December 15, 2010, 7:00 am 26 Comments



ADHD – Is it the gift that keeps on giving?

Or the gift that keeps on taking?

That is the question I was asking myself after a recent conversation with a woman named Nancy Snell. She approached me and introduced herself after I participated in a panel discussion in New York. She said she coaches businesspeople who have A.D.H.D, the shorthand for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The condition is frequently mentioned in reference to kids, but people don’t necessarily outgrow it when they become adults. My first thought was, Who sent you? Is this is an intervention?

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It has been recognized that many successful people have A.D.H.D. In many cases, it is a critical ingredient to their success. A lesser known fact is that it can also be a cause of stress, self-loathing, embarrassment and lack of productivity. Like many things, A.D.H.D. takes many forms. It can be mild to crippling. It can be a great source of energy, or a great source of grief. I asked Ms. Snell what questions business owners should ask themselves to determine whether they have some form of A.D.H.D. Here are her five questions:

1. Do you struggle with day-to-day planning, project management and follow-up?

2. Do you lack the systems, discipline and focus to manage your workload?

3. Do you procrastinate too much and fail to accomplish things that need to get done?

4. Do you feel you’re not as effective and productive as you would like to be?

5. Are you easily distracted?

Interesting. While I would say that I can relate (to some degree) to all five of those issues, I have concluded that Ms. Snell was not sent on a mission to save me. I was, however, intrigued that someone could make a living being an A.D.H.D. coach. I wanted to know more, for two reasons. I realized that if I could improve on any of the five issues, it could be very helpful. I was also intrigued to learn that A.D.H.D. is a serious problem in business — that she has clients who are really in pain. I asked her to give me examples and to give us a primer on how she coaches people for better performance. Here are her examples:

1. A vice president of an advertising agency who was having a hard time focusing. The stress from being chronically late to meetings, from procrastinating and from constantly having to make excuses was getting to him. He didn’t like his job but couldn’t get organized to look around. Ms. Snell helped him put systems in place and identify habits that were counter-productive. She found he frequently forgot to return phone calls because he called his voicemail from his car where he couldn’t write down a message. She worked with him to find a different approach. My reaction? Part of me thinks a grown man shouldn’t need to be told how to take phone messages, but another part of me understands that we all do things that we know aren’t smart, including me. According to Ms. Snell, he applied what he learned to every aspect of his working life and has greatly reduced his stress. He also found a better job.

2. A chief executive of a 70-person hedge fund who was bothered that he was constantly getting distracted in meetings — even meetings that he was running. Ms. Snell found that these “distractions” were often, in fact, very important ideas or revelations that could be valuable but needed to be managed. She developed a system where he would have two pads of paper with him at every meeting: one for meeting notes and one for everything else that came to mind. This simple solution allowed him to be more focused and productive without worrying about what he might miss.

3. A chief executive of a $25 million company felt challenged in his abilities to execute consistently and to communicate productively. The company was in financial distress, he knew that he was the problem, and the stress was taking a toll. One issue Ms. Snell observed was that he was constantly checking e-mails. He tried to commit to checking them only at specific times every day but found that discipline impossible to maintain. She suggested that he commit to checking his e-mail everyday before leaving the office, a solution that was both specific and flexible. It worked, and with the help of some other planning devices he became more effective and his stress declined.

There is obviously far more to each story than I can include in these short examples. To me, the point is this: When many people think of A.D.H.D., they think of school-age boys jumping on sofas. For adults, the reality is that A.D.H.D. is about having more ideas than you can process or manage. Having a lot of ideas is the gift; having them distract you from what needs to get done causes stress. The opportunity is to manage the A.D.H.D. so that it is an asset instead of a liability. Whether you hire someone to help with this process or make some adjustments on your own, I think it is a topic that has been largely ignored. But then again, I wasn’t paying that much attention.

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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