ADHD at Work

Putting My Strengths to Work

I set strategic vision for my organization, but I also zone out in meetings and forget to send e-mails. The key to my success? Maximizing my higher-level skills.

ADHD adult presenting a creative idea at work
ADHD adult presenting a creative idea at work

Last week, I forgot to send an e-mail that a staff member had drafted for me. I make lists, but sometimes I get sidetracked and don’t execute a list. I do this more than most people.

While I’ve never gotten an official diagnosis, I’m non-hyperactive ADD. I’m 46 years old, with two boys, both of whom have been diagnosed with ADHD. I’m CEO of a significant nonprofit organization, which involves setting strategy, organizing teams, speaking in public, conducting high-level marketing, raising dollars, and running the ins-and-outs of an organization. I’m better at some of these tasks than others.

My cognitive profile contains both strengths and weaknesses, as does everyone’s. I love the creative process, but despise filling out forms. I can set a coherent strategy and communicate it to different audiences, but I zone out at meetings and make small mental errors that create big problems. I sometimes lose track of time.

My strengths have put me in a position to succeed; my weaknesses have posed significant obstacles along the way.

My self-conception has changed over the years. I used to see my weaknesses as a character flaw that needed to be corrected through perseverance. I knew nothing of ADD. In my early 30s, I read a book about adult ADD, and had an “aha moment.” I have an ailment, no different from high blood pressure or diabetes. The solution was to treat the ailment, and lead a “normal” life.

Today, I don’t view myself as having an ailment that needs to be treated. I’m excellent at things most people are bad at (being creative), and I am terrible at things most people are good at (scheduling conference calls). My profile—commonly referred to as ADD—is deemed a disability only because most people possess a different profile.

Strength Training at the Office

The key to my career growth—and limitations—is that I’ve spent much more time on scaling up my strengths than improving my weaknesses. In college, I routinely turned in subpar term papers, but published high-profile opinion pieces for the student newspaper. In my career, I have followed my passions, but at various times have fallen short in carrying out what the powers-that-be had in mind. Today, I spend time developing strategy and building relationships—work I like and excel in—but leave nearly all the finance and operational duties to someone else in my office.

Scaling up my strengths hurt me early in my career, when most of my employers were looking for a diligent worker who could implement their plans, not a high-level conceptualizer who had a better idea of what the plan should be. As I got older and polished some of my rougher edges, my higher-level skills started paying dividends. Organizations wanted a person with strategic vision. As I continued to grow, I rose high enough in the food chain to have people around me who could make up for some of my weaknesses. This strengths-based strategy, which has its flaws, requires a high degree of self-awareness—I must be open about my weak points to everyone I work with. Laughing at myself helps, as well.

Cultivating Outstanding Skills

Things are beginning to look up for people like me. The still-emerging, post-industrial “connection” economy puts a premium on highly creative people. Some organizations now know that they rely on a diversity of skills and cognitive profiles. They realize it is better to have some people who possess a few outstanding skills, but who can’t fill out a form, than people with decent skills, all of whom can fill out a form.

In the meantime, I’m doing what I was meant to do: being a thought leader and working with teams to implement a vision. For most of the people I work with, that’s good enough.

Thus, in the end, I believe working more on my strengths than on my weaknesses was the best approach. Someday the rest of society may feel the same.

DAVID BERNSTEIN is a nonprofit executive who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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