Some eight million Americans have attention deficit disorder. One of them may work for you. Or be you.
In many ways, Dan seems like a perfect employee. He's energetic, full of ideas, and loves to brainstorm. "You put a paper clip in front of me and I'll come up with a ton of ideas about how we can use it," he boasts. But Dan (who asked that his last name not be used) admits that he can be a real pain for his managers. He'll become so enthusiastic that he interrupts his colleagues or fails to let them talk at all. In a 20-year career in marketing, he's dazzled colleagues with proposals for new products. But he's always had problems following through. So a year ago, a therapist suggested Dan get screened for attention deficit disorder. The test came back positive.
An estimated eight million Americans have ADD, and one of them might work for you -- or, for that matter, be you (see "The ADD-Small Biz Connection," page 32). The condition is roughly where depression was in the early 1990s: Awareness is mounting and the condition is coming out of the closet. Indeed, when ADD emerged as a distinct condition in the late 1980s, it wasn't even considered a problem for adults; psychiatrists believed adolescents would outgrow it once their brains matured. But according to Edward N. Hallowell, author of Driven to Distraction, one of the first books to document ADD in adults, 60% of children with ADD carry the condition into adulthood -- and into the workplace.
It's not uncommon for corporate America, where large human resources departments are the norm, to contract with coaches and counselors to help workers with ADD. For the most part, smaller businesses have yet to respond. But ignoring the problem is getting to be less and less of an option. Attention deficit disorder is now covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. That means that firms with 15 or more employees are required by federal guidelines to make "reasonable accommodations" for people with ADD, just as they would for any other disability.
That does not have to be bad for your business. Attention deficit disorder does not affect one's cognitive abilities. The brains of adults with ADD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, simply use less energy in the regions that regulate attention and motor activity. As a result, those with ADD often find it difficult to focus on mundane subjects for an extended period of time. They also tend to be easily distracted, impulsive, and disorganized. On the other hand, people with ADD often become hyperfocused when working on matters of intense interest. "I've worked with many people who, once they discover the disorder and put a program in place, really discover their talents and soar," says Frank Coppola, a therapist and ADD coach in New York City.
Dan, who now works as a VP of business development for a Santa Barbara design firm, says his own awareness of the condition has changed everything. He now carries a digital tape recorder with him at all times to record his ideas, which keeps him from pestering others. "I listen back later," he says. "Some of the ideas are great and I present them." He also has set up his computer to send reminders to keep him from getting sidetracked. "It reminds me to get back on task if I am doodling or starting a new project," he says. Still, Dan remains in the closet. He works on his condition in private, with a therapist. "Telling my boss," he fears, "might change the way he looks at me."
In fact, penalizing or otherwise stigmatizing an employee for having ADD could land you in legal trouble. And accommodating ADD is neither difficult nor expensive. For Dick Bickford, national sales manager at Fischer Connectors, a manufacturer of electronic connectors for the medical and military industries, it was simply a matter of asking for a flexible schedule. Rather than working the standard day, Bickford, who was diagnosed with ADD 10 years ago, now works longer hours but takes frequent breaks. "If you perform, a good boss should be open to helping you," he says.
The problem for employers is that even if you see the telltale signs of ADD, you are restricted by law from asking employees if they have the condition. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, it is the responsibility of the employee to inform you; then it's up to you to take steps to put "reasonable" accommodations in place. What's reasonable? A longer day so an employee can take frequent breaks is common. So is flextime. Others invest in computer programs that send reminders about meetings and deadlines.
Most adults with ADD remain undiagnosed. "This puts the employer in a tough position," says Dave Giwerc, an ADD coach in Slingerlands, N.Y. (Business owners cannot be held responsible for not aiding an employee who has not divulged the condition.) Even when they have been diagnosed, problems can arise. Ed Macomb, owner of Global Contacts, a New York City-based oil supply company, found himself in such a position. He had hired an assistant who had ADD but did not reveal it. Macomb found that the company was not receiving payments from many clients. He personally called a few to complain and they all said the same thing: We never received your invoice. Macomb reprimanded the assistant, who eventually resigned. A few weeks later, Macomb ran into one of the assistant's relatives, who told him she had ADD but often failed to take her medication. "If I had known," Macomb says, "I might have been able to help her."
Thomas Edison probably had it. So did Walt Disney and Henry Ford. More recently, David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue, has publicly acknowledged his ADD. In fact, ADD often is associated with positive traits that can make a good entrepreneur, says David Giwerc, who, after being diagnosed with the condition 10 years ago, launched an ADD coaching business that targets entrepreneurs. Giwerc, who also serves as president of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, spoke to Inc. about the link between ADD and entrepreneurship.
Q: Why are people with ADD disproportionately drawn to owning their own business?
A: These are generally people who do not work well in typical environments. But not only can people with ADD pay attention, they can also hyperfocus with super-intense levels of concentration. At some point in the start of any business, you need someone who can do that.
Q: But doesn't any good business require some kind of structure?
A: Entrepreneurs with ADD create a structure and an environment that works the way they do. For example, I do a lot of my thinking while I'm moving. So I've put a headset on and conducted meetings while I'm on a treadmill. I couldn't do that at a corporation. They would think I was nuts.
Q: Does ADD make people better entrepreneurs?
A: I don't know if I can say better. But I can say they can be very effective entrepreneurs -- if they understand their ADD. It can also make you a horrible entrepreneur -- one that never gets past first base -- if you don't understand it. If you're in an environment that is not supportive, ADD is not going to manifest in a good way.