Being a Career Coach Plays to My ADHD strengths
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ADHD, time management, and PTSD: What made me a career coach

Phoebe Gavin has ADHD — and a passion for helping others thrive in the workplace. She’s a veteran, an executive director of talent and development at Vox.com, and a private career coach.

Phoebe was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and she enlisted in the military after high school. Transitioning back into civilian life was difficult, but she had a mentor who made all the difference. Now Phoebe gives that same support to her colleagues and clients. In this week’s episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?!, hear about Phoebe’s journey from the military, to fashion school, to her current work. Plus, get interviewing tips and advice on how to find work that best aligns with your values. 

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Episode transcript

Phoebe: When you think about being an assistant, that is a job that requires a high level of recall and a high level of detail, it requires a lot of focus. So, surprise, surprise, I was terrible at that job. Really bad at it. Sorry, Stuart, I was a bad assistant. But that was a really important moment for me to realize that, like, there's certain types of work that my brain is just not well suited for. There are other brains that are well-suited for that work, and I hope that that is who Stuart's assistant is now.

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

Career paths have lots of twists and turns. Our next guest knows that no experience is wasted. Phoebe Gavin was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. After high school, she enlisted in the military. Then she headed to New York City for college, where she became involved in an organization for veterans that changed her life. There, she learned skills that led to a career in media, and that was the platform for her current iteration. Phoebe now helps people find fulfillment in their jobs as the executive director of talent development at Vox.com. She's also a private career coach. Phoebe has a lot of insight on how we can all thrive at work. Phoebe, welcome to the show.

Phoebe: Thank you.

Eleni: So, you've had a lot of career experiences and we're going to get into that. But I would love for you to start by telling us a little bit about what you do now and what is the connection between, you know, your work at Vox and your coaching.

Phoebe: Yeah. So, I have two jobs now. I have a coaching business where I am a career and leadership coach and I help people find clarity about their careers and move into roles that better fit their needs and that are more aligned with their values. And then I do very similar work at Vox, but within the Vox.com newsroom population that is V-O-X dot com. So, really helping those folks thrive in the roles they have at Vox. I'm helping them get clear about what it is that they want to do more broadly in their careers and how that can show up for them in their time at Vox. And then helping our leaders be leaders that are really exciting folks to work for, that are able to drive really great results, and create a really great culture for the company overall.

Eleni: For your coaching business, do you work with a particular client base or like industry? Like who are the people that you're usually supporting?

Phoebe: Yeah, I tend to attract a lot of the folks who are similar to me. So, people who have a media background, or a journalism background, a creative background tend to show up in my practice. I work with a lot of women of color as I'm a woman of color. So, a lot of those folks tend to find me. But, in terms of the problems that they're trying to solve, it's very much people who are trying to figure out what kind of career pivot they want to have or people who have figured out what that is but aren't sure how to turn that dream into a real plan that's actionable and has a high likelihood of success. And so those are the folks that I tend to work with in my coaching practice.

Eleni: That makes a lot of sense. You know, I also feel that way about a therapist. It's much easier if you have like a little bit more like in common, so that's not like a barrier. It's like, "I already get you. Cool, I know where you're coming from." So that. Yeah, that's great. And what inspired you to become a coach?

Phoebe: It was a little bit over time, more and more and more, I realized that that is the type of work that I'm really excited to do. I, you know, sort of going all the way back to the beginning of my history. I came from a low-income background and I had to join the military to pay for college. And my military experience was pretty difficult. I experienced sexual assault while I was in the military, and it made it very difficult for me to transition into civilian life after my military contract was over. I was struggling very much from a mental health perspective, and literally, the only reason I'm still alive is because I got connected with a mentor who was a veteran who had really successfully transitioned and had a lot of knowledge on how to do that well. And he gave me so much information and so many contacts and so much support as I was making my transition, and that the impact that that connection had on me has really inspired me to try to be some version of that to as many people as I can as possible. And so, from that drive I have naturally tried to find ways to support people in being more successful in their personal and professional lives throughout my entire life, after I got out of the military. And that became more and more formal as I progressed professionally. I got a lot of really great feedback from lots and lots of people that I was really helpful to them and that I was good at this whole mentorship thing. And I realized that it was the time when I felt the most fulfilled and the most excited about, you know, what I was doing at work is when I was supporting people and mentoring people and coaching people. And so, you know, I, along with many other folks, had sort of a pandemic reckoning about where I wanted to go in my career. And that's when I decided to formally launch my coaching business instead of kind of doing a little bit of here and there on the side.

