If you ‘ve ever worked with someone who has or exhibits Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) behavior, you know it can be exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.  On the one hand, these folks have boundless energy and are constantly coming up with new and exciting ideas.  On the other hand, they can easily derail discussions and can have difficulty following ideas to fruition. 

Signs Your Boss Has ADD

Now, imagine that this person is your boss.  Your world can feel like you’re in the middle of a game of ping pong, and you’re the ball.  I hear countless stories from clients, former students and friends of the challenges of having productive meetings with their boss because of their leader’s ADD behavior.  Consider the following signs that your boss might have ADD:

  • They are full of new ideas.  One of the hallmarks of an ADD leader is her or his ability to ideate.  They are never short of a new plan, initiative or creative approach.  As one client shared with me, “My manager always has a new idea or proposal or initiative to talk about.  And they are all really good.  The challenge is that every meeting seems to involve something new – I just can’t keep up.”
  • They routinely forget what they have asked you to do.  This is a common trait of ADD leaders and a painful one if you are their direct report.  As one such person revealed to me, “We have these great conversations and my manager sets me down a path.  During our next meeting with the team, my manager comes up with the same idea that we discussed earlier as if it is brand new and wants to discuss it with the team.  It is incredibly awkward because we all know that he tasked me with doing this about two weeks ago.” 
  • They take “hard lefts.”  If not structured, ADD leaders will often derail conversations down another path.  As one client explained, “Before I knew it, we were talking about new market initiatives when I had intended for us to talk about my needs for another direct report.  It felt like I was just trying to hold on until the meeting was over.” 
  • They take “deep dives.”  Similar to “hard lefts,” if not well-structured, these leaders can go deep into the weeds before you know it.  The same “hard lefts” client shared this experience: “So, I figured my boss wanted to explore other growth opportunities, so I tried to prepare for those conversations.  But then in our very next meeting, we ended up discussing my department budget.  We talked about office supplies down to the detail.  I was not prepared.” 
  • They multi-task when they shouldn’t.  Whether in one-on-one meetings with direct reports or team meetings, bosses that exhibit traits of ADD will have a difficult time staying focused on one stimulus.  They need more than one thing going on at the same time.  This is the boss that is typing while you are talking or staring at her/his phone during the entire meeting. 

If this is your boss, what can you do?  Luckily, I posed this question on social media and received a tremendous volume of responses.  Here are some strategies you can put in place immediately to help you.

3 Ways to Manage a Boss with ADD

  1. Put extra effort into meeting structure preparation.  Have a tight and clear agenda.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this meeting?” and structure your agenda to achieve that goal.  In addition to sending the agenda to your manager prior to the meeting (assume they won’t read it), ALWAYS come prepared with a hard copy (or take control of the screen if virtual).  Stimulus is key with a manager with ADD.  The more stimulus we can give her or him, the better.  Something that they can hold and look at is incredibly helpful in serving this purpose.  Consider this wonderful nugget I gathered in my research: “Short meeting with a few bullet points. This helps them stay focused on the most relevant and makes the time pass quickly.”
  2. Gently force prioritization.  If you consider the traits listed above, you might run into the dilemma of a leader who is always “starting a new branch but pruning none.”  Being prepared to gently force prioritization is key.  Consider this excellent piece of advice from a contributing leader with ADD tendencies: “As a leader with ADD my brain zooms past the great idea we just launched.  So, my team helps me focus by saying, ‘So, which priority do you want to highlight this week – this one or that one?’ Or, ‘Great idea… for 2021.’ I have to empower them, respect their work style and take feedback.”
  3. Provide regular updates, reminders and follow-ups.  Don’t be shy in following up with your manager with relevant information to not only remind her/him about your discussions, but to keep her/him focused.  One additional pro tip from me, use color.  Lengthy paragraphs will not get read.  Use color to draw their attention.  Here is a supporting piece of advice from a contributor: “Make a list of things he needs to take care of (or be aware of).  Send it to him and make it easy for him to check things off. In our work environment, this guy often becomes a bottleneck because his approval is required, or he needs to provide input on something.  So, I tell the assistants that they should always be aware of what other people need from him, and they should figure out the priority items, and then make sure to communicate that information to him.”

A final reminder, when harnessed, a leader with ADD can be a powerful catalyst for exciting change.  I love this comment from a contributor:  “Accept the deep dives, twists and turns – introduce and close with your desired outcome and resist the need to keep the conversation on the rails and 100% structured all of the time (you’ll learn something along the way). Be brief – have an elevator speech version of what you want to say and skip the monologue. ADD and ADHD (Leaders) are both a challenge and a superpower for both of you to understand and leverage.”

Mic drop. 
You got this, now go leverage some superpowers.