The author, who has chosen to remain anonymous, has been CEO of several companies during his successful career.
Over my years as CEO of several U.S. and European medical companies, I have learned that employees don’t leave their personal life at home. Their domestic issues affect their work and sometimes spill out during the workday. They may be anxious about a sick relative, have an illness of their own, a relationship problem, or be saddled with financial difficulties.
They usually confide in a close work colleague, or maybe share it with HR or their line manager, and the company affords them time off, a shorter workday, relaxation of duties, or other means to support them.
What happens when the CEO has personal problems?
About 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It is one of the better cancers to have, but I still needed surgery and radiotherapy. It also affected my metabolism and mental capacity, since I had bouts of extreme tiredness and mood swings until my post-surgery medication settled down.
I couldn’t hide it, so I told my employees, board of directors, and shareholders. Because I worked for a medical company, everyone was supportive and sympathetic, and I am very grateful that I made a full recovery.
So if everyone was so nice to me when I had cancer, why don’t I share the fact that I have ADHD?
I conceal a large element of my ADHD from my employees since I have the luxury of a super-organized assistant who manages my time, paperwork, and executive function disorder to minimize structural problems. This kind of support during my school years could have dramatically improved my dreadful academic performance.
With my type of ADHD (combination type, with a bias toward inattentive), I struggle to sit through technical or detailed meetings. I am erratic with deadlines and appraisals, and I run every meeting in fast-forward mode, rarely managing to stay in my chair for much of the discussion.
In addition, some of my behavior is brushed off as “Type A CEO behavior”—always in a hurry and impatient. However, sometimes it gets me in trouble.
For example, I have never made it past four years in a business. When I have brought about the changes and restructuring that was necessary, and the processes and operations I put in place are under control, I become a problem: I have too much energy and too much appetite for change. The management team finds me too intense or restless.
The difficulty is, without constant challenges to stimulate me, I revert to being the “difficult kid at the back of the class who just gazes out the window all day.” Unfortunately for me, I have a great view from my corner office, so I can do a lot of gazing.
I don’t want to get fired again, nor do I want to suppress the positives that my ADHD brings. So instead of taking medication, I was referred by my doctor to a clinical psychologist for a series of cognitive behavioral sessions.
I was delighted to learn in my first session that the psychologist treats many successful entrepreneurs and CEOs for ADHD. They have the same challenge: to keep the edge that ADHD gives them while not destroying their own career or business in the process. She says she wants to help me keep my super-powers while using CBT to regulate and channel them so they don’t get out of control.
We have found some quick wins: learning to recognize when I am getting too chaotic, distracted, or intense, and learning how to switch into hyperfocus mode more deliberately. I know it will take some time to make these adjustments a matter of habit, but I took the first step and it feels good.
To answer my own question: I will not share my ADHD with my board members or employees. In short, most people’s understanding of ADHD conflicts with what they want from a CEO—to be action-biased, a champion for change, and a risk-taker and first-mover. Little do they know that the source of the all those qualities, in my case, is my ADHD.
I am not ashamed of my ADHD. The difficulty is that few people really understand the condition. By telling them, I risk losing the confidence of the board, devaluing our stock price, and alienating myself from my employees. Until the wider world understands and appreciates the amazing, wonderful, energizing benefits that ADHD brings to the workplace, I have to keep the secret source of my CEO super-powers to myself.