Eleni: Yeah. Well, congratulations on launching. And also, like, thank you for, you know, being vulnerable. And, you know, I'm glad that you found a person that was able to, you know, help you when you were most in need.

Phoebe: Yeah. Thank you.

Eleni: We hear that a lot, I hear it a lot in my research in terms of like, sometimes you just need one person that makes all the difference. You know and like to demonstrate that things could be different as well.

Phoebe: Yeah, and that one person, hopefully, at least it was in my case, had a network effect that that person knew lots of people, knew lots of things, and knew lots of services that were helpful to me. And I tried to have that network effect on not just my clients, but also just the people who are in my life. People who are in my professional network.

Eleni: Totally. Yeah. We do talk a lot on the show about race and class, and you know how that intersects with learning differences and how, you know, that intersectionality can really impact people's experience. If you feel comfortable, I would love for you to share your experience around like, you know, race and your learning difference. Maybe talk a little bit more about your diagnosis as well and how those things, you know, intersect.

Phoebe: Definitely. I'm absolutely an open book when it comes to this stuff. I think the more we talk about it, the less stigma there is.

Eleni: Hundred percent.

Phoebe: Which unlocks opportunities and unlocks choices for people who otherwise might not have them. So, I'm a Black woman and I grew up low income, and in the Black community, there's been a lot of very reasonable skepticism of the medical establishment. The medical establishment has historically been run by white men, and as we go farther and farther and farther back in time, we experience a culture that is more and more and more discriminating against Black people. And in the medical establishment in particular, there's been lots of experimentation on Black people. There's been lots of, you know, studies on Black people without their consent, without informing them. And that naturally leads to a cultural skepticism around the medical establishment. And then add the income layer on top of that, that like if you don't have a lot of money, then it's hard to access health care because health care is so expensive in the United States. I was diagnosed when I was five or six years old, and it was because my mom really broke through a lot of those sort of cultural messages and said, like, "I just need to see what's going on with my kid. She's having a hard time. I need to figure out what's going on with her." And, you know, she took me to an evaluator, she took me to a psychiatrist, and all of the tests were pretty straightforward that like, "This is definitely a kid who has ADHD, and these are some of the things that are going to be helpful in moving her forward." And she became very active in the community, very active in the school district, she became very active in our local chapter of CHADD, which is Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder — it's a nonprofit organization that builds awareness around ADD. And so, I was really lucky that despite all of the cultural messaging about accessing health care being an incredibly risky thing for a Black person to do, that mom still pushed through and got me diagnosed so that I could get support at school. And it made a really big difference in my ability to learn. I'm a naturally curious person. I love learning, and so being accommodated at school made a huge difference for me. And so that's kind of where it all started.

Eleni: I love what you said about, you know, really loving to learn. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, like how that relates to your ADHD brain and like what you do now?

Phoebe: So, my love of learning and my ADD come together in kind of an interesting way. I definitely hyper focus on certain tasks, certain topics. And so, when it comes to like my natural curiosity and my love of learning, there were certain aspects of school that I really struggled with because I just didn't find them interesting. And then there were certain areas where I would absolutely zone in and get so interested and get so excited and go really, really, really deep. Science was a huge, huge, huge passion for me as a kid. I loved it so very much and once I got into high school, I was able to take a psychology class and that is when I really zoned in on like learning how people work is fascinating. And unfortunately, you know, I had some teachers who discouraged me from pursuing a science career. That's a terrible thing. But, you know, that is something that happened to me, and that influence did change the initial directions for my career path. Instead of choosing to become a psychologist, I decided to go in a more creative direction and go to fashion school after I got out of the military.

