How A CEO With An Autistic Child Manages His Business

Being a father of an autistic child has opened this CEO's eyes and changed his leadership style to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.
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Imagine you are the CEO of a thriving real estate investment company employing 350 people that ranks among the largest shopping mall owners in the U.S. The extensive portfolio spans the country with 37 locations in 22 states representing over 24 million square feet of space. In an industry said to be overbuilt with many so-called zombie malls as a result of Internet shopping and Amazon’s crazy success, your properties are bucking the trend and are home to more than 200 industry-leading brands, from Dillard’s and Macy’s, to Darden Restaurants, H&M, and Victoria’s Secret. There is only one problem; your home life is anything but serene.

Brian L. Harper, 41, CEO of Rouse Properties, a New York City-based real estate firm owned by affiliates of Brookfield Asset Management, knows this first-hand. His-11-year-old-son Caleb is autistic, a condition that became evident to him and his wife Laleh when their son reached 18 months. It affected Caleb’s ability to walk, his motor skills, as well as his ability to form words and speak. From early days, it was clear that he would require constant care and monitoring. Five different doctors had five different diagnoses for treating Caleb. Harper and his wife, worrying that the condition “would place a ceiling on [Caleb’s] life,” took it hard knowing also that it would change their lives as well.

Harper, unlike most parents of autistic children, had a few advantages at the time of Caleb’s diagnosis, including a successful career in real estate since he graduated from the University of Kansas. (Today, he has over 18 years’ experience in the real estate industry, including having served in many different roles with various responsibilities prior to assuming his current position – COO included.) Treatment for autism can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Parents of autistic children have an 80 percent divorce rate.

“I have developed an empathetic leadership style where I focus on what people can do well and help them improve those skills.”

His wife has dedicated her life to her son and his treatment. (The Harper’s other child, Zoe, now two years old is not autistic.) Despite Caleb’s outward disabilities and his challenges, Harper speaks with obvious pride about his son’s talents. Caleb has developed a photographic memory having memorized at an early age and on his own initiative the capitals of all fifty states. He later memorized the capital cities of all countries in Asia and Africa. Growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, Caleb also mastered all the subway stops in New York, including those in the outer boroughs. He attends Manhattan Star Academy which specializes in educating children with special needs such as autism, and is said to be thriving.

“The experience,” Harper says, “opened my eyes to recognizing people having different strengths and becoming a champion of people with disabilities.” The firm hired a high-functioning autistic intern who in some respects outperforms others within the company. “I have developed an empathetic leadership style where I focus on what people can do well and help them improve those skills,” he says. Harper says he seeks from his fellow employees what they are most capable of doing and “seeing if I can help them improve.” “Each of us has different strengths and it’s important for a leader to build on what your team can achieve.” In 2017, Mr. Harper was named a National Board of Director of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping and supporting individuals with autism and their families.

Time management, for Harper, is an absolute necessity, as is well-controlled business travel. Sometimes he will commute to the west coast and back in the same day. His mobile phone is always close by. Fortunately, senior managers and board members have been supportive of Harper and even helped with raising funds for autistic causes.
Harper’s advice to other business leaders who find themselves in a similar situation is “be open, try to be optimistic, and realize you are not alone. Find others who are in similar circumstances.”

At Autism Speaks, he shares board responsibilities with high profile business leaders such as Tommy Hilfiger, songwriter and producer Billy Mann, and NBC’s Bob Wright among others who are committed to finding a cure. Other senior executives at Goldman Sachs, and EY, for example, as well as recording artists all have high-demand jobs and face this challenge. “They help you realize that you are not alone,” he says, “ I talk with Billy Mann a lot and this makes all the difference.”


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