Achieving Success, Thanks to ADHD

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For many people today, having ADHD is seen as an affliction to be overcome.

For Sourcing Solved MD Iain McKenna, growing up with ADHD had its challenges, but it also gave him the drive to become a successful professional and build his own company.

“As the founder and Managing Director of Sourcing Solved, I’m proud to look back on my 15+ years of experience and success in the recruitment industry. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked at a series of market-leading companies, before eventually launching my own company. Here at Sourcing Solved I’ve used my deep knowledge of the industry and my specialised skill-set to oversee executive search projects on a global scale, for even the largest corporations.

I also have ADHD.

If that comes as a surprise to you, you wouldn’t be the first. After all, ADHD, or Hyperactivity Disorder as it’s sometimes known, is usually seen as a bad thing; something to be overcome. According to various articles published in the media, ADHD means you can’t sit still, you can’t stay organised, you can’t follow instructions and you can’t control impulses. It’s normal to assume, then, that founding a company and becoming a business leader is also something people with ADHD can’t do. So how did I get to where I am today?

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Even thinking back on those times isn’t easy, but I have a great reason to do it. It’s not about attracting sympathy but sharing my experience; mine is not a sob-story, but a story of success against the odds. Neurodiversity doesn’t have to be seen as a negative. In fact, a neurodiverse workforce can be hugely beneficial for any company. It’s time for employers to understand this, and embrace a different way of thinking. It’s time to give people with ADHD a chance to find the opportunities they deserve by eliminating the roadblocks and prejudice that so many of us still face.

Learning the hard way

As a child, being different is never a good thing. At school I found it difficult to focus and process information, and even more difficult to make friends. My condition wasn’t something anyone had even heard of. For my teachers, it was easier to write me off as stupid or disruptive than to try to understand and support me. I was lumped in a class with other children who were seen as less capable; those with physical disabilities and learning difficulties. With the teacher at the front of the class doing little more than babysitting children with such diverse needs, you can imagine the chaos that would ensue. In an environment like that, nothing would sink in, no matter how hard I tried to learn. The most frustrating thing was that I knew I had bright ideas; I knew I was creative and I knew I was good at solving problems, I just never had an opportunity to share those ideas or show those skills.

Simple concepts like learning to tell the time were hard for me to grasp. When I tried to absorb information and use it to make a decision, it felt like something was missing. My train of thought would always be disrupted. I’d get lost somewhere between A and B, then move onto something entirely different before I’d even realised it. Meanwhile, the education system continued to fail me; school was an onslaught of bullying, apathy and misguided attempts at discipline. It felt like I was being hit over and over by a paintball gun, with no way to escape the line of fire.

My train of thought would always be disrupted. I’d get lost somewhere between A and B, then move onto something entirely different before I’d even realised it.

It was hard for my parents, too, because they had no way of understanding what I was going through, nor was I able to communicate it. There was very little public awareness of ADHD; my mother tried to learn what she could, but there was hardly any research on my condition. My father and I grew more and more distant. To an old-school military man like him, I was unruly with little academic direction. Unfortunately he passed away when I was 17 and was never able to see me grow beyond these challenges.

A teacher once asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. At the time, I thought I’d like to be a graphic designer, and I told him so. I’ll never forget the way he reacted. “You should take your head out of the clouds, Iain”, he said. “You should think about a job with the refuse and recycling department.” I knew I was capable of more than that. Those condescending words of his became my greatest driver, as I knew I had to prove him, and everyone else, wrong.

Discovering new pathways

I graduated from secondary school with few qualifications and practically self taught myself through college. Having watched a TV program that portrayed Brighton as an open, diverse place, I made my way there with £350 to my name, no contacts and nowhere to live. For six months I worked a string of short-term jobs, mostly manual labour. Over the course of those many jobs, I discovered that I had a special talent for connecting with people; an unusually high level of empathy and caring that went beyond what’s typical. I started to look for something that played more to my strengths and that’s when I discovered recruitment. I realised that this was a talent I should use to my advantage on a professional level. Recruitment seemed like the perfect fit.

At first, again, it wasn’t easy. I found myself in roles that were extremely sales-driven. The bottom line mattered more than anything and if you didn’t perform to target you were out on your ear. By this time, I had moved to London and was gritting my teeth through a bizarre flat-share with a cast of strange and terrifying housemates. Life was turning into a dark comedy and work wasn’t much better. One particular company fired me not because of my sales ability, but because I didn’t conform to their grammatical standards. This reasoning knocked my confidence, but then came the turning point. After moving to a new recruitment company I received a call from BP, seeking my help with building a team for a procurement software company. That chance became my lifeline. I went to meet the board and we connected straight away; 15 years later and we are still friends.