Eleni: Wow.

Phoebe: But that was another thing where it really tied into this like curiosity about how people work. Because the aspect of the fashion industry that I find really interesting is how clothes relate to our identity and how we make choices around what we buy. Most recently, I've been obsessed with organizational psychology and leadership, and so all of this like figuring out how people work and how we make decisions and how emotions impact our logic system, all of that ties into my coaching practice and I bring it into the experiences that I have with my clients as much as I possibly can to help them understand their own decision-making processes. Because a lot of times we make big decisions about our lives from a place of reflex instead of a place from reflection and supporting them into a place where they are being more reflective about their thoughts and more reflective about their decisions helps them get to a place where they're getting outcomes that are more aligned with what they want.

Eleni: That seems like a really simple concept, but I imagine it's actually really difficult to be able to distill that into one thing. Like all of the work I've done has been driven by like one main driver. One key interest. Is that something that you help your clients do?

Phoebe: Oh, absolutely. It is a very important part of what we do.

Eleni: How do you narrow that down? Yeah, yeah.

Eleni: Yeah. You know, like a lot of my clients are people who are looking for jobs. They want to switch careers. They want to switch jobs in some way. And one of the key things I talk to them about is that "Your professional narrative needs to be tight. You need to be able to go into an interview and say, 'This is who I am, this is what I do. This is why I do it. And this is why you should want me to do it for you'." And being able to distill that into some, you know, words, phrases, catchphrases, something that you can sort of draw upon really quickly and bring into an interview really impacts the way that people receive you. You, listener, are listening to this podcast, at the end of it, you are going to remember a handful of concepts that Eleni and I are talking about. You are not going to remember word for word any of the things that we said. But, if we are calling back to, you know, certain concepts over and over and over again, that increases the likelihood that that concept is going to be the thing that you remember. And so, one of the things — one of the key things, that I work on with my clients when they're working on interviews in particular — is what is that concept? And how can you encapsulate it into a phrase or a sentence or a concept that you can call back to multiple times, that you can increase the likelihood that that concept is the thing that's going to be encoded in the memory of the interview.

Eleni: Wow. I love this. It's super helpful advice. And it also gives a really clear sense of, you know, what you do and the value of coaching and all of those things. Again, like it seems simple once you get to the final outcome, like this is one sentence or these are three words, but I'm sure that the process of getting there is actually not easy.

Phoebe: No, it definitely feels quite overwhelming to folks, but it's helpful. It's really, really helpful and transformative to do it.

Eleni: I know in a previous conversation you also talked about this idea of like outsourcing things that maybe you're not as good at or finding the right tools to make things easier. How did you figure that out? And like, do you have some examples of some things that you might like to share of things that you're not good at or things that you outsource or tools that you use?

