Great business success can often be associated with ADHD and/or learning disorders as part of an entrepreneur’s creativity, drive and vision. This article presents a client case example highlighting common challenges facing entrepreneurs and their families in this situation. Recommendations are provided for how to structure meetings, improve communication, and collaborate with clients in order to optimize wealth management services.
Peter Borden often quipped he had no right to be this successful. (All names and identifying information have been altered.) As a surgeon and founder of a medical-devices company, he had developed some of the most innovative products in the industry. With insatiable energy, an inventor’s imagination, and a total love of work, he could spend hours generating new ideas, checking on production and ambitiously pursuing opportunities in a competitive marketplace. He had been approached several times to sell his company, with the most recent and serious offer nearing $22 million. For a working-class boy from Pittsburgh who struggled to complete college and medical school, this was a staggering sum.
As the deal appeared to be imminent, Peter and his wife Charlene spoke to their financial advisors about feeling overwhelmed by the upcoming change in their lives. The Bordens were then referred to FamilyWealth Consulting for help in coping with the psychological aspects of the upcoming sale of the company. Typical wealth-counseling services include preparing the business founder and spouse for sudden, potentially overwhelming wealth and assisting them in guiding the next generation. But in the first meeting, it quickly became apparent there was a hidden factor in Peter’s behavior, operating in both helpful and adverse ways. Though Peter was highly intelligent and grasped concepts rapidly with great creativity, he also talked a lot, went off on tangents and frequently made joking or even biting comments about trivial things in the middle of the conversation. His attention started to slip whenever anyone else uttered more than three sentences in a row. And any time a sports car drove past the window of the first-floor conference room, his eyes and his concentration would go with it.
Charlene’s reactions indicated this was not new to her. We soon learned why. As Peter described his history he spoke of his struggles with reading and test-taking and his frustration dictating coherent medical notes. He spoke glowingly of his executive office assistant who “takes care of all the details that I can’t keep track of.” At home, Charlene had the same role. It was up to her to cue Peter about meetings with their kids’ teachers and to handle the logistical details when dealing with plumbers and decorators. Peter’s face flushed with embarrassment when Charlene shared she often had to explain to the kids that Dad “didn’t really mean it” after he had made tactless or impulsive comments.
It was no surprise when Charlene commented that one of their sons seemed to be “just like Peter” and had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Peter added that, while their middle daughter did not have symptoms of hyperactivity, she had significant difficulty with reading, spelling, and math, the hallmarks of a type of learning disability (LD). The children had undoubtedly inherited both from Dad.
Strengths and stresses from the same gift
Learning and attention difficulties seem to occur with disproportionate frequency among business founders and wealth creators. The confluence of high intelligence with mild-to-moderate ADHD and/or learning disorders is a pattern shared by Peter and many successful business clients. Two recent studies by the Cass School of Economics in London have offered data about this. Epidemiological studies document that ADHD and LD are typically present in approximately 5% of the population around the world. The Cass data, however, found that fully 20% of a sample of successful British entrepreneurs had symptoms characteristic of dyslexia, according to Cass Business School Professor of Entrepreneurship Julie Logan, in her unpublished 2001 doctoral dissertation, “Entrepreneurial success: A study of the incidence of dyslexia in the entrepreneurial population,” (University of Bristol, England). In a follow-up study of a sample of American entrepreneurs, “The Incidence of dyslexia in business managers and its relationship with entrepreneurial success,” (2005, Adult Dyslexia Association, London), and LearnDirect, Logan found the incidence to be similar.
The long-term vocational outcome for individuals with significant ADHD/LD is actually known to be somewhat below average due to the various impairments these disorders cause. But it appears that, for a select few, the presence of ADHD/LD can contribute to outsized success and significant wealth. Prominent business founders such as Charles Schwab, Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, and John Chambers of Cisco have openly disclosed how their attention and learning struggles shaped their sense of self and helped forge compensatory skills directly related to their eventual success.
In the book, “Copy This! Lessons from a hyperactive dyslexic who turned a bright idea into one of America’s best companies,” by Paul Orfalea and Ann Marsh, (September 2005, Workman Publishing Company), Orfalea, of Kinko’s, describes how his creativity, willingness to delegate tasks, high energy and innovative thinking led him to create a prosperous enterprise. He postulates that others who might have been less driven, less hyper-focused and less willing to look at things from multiple perspectives might have become discouraged or otherwise foundered. Many FamilyWealth Consulting clients attribute at least part of their business success to lessons learned or compensatory strategies forged under the challenges of learning disorders or surging creativity.
Yet there can also be a dark side to this scenario. Successful business owners with ADHD/LD are not immune to the stresses endemic to these disorders:
- Strained marriages: Spouses often describe a life of whirlwind highs and exhausting tensions that strain the bonds of even the strongest relationships. The partners in these driven, sometimes chaotic relationships have told us that on some level they feel as if they were chosen for their highly-responsible and detailed-oriented nature. Over time, they can become the designated driver for management of their spouse’s inattention, distractibility and unreliability. As one wife put it, “I get so tired sometimes of being his Ritalin.” The husband of a frenetic female CEO similarly admitted, “There are days I feel more like her executive assistant than a husband.” Driven by complex motivations that include love, devotion, even protection of the family (and, indeed, the life-style), “organizer-spouses” can be paying a high price for their crucial role behind the entrepreneur’s success.
- Substance use and abuse: Many adults with ADHD/LD medicate themselves with alcohol, marijuana, or stimulants in an effort to control their frenetic lifestyle and ping-pong thinking. Early experiences of frustration and failure in school or work environments can also lead to fragile self-esteem, which in turn may lead to substance abuse as a way of blunting painful emotions. By adulthood, what began as just ADHD/LD may now be accompanied by full-fledged addictions that have a life of their own. Peter and Charlene had managed to work through a rough period earlier in his career when his drinking threatened to derail not only his business but his marriage. His willingness to commit to sobriety had allowed not only the relationship to continue but his business to regain its vitality.
- Stressed families and children: The common parenting stresses of executives can be amplified by ADHD. Peter’s high energy at work translated to unreliability or variable interest in the day-to-day drudgery of parenting. He sometimes neglected to show up for school events or other appointments. He got into conflicts with his kids when he was at home, or he had a tendency to show up late, play with the kids animatedly, and then disappear to work on the computer or dash off to join his friends for a competitive game of racquetball. His kids missed a solid, reliable and attentive father, even as they experienced him as loving and affectionate.
In turn, Peter’s kids were experiencing their own set of stresses. ADHD and learning difficulties are genetic disorders frequently passed down to the next generation. In wealthy families affected by ADHD/LD, the children may have a harder time than usual living up to a parent’s extreme success. They can also inherit a parent’s disorders but not the exceptional personal qualities that helped Dad or Mom succeed. Ironically, the insulating qualities of wealth may unintentionally deprive kids of the opportunity to struggle with and overcome the character-building experiences that helped shape their parent’s success. On top of everything, sparks can fly when a high-powered parent is as impatient and easily frustrated as his hyperactive son or daughter, affecting everyone in the home.
Adaptations that help
Our work with Peter and Charlene Borden incorporated the strategies often helpful with other wealthy families with ADHD/LD. First, we helped them understand they were not alone in their stresses. We talked over the natural fears and embarrassment that kept them from disclosing their struggles to their advisors, let alone to friends and other family members. As Peter and Charlene experienced a sense of relief, they felt more optimistic, informed, and interested in hearing about better coping skills and compensatory strategies.