ADHD and Entrepreneurship: Unlocking the Potential of Those Who Break the Mold

An 8-foot-tall man who tries to sit in the typical airline seat will likely have difficulty squeezing into a row designed for a person of average height. Their height is not good or bad; it is simply a characteristic that isn't particularly helpful in this context. It could, however, come in handy during a basketball game. While most people can see the pros and cons of being exceptionally tall, not all characteristics that deviate from the “norm” are afforded the same balanced perspective.

People who are neurodiverse, which can include having ADHD, ADD or autism, are often looked at as having a disability. Johan Wiklund, professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, points out that the way society views neurodivergence is partly shaped by the deficit approach taken by the medical field. Medical professionals have tended to look at conditions like ADHD as problems that need to be fixed. But Wiklund believes the same strength-based approach that people take when they consider the benefits of height can be applied to ADHD.

“We can take a more balanced view and say: ‘OK, you're different. It’s apparent that you have some problems, but aren’t there certain things that you're really good at?’” he said.

One of those things may be entrepreneurship. Wiklund and his colleague John Torrens, a professor of entrepreneurial practice at the Whitman School and author of Lightning in a Bottle: How Entrepreneurs Can Harness Their ADHD to Win, recently studied how ADHD symptoms in entrepreneurs affect the performance of their organizations.

Aligning ADHD with Entrepreneurial Orientation

The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health found that more than 6 million children in the United States had been diagnosed with ADHD. ADHD can last into adulthood, and many people will go undiagnosed despite presenting symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC identifies the two common presentations of ADHD:

Predominantly Inattentive Presentation: characterized by an inability to maintain focus on tasks, the inability to pay attention in situations that the individual considers uninteresting, forgetfulness and distractibility.
Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: characterized by high energy levels and emotional excitement, the inability to sit still, feelings of restlessness and impulsive behaviors such as acting before listening to directions or speaking out of turn.

People with ADHD can also have a combined presentation.

In their research, the professors focused on the hyperactive-impulsive presentation of ADHD, examining how the symptoms of a firm’s leader aligned with the entrepreneurial orientation (EO) of that firm. The authors of the published study note that top executives have disproportionate influence on firm strategy and strategic orientation. They summarize EO as the entrepreneurial nature of a firm’s strategic choices, relating specifically to three dimensions:

Innovativeness

The willingness to support new ideas and experimentation.

Proactiveness

The disposition to act to establish first-mover advantage.

Risk-Taking

The willingness to commit resources to projects with the potential of large loss.

The authors found that companies that have leaders with symptoms related to the hyperactive-impulsive presentation have high EO and outperform their competitors. How do the symptoms of leaders and the dimensions align to impact the business?

“When somebody might just be resting and relaxing, the hyperactive ADHD person is looking for the next opportunity or working on the next project,” Torrens said. “They are moving the ball faster.”

This hyperactivity is coupled with urgency. Wiklund said people with ADHD can work intensely for long periods on projects they are invested in and are able to make important decisions swiftly where others might freeze.

“As an entrepreneur you have to make decisions all the time,” Wiklund said. “They’re just very good at handling large amounts of information and making those quick decisions.”

There are also benefits that come with the unique work environment. Entrepreneurship offers individuals autonomy and the ability to design their work. And it’s an environment characterized by a great deal of uncertainty.

“New venture creation entrepreneurship is risky, so it generally attracts people who are OK with certain levels of risk,” Torrens said. “And when you find entrepreneurs that are hyperactive and impulsive on the ADHD spectrum, they’re just more comfortable with risk. Their tolerance is higher, their propensity is higher and it could be that because they’re just so optimistic about opportunities that they may not even see risks.”

Learn more about why Professor Torrens considers ADHD an entrepreneur’s superpower by listening to or watching his TEDx Talk on the topic.

Building Helpful Work Habits

Traits associated with ADHD can propel an entrepreneur forward. But they can also be a double-edged sword.

“If you have a high propensity for risk, when it’s working well for you, it makes you look like you’re brave and visionary,” Torrens said. “But when it’s not working well for you, it makes it look like you take big risks without thinking them through all the way.”

Learning how to emphasize the positives and mitigate the negatives associated with ADHD symptoms can be important to achieving success. Wiklund and Torrens, who were both diagnosed with ADHD, shared their strategies for how entrepreneurs with ADHD can develop helpful work habits.

8 Tips for Entrepreneurs with ADHD

1

Acknowledge your weaknesses. While it’s important to take a strength-based approach to addressing ADHD, Wiklund also says entrepreneurs should recognize that “there are certain things that other people find easy and do well that you don't find easy and don't do well. Be very humble about that.” And find colleagues who compliment you.

2

Be mindful of how you spend your work time. “You’re not going to do the things you don’t like very well,” Torrens said, which can leave entrepreneurs feeling stuck. Instead of devoting time to projects that you’re not interested in, find opportunities to be creative and interact with others who share your enthusiasm. Vary the workday.

3

Don't overcommit. Enthusiasm can prompt entrepreneurs to think creatively and dive into new projects. But Wiklund cautions entrepreneurs to rein themselves in. Focusing an inordinate amount of time on one project can eventually lead to burnout, as can committing to too many different projects.

4

Manage how you receive information. Torrens works with individuals to determine how distracting their environment is. Are they constantly bombarded with messages from Instagram, WhatsApp and Outlook? Simple management techniques like only opening applications when you are prepared to respond can help to focus your attention.

5

Create cues to reestablish focus. For entrepreneurs who are constantly thinking of the next great idea, having team members who can signal when they are veering off task and need to pay attention can be a tremendous asset. Torrens encouraged the use of hand signals, phrases or signs, which can act as cues to focus on the task at hand.

6

Optimize your meeting structure. You don't have to automatically sideline great ideas because you are working on one task. Instead, bake a specific time into management meetings to talk through potential projects and determine whether they are worthy of investing resources.

7

Practice self-care. Both Wiklund and Torrens emphasized the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and regular sleep. But mental health can be just as important as physical health. Engaging in mindfulness, meditation and gratitude practices can help ground the individual.

8

Engage your key relationships. There are people in your personal life who understand how your symptoms manifest both positively and negatively. They can also help to check impulses that may be more dysfunctional and bring your attention to how you are engaging the different traits associated with ADHD, Torrens said.

Embracing Neurodiversity in Company Culture

Over the past year, many American corporations have emphasized efforts to reexamine diversity and inclusivity in their workplaces. Wiklund says neurodiversity should be an important component of those efforts.

“When we think about diversity, we need to think about diversity along many different dimensions,” he said. For example, how does a company respond differently to the needs of an employee who uses a wheelchair compared to a person with ADHD who does not have an immediately discernible outward presentation?

One way to begin to address this need is to consider how leaders promote company culture.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on company culture and that we should have a certain culture,” Wiklund said. “The problem with that is that, quite often, it means that you need to behave in a particular way to fit in.”

But for the employee with ADHD or the 8-foot-tall guy, fitting in isn’t always an option. And while companies may profess a commitment to inclusivity, Wiklund says that, after a few years, many people who don’t fit in are weeded out.

Rather than asking everyone to fit the company culture mold, Wiklund encourages companies to be open to differences and to accept a certain level of friction and discomfort that those differences may bring.

“I actually do believe there’s a lot of talk,” he said, “so I think now the next step will be walking the walk.”

Learn more about this topic by listening to or reading “Succeeding with ADHD,” a recent podcast episode of The Anxious Achiever, presented by Harvard Business Review, which features commentary from Professor Wiklund.

Citation for this content: Syracuse University’s online MBA program