Phoebe: Sure, sure, definitely. So, I have an advantage in that I was diagnosed really young. So, I was diagnosed when I was five or six years old, which means I've been working on understanding myself and finding ways to be the most productive version of myself for literally decades. And so, I have a lot of experience with, you know, trying different things and iterating on a process. And there are lots of adults who are being diagnosed with ADD later in life who unfortunately are like starting from scratch, basically. And one of the things that has been really important for me as I have been developing sort of my productivity method — which evolves over time as the needs and demands change — is understanding what my brain is good at and what my brain is not good at. And if my brain is not good at something, I want to try to either adjust the demands that are being put on me so that that is not one of them or adjust my environment so that I'm not being distracted in ways that are difficult for me to overcome or to outsource that task or that type of work to something or someone that is better at it than I am and doing that without judgment. The biggest one that shows up for me in my day-to-day life is time management. I'm very, very, very time blind. I don't know what time it is. I don't know how long we've been talking. I don't know how long we have left talking. I don't know what day it is. I don't know when anything is happening. I have no idea what's happening with time at any point. So, I have to have like clocks everywhere. I wear a watch. I have my Google Calendar up all the time. Any time there is a demand that is tied to a particular time, I make sure that it's in my Google Calendar immediately with all of the details. I really, really, really, really focus on that. But another thing that is important with sort of my time blindness is understanding how long it takes to complete a task. That is something that I still struggle with, even though I have lots and lots and lots of experience doing the sorts of tasks that I do on a regular basis, it's just really difficult for me to estimate. And so, time blocking has been really, really important for me. I had difficulty from a logistical perspective, making time blocking work until I found the tool that I'm using now, which is called Reclaim. And basically, when you put your tasks into it, you tell Reclaim how long you think it's going to take and when it needs to be done by. And because it has access to your calendar, it can break that task into chunks and put it in your calendar is like "OK, work on this for 30 minutes and then you have a meeting for an hour, and then you have lunch, and then work on it for an hour." And it does that automatically. And if for whatever reason, you know, I can't do that. I couldn't do it or I didn't do it at this 30 minute one, it will reschedule that 30 minutes of work to another time in your schedule. And that has...I'm gonna go ahead and say it's cured me. And I have been more productive in the last like three months than I have probably ever because I do that mental work of like, "OK, how long is this going to take? Do I have time for this?" I think OK, I have my prioritize list. I'm really good at prioritizing my list, but I'm not sure if I actually have time to do all of these things and I have to do any of that anymore.

Eleni: Wow.

Phoebe: And so, that has been like a really, really great one where I'm outsourcing that time awareness. So, it has been a game changer for me, not sponsored, but hey, I will take their money if they want to give me some. It's amazing.

Eleni: Wow, that is amazing. And that solves like so many problems at once, right? Because like, you know, with a lot of ADHD and like executive functioning challenges, like around planning an organization, like removing that barrier around actually figuring out like where this fits in your calendar. That's huge.

Phoebe: Yeah. And the other thing that's really helpful with that is that I also tell it what size of chunks I'm comfortable with. And so, I can say, "OK, I know that this is a big project, that I'm intimidated by it. But right now Reclaim says, I only have to work on it for 30 minutes, so just got to work on it for 30 minutes and that's fine. And if I don't get it done because I'm not going to, that's fine, because Reclaim got me covered. I only have to work on it for 30 minutes. It's going to schedule out the rest of the time so that it gets done." I find that to be really helpful when procrastination creeps up in response to overwhelm or intimidation. We're having a difficult emotion in reaction to a task you procrastinate as a coping mechanism to soothe the self in the short term. That has been really helpful when I want to self-soothe.

Eleni: Yeah.

Phoebe: Procrastination.

Eleni: Yeah. My partner has ADHD and one of his biggest breakthroughs in therapy was realizing that the underlying emotion that was like driving his procrastination was actually like anxiety. Yeah. And, you know, it's like, so interesting to think about that. Like, yeah, often like behaviors have emotions attached to them. Oh, it's like, really, like procrastination is like negative coping, you know?

Phoebe: Well, I don't like to say negative coping. I don't like to say negative generally, because I work with a lot of folks who are like "I can't get this job thing figured out because I'm procrastinating." And they beat themselves up for procrastinating and then they feel worse. And so...

Eleni: Yeah, yeah.

Phoebe: Thinking about it it's like...

Eleni: That is the cycle I'm familiar with.

