Lessons from a chief marketing officer with ADHD and dyslexia
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It’s the last interview for How’d You Get THAT Job?! For this special episode, our guest is Nathan Friedman, co-president and chief marketing officer at Understood.org. Nathan was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a child. Early in his career, he didn’t openly discuss his learning and thinking differences. But now he recognizes the value of being vulnerable and embracing them.
Today, Nathan is helping shape the world so people with learning and thinking differences can thrive.
Nathan went from a political science degree at Washington University in St. Louis to the world of marketing. He started as an assistant account executive at Ogilvy and at 27 became their youngest managing director. He went on to start his own company before joining Understood, where he oversees marketing and provides operational and strategic support.
Listen to Nathan’s insights into the power of advocacy, finding relatable role models, and creating a supportive network.
Nathan: How do you build advocacy? It starts with people having others to look up to in this space. It's somebody that you can relate to. So, how do you find those everyday heroes, people that are inspirational to you and understand how they got there?
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.
This will be our last episode with a guest before our final summary episode. I'll be chatting with Understood's co-president and chief of marketing Nathan Friedman. Nathan was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a child. He's since learned what coping skills work for him, how to self-advocate, and how to advocate for others. He started with a political science degree from Washington University in Saint Louis and then leaped into the world of marketing.
Starting as an assistant account executive at Ogilvy, he worked his way up from there to be the youngest managing director when he was only 27. Nathan stayed Ogilvy for over 15 years before moving on to create his own company and then coming to Understood to be our CMO. He's passionate about our mission to shape the world so that those that learn and think differently can thrive. I'm so happy to have him on the show today. Welcome, Nathan.
Nathan: Thank you for having me, Eleni, and honored to be your last guest on the penultimate episode.
Eleni: So, why don't we start with who you are and what you do here at Understood.
Nathan: Sure. Nathan Friedman, co-president and chief marketing officer of Understood. And my role really spans not only marketing but a lot of the operational and strategic support for the organization. So, it starts with brand and strategy all the way down to creative production. How do we engage and reach and deliver impact to audiences, both on platform and off?
Eleni: So, taking a step back, rumor has it that you are a poli sci major. I did my research internally.
Nathan: Is that a rumor or is that what you looked at on my resume?
Eleni: Actually, I just asked around what things that I should know about you. So, what made you go down the marketing route? What was interesting to you about marketing, communications, advertising, whatever it was? What piqued your interest?
Nathan: You know, it's an interesting journey that I had to get that first job. I, as you mentioned, was a political science major at WashU in St Louis. I wanted more of a liberal arts background, and I thought I was going to go into law or something of that nature. I did not come from a long line of lawyers and decided that was not the right path for me.
Eleni: Do you think there was anything about your experience with dyslexia and ADHD that kind of shaped or influenced your decision to go down that path?
Nathan: Back then, it was more about how do you get that first job. You know, whatever you need to pay the bills. I worked two jobs at first. I worked at a retail store, and I worked at a large goal agency because large goal agencies at that point didn't pay any money. So, in order for me to pay rent and go out and, which was going to be more important than just eating, you know, I had to work two jobs.
Eleni: So, it sounds like you casted a wide net at the beginning. But then, was that first job in marketing or advertising?
Nathan: Yes, it was in marketing communications. So, I really focused on that area at first because it was one of the more interesting areas at the time. And I think it was really about how do you get that first meeting with somebody and perseverance and then kind of just trial and error. I was picky about the type of areas I knew the first job would not necessarily be my last job, so, how do I get a job and then I can learn on that job and get transferable skills so I could do what I wanted to do?
Little did I know that I would be in that first job for 17 years, and so, that was a huge growth opportunity clearly for me. And I think I leveraged the abilities that I had gleaned from my differences to my benefit within that role. But it didn't come until I was actually in the role that I could understand how they could be of importance.
