammering as an issue to be recognised and supported. So I launched straight in and explained how two years ago the formation of The Employers Stammering Network (“ESN”) was a giant leap forward in our aim to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”. As we chatted, my former colleague initially looked awkward but he then started listening attentively and, when I was leaving, he suggested we meet again for lunch sometime soon.
So what can we learn from this unexpected conversation about stammering in the workplace?
Firstly, the stigma of having a stammer at work is still perpetuated by many good people across many fine organisations. This is largely under-pinned by ignorance rather than malice.
Secondly, most people, including many who stammer, have never had an informed conversation about stammering in their lives. There is, as Norbert Lieckfeldt my Co-Chairman at the ESN says, “a conspiracy of silence around stammering”. Yet, once engaged in a conversation, people are often eager to learn and happy to become supporters.
Thirdly, the ESN is proving attractive to leading private and public sector employers who’ve never thought before about stammering. They’re keen to ensure their employees are not held back from reaching their full potential just because of their dysfluency.
So you might ask, what is the purpose of the ESN and how is it going after its first two years?
Put simply, our purpose is to create an employment culture in the UK where it’s “Totally OK to stammer at work”. More officially it’s “To help employers in supporting the development of their people who stammer, thereby enabling employees to achieve their full career potential, for the benefit of both the individual and the employer”. Like most purpose statements, it’s a bit of a mouthful!
Since launching with the energetic support of the Rt Hon Ed Balls in May 2013, we now have 13  major organisations as members, collectively employing over 400,000 people in the UK alone. Our growth saw us recognised as one of the UK’s “Most Awesome Networks” in February 2015 by Inclusive Networks  and we have two more major employers lining up to join. However, it’s the support that we feel all around us that truly has Norbert, myself and many others believing that we’re on our way to achieving our transformational aim to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”.
Most encouragingly of all, there are many employees who’ve already benefitted from their employer being an ESN member. An ESN colleague at a leading bank stepped into a much better role after gaining the confidence to ‘go for’ the job he really wanted. Another ESN colleague decided to talk openly about his stammer in front of a promotion panel in a way he’d never have done a year earlier – and got the job! And a senior manager with a pronounced stammer at my own firm told me “You changed my life!” It doesn’t get any more transformational or emotional than that!
One of the biggest challenges for the ESN is helping our members to succeed in getting stammering talked about in their own organisations. This isn’t about adding it to a wish-list in a strategy paper, but about how to change long-embedded cultural attitudes towards stammering, like those I encountered in the pub last week. It requires the public commitment of the leadership, the identification of role-models and courageous conversations that ask for and explain how to achieve that change. As Lou Gerstner, former Chairman of IBM said, “Culture isn’t one aspect of the game – it is the game” .
Our experience with the ESN is that it’s a tough, untrodden path that we’ve started to take; a sentiment that’s expressed beautifully in this translation from Antonio Machado’s poem Cantares:
”Pathmaker there is no path
You make the path by walking
By walking you make the path”
After all, we’re trying to get organisations to embrace something that most of us, dysfluent or not, have spent much of our lives feeling uncomfortable even talking about. However, it’s a fresh willingness to enter into courageous and vulnerable conversations that’s at the heart of the ESN’s opportunity – and in next month’s blog I’ll share insights into my own journey from a shy, underperforming employee into a more confident and fully engaged partner at EY.
In the ESN, we’re learning to be patient, to take the knock-downs and to overcome our doubts. Yet in just two years since launching, with the changes that we’re increasingly seeing in employees who stammer and with ever-expanding awareness of stammering amongst employers, it’s already become “OK to Stammer” in some parts of the UK workplace. Now that really is a path worth walking.
Iain Wilkie is a Senior Partner at EY and the Co-Chairman of the Employers Stammering Network (“ESN”). All views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own.
 Current ESN members: A4E, BrightHouse, CitiGroup, Defence College for Health Education & Training, DHL, EY, First Group, Lloyds Banking Group, Prudential, RBS, Santander, Shell, & Warrington Borough Council.
 Louis V Gerstner Jr, “Who says Elephants Can’t Dance?”, Harper Collins