Phoebe: So, it's like it's not a negative coping mechanism, it's a maladaptive coping mechanism. Is a coping mechanism that makes it harder for you to adapt in the long term. And so, if you can choose and make a different choice. If we can check in to our emotions and say "The emotion that I am experiencing right now is intimidation. What can I do about this thing so that I'm no longer intimidated, so that I can unlock action?" And having that be a thought process that gives you a little bit more grace that like it is actually OK and natural and makes total sense that you're procrastinating right now because you're feeling really intense intimidation. That makes sense.

Eleni: Yeah. Yeah. And thank you for offering an alternative language to use. So, you mentioned, you know, having your whole life to like try different things and iterate. I'm curious, what is the role of like failure and experimentation and trying new things in your life?

Phoebe: I was hoping you were going to give me an opportunity to talk about the time I almost got fired from a job that was really bad for me.

Eleni: Oh, yeah. I would love to hear this.

Phoebe: Yes. So, when I was in college and I was studying in the fashion industry, I did a couple of internships at Diesel, the denim brand, and I was interning in their HR department and I really enjoyed the work. There was lots of mentorship involved and that's because I was, I had a lot to do with coordinating their broader internship program and they really liked me, they thought I was great, they wanted to bring me on full time. And the entry level position in that HR department was assistant to the VP of HR, which is a very different type of work than the work I was doing in that internship. And when you think about being an assistant, that is a job that requires a high level of recall at a high level of detail, it requires a lot of focus, it requires a lot of flexibility. And also, the constraints and context that you are working in are being set by the person that you are assisting and you have no control over it. So, surprise, surprise, I was terrible at that job. Really bad at it. Sorry, Stuart, I was a bad assistant. I just forgot things and I was getting overwhelmed by things and I was missing little details. It was just, like, so unsuited to the way that my brain worked that and I think I did it for six or seven months before like he and I had that sit-down conversation where it was like, "Oh, I'm about to get fired from this job, OK." And so, I did quit before I got fired, but that was a really important moment for me to realize that like there's certain types of work that my brain is just not well-suited for. There are other brains that are well-suited for that work, and I hope that that is who Stuart's assistant is now. But my brain was not suited for that work. And so, that the difference between like acknowledging and honoring what your brain is good at, what it wants to do, what it is well-suited to do and what it's not, can make a huge difference in your ability to be successful.

Eleni: A hundred percent. Because it's totally OK. It's like not every job is for every person, you know. And as you said, like it doesn't help you, it doesn't help the person that you're working for. And, you know, you're like time and brain could be better used in like a role that does work for you. So yeah, I think that's, it's like so important to acknowledge. And how do you pass on that learning that you had? And like what advice do you give to some of your clients in relation to that?

Phoebe: I really ask them to name the cultural impact, the cultural influence that is pushing them to make a decision that is not in the interest of their future self. So, is it that your parents told you? Is it that you know some role model? Is it reality television? And is it like what is it that is making you feel like the decision that is right for you is wrong for everyone else? And a lot of times when they shine a light on that, it is a lot easier for them to dismantle that connection and say, like, I understand and honor that these are the priorities for my parents, but these are the priorities for me. And so, this is the decision that I need to make. And I can make the choice of going in this direction that is in my best interest, that's in the interest of my future self, and I can also make the choice to manage the relationship that I have with my parents and have an open conversation with them about why I honor their needs and why I'm honoring my own. And maybe that'll be uncomfortable, but it's going to be less uncomfortable for me to have that conversation with them than for me to stay in a job I hate for the rest of my life.

Eleni: Wow. And I think that advice is helpful for so many elements of our lives, even beyond work. You know, like really channeling the things that honor your own needs and yourself as opposed to, like, the people around you. It's not an easy thing to do, but it's so important for, you know, our own happiness and growth. I've also heard you say that a career can either give you something you want or get rid of something you don't want. What are some examples of, you know, things you've gotten rid of? And like maybe we've already talked about that in your previous example, but I would love to hear this more.