Eleni: It sounds like you weren't as intentional about where you wanted to start off, but once you got there, there were things about that role that made you stick around for a really long time. So, what was it that led to you kind of sticking with that, that made you realize that it was actually for you and worth pursuing and like continuing down that path?
Nathan: So, there were a few reasons. Let's put a couple of things into context at that time, right? I think as I got that job, one year into it is when everything started to fall apart in the economy, followed by the terrible and tragic events of September 11th. So, there were no jobs for a while. So, I held on to the job that I could, and that was a very difficult time personally because you saw every single one of your friends get laid off and try and find new jobs.
And a lot of people were out of work for a while, I think what it enabled me to do, though, is leverage my skill sets and innate curiosity to grow, raising my hand for new challenges, working around and through the opportunities I had to gain skills and knowledge and my abilities or superpowers to able to digest complex problems and sort them and in my own mind, to sort of get it out as quickly as I want to, was a benefit in a client-driven organization. I think my upbringing combined with my differences, allowed me to engage and build trust in people that were well above my tenure.
Eleni: Do you want to talk a little bit about how you feel your upbringing influenced that?
Nathan: Everybody's upbringing plays a role in where they are, what they do. I think, you know, my parents encouraged me to work at a young age, so it was always about, what do you want to do? How do you want to live your life? And so, you know, I got a first job at 15 at a hardware store, and I always worked. One could say it was an avoidance and one could say it was more of an opportunity for me to keep me busy. I needed multiple things. I couldn't focus on one thing or another.
So, I had four jobs during the summer, three internships, or it was just a drive that I had. And I think that led me to have a variation and understanding of what different types of roles would be. So, I worked at a record store, and back when record stores were a thing. I worked at a hardware store being a cashier, I worked at Banana Republic, I worked at Sony Music. I thought I wanted to do music for a while, and then I sat around at 14 concerts in one week with earplugs in, and I'm like, "This is the worst thing ever for me." So, I decided that wasn't for me.
So, you know, it's trial and error and then finding out what in listening to yourself and being like, "This actually doesn't excite me. This doesn't interest me." And that's why I've always encouraged people to try internships because then you actually get a little inside peek into what people are doing on a day-to-day basis, because what people say they do and what people actually do are two different things.
Eleni: You mentioned that it wasn't until you were in that first job that you recognized how your differences and your upbringing could play into strengths for that role. Was there anything else that kind of stands out to you that were big like "aha" moments in terms of how your differences could be strengths in the agency world?
Nathan: Yeah, I mean, and an agency world, I think back then is very different. So, I want to preface it with that, right? I still had a, I mean, ironically a typewriter on my desk as well as a computer. So, like there are differences in the way things work now than then. And there's a lot of differences in awareness of things like ADHD, dyslexia, etc. I think I knew my writing wasn't as strong as it could because I didn't quite grasp, or I didn't see structure and sentences and things like that. So, I had people review my writing a lot and that helped me get better.
But also I explained, "Hey, I need help. I need someone to proof this for me because I'm not as strong in this area." Not everybody's as vulnerable as that. And especially in work environments where it's more competitive. I think that helped. I think I also had an innate ability to understand what people were saying when they really weren't saying it. So, they said they want bananas, and I'm like, "No, they actually want peaches. Like that's not what they want. They don't want bananas." And it's like, "You don't know what you're talking about." And we go in there and they'd be like, "Where are my peaches?" And I'd be like, "Told you!" So, I think those are a couple of examples.
Eleni: That's interesting.
Nathan: Yeah. And also, finding the right rhythm helped me because, you know, in agency environment, you're tracked by the hour. So, there's a lot of pressure to deliver things on time, which then leads to a whole bunch of complications. And when I found I did not have the deadlines, I found I would just like wander off in my mind and not necessarily be able to complete a task.
