CEOs Can Overcome—Even Leverage—An Attention Deficit Disorder

He can't keep track of the details, but Genesis10 Founder Harley Lippman excels at focusing on the big picture which, he says, "is the hallmark of a successful CEO."

About 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population have some form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder, according to the literature, meaning that a good number of CEOs are likely afflicted by these conditions. But Genesis10 CEO Harley Lippman proves that a determined business leader can overcome ADD.

In fact, Lippman believes that executives actually can leverage some of the characteristics of attention-deficit disorders to make themselves exemplary leaders—and maybe even provide lessons to other CEOs not so afflicted.

“I do think a lot of CEOs have ADD, because if you have it, you have to be focused on the bottom line and results, on the big picture – which is a hallmark of a successful CEO,” Lippman told Chief Executive. “I’m not a details person. But like any CEO, I can hire people who are. A person with ADD is well-qualified for the big picture and for the bottom line because sometimes we almost can be qualified for nothing else. You need details people, and those are valuable roles, but they’re not the role of the CEO, who needs to be looking up, not down in the weeds.”

Lippman founded the New York City-based professional technology-services staffing firm 20 years ago and has built Genesis10 into a national leader with more than 2,000 employees and consultants and more than 20 sales and recruiting offices throughout North America.

Along the way, he said, Lippman has learned to overcome some of the drawbacks of his attention-deficit disorder, such as a short attention span and an inability to stick with the thread of a conversation, and even to turn them into advantages. At the same time, he doesn’t minimize the challenges that having the condition has posed to him as a business leader and communicator.

“People will make a presentation to me as the owner of [Genesis10] and I’ll tell them that I have ADD so they should give me the bottom line first,” Lippman said. “It’s a good business-communication method anyway—knowing the bottom line first. If I know where someone is going and their bottom line, I can follow them a lot better. The problem with ADD is that if someone starts a story, in the middle of what their saying my brain goes somewhere else. And I have to explain that to them so they don’t think I’m being rude or am bored, which invariably is what people feel.

“Yet what I find interesting is that most people don’t listen to my suggestion; they’ll laugh and smile at me and chuckle and don’t take me seriously that this is a learning disability … They’re not listening to my guidance, and yet I’m their customer. They need to listen to me if they want to sell me whatever idea or product or service they are pitching to me. I find it stunning—do I remind them of what I told them, or do I ignore it? I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.”

At the same time, he said, dealing with his disorder “gives me greater sensitivity” to things such as the importance of making sure listeners are getting the point. Dealing with ADD, he said, has forced him to compensate by sharpening other skills in the same sense that a blind or deaf person partially compensates for a disability with heightened other senses.

The tolerance and compassion he has gained “improve my relationships with colleagues and personal relationships,” Lippman said. “If you can put yourself in others’ shoes and show empathy, that is critical.”

Lippman said that leaders with attention-deficit disorders “should let people know and not keep it in the closet. It’s a recognized disability.” Be “up front with the disclosure,” he urged, guiding colleagues and others on “being patient.”