Phoebe: Yeah, I definitely think that like over time, your career should give you more of what you want and less of what you don't want. There's no such thing as a perfect job. Your job will always have drawbacks. But the hope is that you are strategic about how you make career decisions. You're strategic about how you invest in yourself and your professional network. And that allows you to make career choices that get rid of things that you don't like or get you things that you do like. You know this next role, how do I want it to be better than my current role? And, you know, that's looked like, you know, I worked in a very politically driven newsroom. I found that to be really exhausting. And I really liked working in news, but I didn't want to work in politics anymore. And maybe working in a different subject matter or concentration would make things a little bit less stressful for me. And so that was the position that I chose next. There's a long additional list of other things that I would have loved to have, but that was the focus. Again, if you're being thoughtful and strategic, if you're investing in yourself in a smart way, that's going to get easier and easier for you because you will have more and more professional capital to bring to the table and say, "This is how good I am, so you should give me the thing that I want." And that makes it a lot easier for you to build a career that progressively serves your needs better and better and better.

Eleni: Totally. And also acknowledging that those needs could change over time and or like reveal themselves because, like, you know, you don't know what you don't know. So, it's very possible that you think that you actually have everything that you need. And then you get to the next step and you're like, "Oh, actually, now that I'm here, I'm realizing that this other thing is missing that I never even thought about." How do you teach your clients to advocate for what they need?

Phoebe: Well, the first thing is obviously knowing what you need and then understanding then two kind of really important things. First is power mapping. So, when you're in an organization, there are decision makers, there are influencers, there are people who have formal power, people who have informal power, and you need to understand how power and influence moves through an organization. And so, if you the thing that if you want X thing, who are the people who can help you get there? And do you have strong enough relationships with them to ask for that and have them say yes? And so, once you've identified and once you've sort of power-mapped the organization and you understand, like "These are the people who are going to be most important for me to get to the thing that I want," then it's really about understanding how to build social capital in a relationship, in a professional relationship, in a working relationship in your professional network. And this is, I think this is the area where my clients actually are get the most sort of frustrated, intimidated, and anxious is like the importance of a professional network because everybody gets really icky about networking, it's like, "Oh, networking is gross," and it's like it's a word that now has a gross connotation, but really it's about building relationships and it's building relationships in a professional context versus in a personal or context or a friendship context or romantic context. But it all works exactly the same way. We are humans relating to other humans. We just happen to be doing it, you know, with our suits and ties on instead of in our flip flops.

Eleni: I recently attended a researchers conference and yeah, it was so interesting because there were so many people there that I was like, "Wow, like they inspired me so much. Like I could learn so much from them." And like, that feeling is like, super exciting because it's like, you know, there are points in the career where you're like, where could I go? Like, where how am I growing? And, you know, being able to recognize that in like others, like, super valuable.

Phoebe: Yeah. But having the courage to say, "Hi, I'm so-and-so and I..."

Eleni: Know I did that. I was like, "Hi, I'm fangirling."

Phoebe: And sometimes that's not going to work out. That's OK.

Eleni: Yeah, exactly.

Phoebe: You know, the more you do it the more yeses you get, the more no's you get, but the more yeses you get.

Eleni: Thank you so much for talking to me. I feel like I learned so much. You've kind of already covered, like a lot of advice. Like often we end with advice. I don't know if you want to share, like what is like the most common thing that comes up maybe more specifically around like clients that also have like learning and thinking differences, if there's anything in particular that you would suggest to them?

Phoebe: Definitely. My number one recommendation is to get really curious about yourself, take some time to think and take some time to read, research, learn about who you are. If you take a little bit of time to go down a few rabbit holes, you can learn a lot about yourself and unlock action that helps you get to the outcomes that you want for your life.

Eleni: I love it. Thank you so much for sharing.

Phoebe: You are so welcome.

Eleni: Thanks so much for joining me, Phoebe.

Phoebe: Thank you so much for having me.

Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at thatjob@understood.org. with your thoughts about the show, or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got that job. I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.

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