Not Your Average Bob: Coaching Professionals & Executives with ADHD

Bob’s Story

Bob is both relieved and nervous. A report that’s been hanging over his head for months is being presented to his Board today. He dashes into his office and snatches the final draft from the printer. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the computer and thinks to himself, “Gosh, I’ve been working so hard on this report I haven’t checked my e-mail in days. I’ll do that quickly. After all, the meeting is just down the road.”

Forty-five minutes later, Bob is still at the computer. He glances at his watch and is relieved to see he still has 15 minutes before the meeting begins. “I’ll read just one more e-mail,” he says. By the time Bob leaves his office, he has minutes to spare but has not factored in rush hour traffic. “When will I ever learn?” he exclaims to himself while running down the busy sidewalk and waving his arms to hail a cab.

Despite his erratic behavior and inconsistent performance, Bob has moved up the corporate ladder quickly, recently landing the title of VP. He is a top performer in his company and is valued for his hard work and innovative ideas. Nevertheless, most of his colleagues consider him irresponsible and arrogant.

What people don’t realize is that Bob struggles silently with the effects of AD/HD. He stays long hours after work to catch up on detailed paperwork and projects that have fallen through the cracks. His lack of organization and time management skills has also taken a toll on his personal life. His wife is fed up with his long hours and his empty promises to take more responsibility around the house. She calls Bob “the fourth child” in the family because he is always misplacing things, forgetting to pay bills, and leaving countless unfinished projects strewn all over the house.

Bob’s story is typical of many high achieving professionals with AD/HD. Like most people with AD/HD, they are challenged daily by their neurobiology. The difference for high achievers is that their successes often overshadow the negative effects of their AD/HD. Their ability to think outside of the box, take risks and act on their feet during times of crisis is rewarded in today’s fast-paced corporate arena.

Ironically, the very same abilities that get them promoted are the ones that can trip them up. For example, when the environment is not making demands on them, they usually lose their sharp edge and find it almost impossible to focus on details or initiate work on any back-burner projects. They can get stuck in seeing the big picture, act impulsively and rely too much on their intuition.

In many cases, the higher up the corporate ladder an executive is, the more his or her AD/HD issues center on interpersonal skills, life balance, relationships with co-workers and a disrupted home life. Regardless of their rank in the corporate or professional arena, one theme remains constant: no matter how many times they have tried to make improvements and change their behavior, professionally and personally, they forget the pain of the past and revert to old patterns, repeating the same mistakes.

Today many executives and entrepreneurs are engaging executive coaches to help them improve their work performance. Coaching is quickly gaining popularity in the corporate arena due to its strategic approach to personal change. Professionals with AD/HD can benefit from working with a coach who is knowledgeable about the neurobiology of AD/HD and the impact it can have on one’s personal and professional life. It is imperative that the AD/HD executive’s coach be properly trained and experienced in methods and techniques that will help clients get around these challenges. Confidentiality and trust are also key for these clients, many of whom fear colleagues’ discovering that they have AD/HD and/or take medication.

Executive coaching can take many forms. It can be done on the phone or in person. The coach may shadow the executive throughout a day. Regular check-ins, accountability around agreed-upon actions and feedback from the coach are powerful catalysts. Professionals with AD/HD who struggle to be more consistent in their performance need to bridge the gap between their desire to achieve more and their ability to do it.

The most important asset professionals have is time. A coach can help increase productivity and efficiency by setting up structures and accountability to curtail avoidance tactics around small mounting details and long-term projects.

A coach provides hope by partnering with the client with AD/HD and offering constant reminders of what can be achieved. The nagging sense of being overwhelmed is reduced as coach and client devise creative solutions for persistent AD/HD challenges such as the ability to focus and prioritize, deal with distractions, create better follow through and be more realistic about time.

The AD/HD executive coach, as one CEO puts it, “tells it like it is and is there to help you quickly identify self-sabotaging behaviors and to support you in taking a set of specific actions that ensure effective and lasting changes that will maximize your potential for success.”

How a Coach Helped Bob

After years of trying to make changes on his own, Bob finally sought out the services of an AD/HD executive coach to help him improve his personal and professional life. Bob and his coach identified several areas needing attention:

Planning and prioritizing:

Bob’s tendency was to wait until the last minute to work on long-term projects, regardless of their importance, both at work and at home. The prospect of initiating steps would loom over his head like a cloud, leading to procrastination and eventually snowballing into feelings of shame and guilt.

To curtail this negative pattern Bob and his coach mapped out the next 12 months of projects with their associated responsibilities and deadlines. Together they created mini-landmarks and accountability for each part of the project. By talking out his actions and plans with his coach, Bob was able to keep his priorities in mind. Client and coach created accountability for completion of identified tasks through e-mail check-ins.

They created a similar plan for his home projects. Bob assembled a list of things he needed to do at the house and assigned deadlines to each project. He used his coach to keep him on track so he did not continue to disappoint his family by saying he would repair something but never getting around to it.

Developing consistency and follow through:

To help create an overall sense of dependability with himself and to increase his ability to keep his commitments, Bob worked out an arrangement to e-mail his coach each morning with a detailed plan for that day. Later, they would review how well each day followed the plan. Through these discussions Bob was able to identify and remember his priorities and maintain his focus and attention on the most important ones.

Increasing abilities to self-inhibit and self-monitor:

For Bob, this meant learning to screen out and inhibit competing thoughts or stimuli at a given moment.

After setting up each day’s priorities, Bob kept a close eye on what took him off track at any given moment and reported these observations to his coach at each check-in. By reviewing instances in which he felt he had made bad choices–for example, attempting to read e-mail on the way out the door to an important meeting–Bob was able to reflect on and talk through possible alternative courses of actions and put strategies in place to avoid these temptations in the future.

Bob’s direct involvement in the creation of coaching strategies, including designing the coaching partnership itself, maintained his interest in the coaching process. He was able to sustain attention and motivation long enough to replace old patterns with new behaviors and habits to improve his work and home life.

The power of coaching is well summed up by an entrepreneur who was brilliant at selling his products and ideas, yet continually lost money due to his inability to close deals and his persistent lack of follow-through. When he started to work with a coach he was able to move forward consistently. He says, “By effectively taking a couple of key actions, I turned what could have been a devastating business loss into a growth opportunity. That resulted in my client’s renewal of a quarter-million-dollar-a-year contract.”