Eleni: It's interesting because, you know, you always hear about agency environments being incredibly fast-paced and pressure. There's a lot of pressure to deliver. But for you, actually, the deadlines is what made it work. I've heard you mentioned like you have really high bandwidth, great output than like the average person. You're the youngest managing director at Ogilvy at 27, which is impressing that you've won a bunch of awards. Like, how did you become aware that you have a faster processing speed or don't think similarly to other people? And like, how were you able to adapt your working environment and your communication style and your differences to others?
Nathan: It takes a while, and it took a while. It wasn't great off the bat. It's still a work in progress. I've always been able to process quickly and understand things differently and that my ability to do that in front of senior people earned me the trust that I knew more than my tenure, or I was able to do things differently. And I was lucky enough to have mentors who saw that and believed in me and gave me the opportunities.
Eleni: So, you said that they were aware that you thought differently. Did they know why?
Nathan: They're aware I was different.
Nathan: And I think I talked about the outcomes of it, not the ADHD or dyslexia. I talked about, "Hey, I need X" or "I need some more time to think about this," or "Let me come back to you." Like, it wasn't like, "Hey, I have ADHD, let me do it." That wasn't the case. And again, a very different work environment. You could still smoke in offices. There was no generation above me to look up to whether it was LGBTQI, so there was no one really who had talked about it because you kept that stuff to yourself.
Eleni: It's interesting to think about how visibility has made such a big difference. And yeah, as you said, having older mentors.
Nathan: Well, we talk about that a lot here at Understood, right? With ADHD or dyslexia, whatever the difference is, the first step is awareness and issue awareness when you know about it and you can relate it to somebody, you know, that reduces stigma and then drives advocacy.
Eleni: So, you mentioned that you would talk more about like the outcome of what your need was as opposed to naming the difference. I'm curious how things have changed for you now compared to then.
Nathan: I think being at Understood gives you an opportunity to be more vulnerable with those things and those things being like having differences. In the past, I haven't had the space to do so because it was more of a yes or no environment in a lot of different companies. I truly believe that if you have a difference or no matter who you are, you need to find a job that suits you and then work to be the best you can in that role.
I think I need to be more aware of myself and self-awareness of, "OK, I've already answered the question that you're asking me in two seconds in my mind, but you're going to continue to go on for three minutes. And I and I just like I'm lost, and I have no idea what you're saying anymore." Like, that's where I have to catch myself. And so, a lot of it was more around self-awareness and I think understanding that people do have differences, and then me adjusting my style to the individual has been another important element.
And nothing's perfect. I'm not perfect. I'm far from perfect. And I think I'm lucky enough to have direct reports and the team that give me direct feedback that I can incorporate into how I work with them.
Eleni: How do you lead by example on your team? Like in terms of appreciating different working styles, accommodating for different working styles, whether officially or not, like in the way that you mentioned, where it's talking more about like outcome than like specific diagnosis.
Nathan: So, I think that goes back to understanding what motivates people and how people work and having that conversation directly. I think it's all grounded in what the role is and what the role needs to do. Shared expectations. And maybe this is a unique point of view, but it's important not to use your learning difference as a crutch or an excuse, because for me that invalidates the actual importance of having a difference. So, this has not happened, it's just an example, somebody is like, "Well, I can't do that because I've ADHD," that's just to me seems like, "Well, if you can't do part of your job because you have ADHD, why are you in that job? Let's talk about what supports you need."
So around this day I can't do that, the conversation would be "Hey, can I talk about how I can get this done? Because I have a difference." And I want to see people thrive and advance and work. But nor do they have to lean in to figure out what your strengths are, what accommodations you need, or even what assistive technology or anything. I've shifted people's work schedules, we changed people's hours, we've moved people's desks, we've given people technology, we've given a whole bunch of things that aren't necessarily technically accommodations, and some of them are, but some are really easy and, you know, they need to work in a brighter area near you, whatever it is.
Nathan: You know, and I think that's....
Eleni: It's like being creative.