When being unique became a good thing

From then on, my people skills were what made me stand out and even excel. Where others were focused on the bottom line, I was interested in getting to know candidates on an emotional level and creating real connections with them. In a sales scenario, I was always the one asking people how they felt, trying to understand what drove them both professionally and personally. I also found that my empathy wasn’t the only skill that helped me to succeed. Many of the other traits brought about by my ADHD were equally useful. I found I was an excellent problem-solver, with a unique ability to think quickly, be creative and see the bigger picture where others couldn’t. I had incredibly high energy levels and I was hyper-focused on any task I was passionate about. When given the chance to apply those skills, I become one of the highest-performing salespeople at my company, not only in the UK but across Europe. In my early twenties I was offered an opportunity with a client who loved what I did, nearly doubling my salary. Within my first year at that role, I was turning over six figures. And that was still in my early twenties.

I never had a comfort zone, and I was gifted with the skills to ensure I never needed one.

I often found myself in competition with sales professionals who were extremely capable from an academic standpoint, excelling at methodical, structured tasks within a defined process. But I began to notice that when you took them out of their comfort zone, they tended to fall short in their performance and delivery. I never had a comfort zone to begin with, and I was gifted with the skills to ensure I never needed one.

The benefits of diagnosis

It wasn’t until recently that I finally got an official diagnosis of ADHD. Even now, in the UK, the process of diagnosis is light years behind the advancements in the US; long waiting lists mean it can take up to seven years. Eventually, I found myself sitting in a room while a doctor asked me questions on a checklist before giving me a score which confirmed what I already knew. Yes, I had ADHD. Knowing this was a huge weight off my shoulders. Finally, I was able to understand why I am the way I am. I stopped blaming myself so much for my shortcomings and started instead to celebrate my successes. I was also able, for the first time, to consider medication. This has given me an extra ability to focus and create structure, without taking away all the many skills and advantages which ADHD has given me.

Working with ADHD, not against it

I now have a complete understanding of how to manage my condition and use it to enhance my workflow. I use a variety of tools such as Evernote to incorporate structure, helping me to stay organised and on-track. I also use the Things app to break my day into chunks of activity. Just Press Record is a great app that lets me record ideas on my phone as they spring to mind, then come back to them later. I keep notes, to-do lists and use reminders. Over the years, I’ve perfected a system to maximise my output, just like any high-performing business leader would. My ADHD isn’t a problem I work around, but a tool which I sharpen to deploy with the greatest effect.

The challenges we still face

It was sheer grit and determination which got me where I am today. If I had been diagnosed with ADHD while still a child, and provided with a structured support process, I would have had far fewer hurdles to overcome. I would like to say that things are much better now than they were when I was growing up. But while awareness of ADHD has improved here in the UK, we’re still far behind where we should be. A greater understanding of conditions such as dyslexia means that there is a level of support in schools, but ADHD still suffers from a lack of accurate information in the public sphere. Many educators and parents, faced with scaremongering headlines and ill-informed, underfunded healthcare professionals, believe that medication is the only possible treatment when there could be better options out there. Many children are still slipping under the radar, classed as simply disruptive or excitable. These children are growing into adults who continue to be failed by the system, missing out on opportunities, being unmedicated, or worse, badly medicated.

The value of ADHD

At Sourcing Solved, we put great value in connecting with people rather than simply focusing on skill-sets. Instead of ticking off a checklist of attributes, we want to get to know every candidate and understand what’s important to them. As such, we have significant experience in recruiting professionals with ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity. Their stories, alongside my own, have proven to me that this condition doesn’t have to be a burden. In fact, it can produce employees who are uniquely valuable assets in any business environment. Every organisation needs people who can think laterally, solve problems quickly, dedicate themselves single-mindedly and understand others intuitively. But so many organisations are missing out, as individuals with ADHD are not being given their chance to shine.

How many great leaders, thinkers and achievers has the world missed out on because they were never taught how to understand and channel their skills?

There are more ADHD success stories out there than most of us realise. Take Whoopi Goldberg or Mark Ruffalo for example, or Richard Bacon. The business world is home to many; Richard Branson is a famous example, as are Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad and Cisco CEO John Chambers. Business coach Cameron Herold explains how ADHD works to his advantage in a TED talk. Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line, likens people with ADHD to maverick bees, making life better for all at the hive by virtue of doing things differently. These are just a few examples of people with ADHD who have achieved their greatest potential by carving out a niche for themselves and embracing their natural talents. How many great leaders, thinkers and achievers has the world missed out on because they were never taught how to understand and channel their skills?

Finding a better future

Even today, children with ADHD can wait up to two years for a simple diagnosis. These children need real support; their teachers and families need the vocabulary to understand them, and the tools to support them. Healthcare professionals need the training and funding to provide solutions which ease the burden on parent, teacher and child alike. The media needs to show that successful people with ADHD didn’t get to where they are in spite of their condition; they got there because of it. Adults who were failed by education and now wonder if they might have ADHD need to be given the courage to reach out and get a diagnosis, so they can finally achieve the confidence and clarity they deserve. If that’s you, reading this, then let this be the moment when you take that first step.

ADHD makes me who I am. ADHD has made me a success. If we make things right for those children who are being sent to the back of the class and still don’t know why, then we will all benefit. Our families will be happier, our societies will be richer, and our businesses will grow stronger.”

Iain McKenna is Founder and Managing Director of executive search consultancy Sourcing Solved, placing procurement executives across the UK and Europe.