Nathan: It's being creative about it, but it's also having the person have the ability to say, "This is what I need to get the job done."
Eleni: What would you say to individuals that are struggling to find like the right place to work for them given their differences and you know, how they might kind of discover and also leverage their unique strengths and skills to be successful?
Nathan: There's a few things people can do in order to find the right environment for them. One is understanding what it is, what environment are they looking for, and then doing research. Research, both looking maybe there's some lists about most inclusive employers or talking with people who potentially work at some of the places that they're considering. It's really hard because a lot of times what you see is not what you get.
And so, you know, how do you feel comfortable if you see other people more comfortable talking about that? Generally, it means that there's a more accepting and more belonging effort in the culture. Look at their, do they have a DEI&B program? Do they have initiatives regarding groups and inclusive environments? Those are telltale signs of people who are putting that in the forefront of the business and making sure that the people feel like they belong.
Eleni: I've heard you talk about how, like your differences have shaped your leadership and decision-making approach and have helped you succeed as a leader and also in your role as a co-president and Understood. Could you give some specific examples of skills or strategies that you've developed specifically around leadership that you can relate back to your differences?
Nathan: Sure. So, I think, you know, carving out time, very distilled, quiet time for me, I carve out an hour every day. I kind of have an idea of what I want to focus on, and I just kind of let myself go within that space. How I structure the meetings, what I put in the afternoon versus the morning is also another ability for me to structure and oriented the day that is more beneficial to me and my personal style. And then making sure that there's enough time to digest materials beforehand.
Eleni: I'm curious to hear what you have to say to leaders that have differences themselves and you know, how they can kind of leverage their positions to further the goals around like awareness and advocacy.
Nathan: I think what you're really asking is like, how do you build advocacy? And it starts with people having others to look up to in the space. It's somebody that you can relate to. So, how do you find those everyday heroes and everyday people that are inspirational to you and understand how they got there? And I think that also relates to your own personal growth and organization, knowing what your strengths and opportunities are. How do you make sure that you have people around you that can do some of the work that you're not great at? Whether it's subject matter or skill, that is another thing to realize is it's not just about you, but it's like, how do you form part of a team to get the work done?
I think, you know, I've never done anything traditional in my life. I think it's important to show that there are people who have different backgrounds, different skills. I mean, I have two beautiful kids with a lesbian couple that is not traditional, right? And so, talking about that has opened the door to other people asking about that. So, if I opened the door to people talking about it, they can come up to me and talk about my experience as well. And from there they can drive what will help them in the working world.
Eleni: I know we talked a little bit about intersectionality. Like, is there anything else that you'd like to talk about from your experience as someone who is again, neurodiverse, how that's kind of fed into your experience?
Nathan: Yeah, it's fascinating. I think I've become more aware of this now than I have been before. It never really factored in in the past, and I didn't even think about it in that construct until recently. And I think there's a lot of different struggles and differences between having a learning thinking difference and being LGBTQI+. But I think the similarities are around coming out and disclosure is a coming out and people don't realize that it can be traumatic for people if it's not handled correctly.
And it just starts with that driving issue awareness. Being gay 15, 20 years ago was a lot different than it is today. I am aware that people who do have ADHD or dyslexia in way more severe cases that I do, struggle in different ways. And so, it's important to realize that not everything is the same. If you have an invisible disability, some people can do things and not other people with the same disability can or cannot do. So, it's incredibly complex, it's incredibly personal, and there's a lot more that we all can do as individuals, family members, friends, co-workers to help people.
Eleni: I think this was a great conversation. Thank you.
Nathan: Thank you, Eleni, for having me on your podcast, and congratulations. I appreciate you having me. Thank you so much.
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 email@example.com with your thoughts about the show, or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job. We'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. Also, one of our goals at Understood is to help change the workplace so everyone can thrive. Check out what we're up to U.org/workplace. That's the letter U, dot org slash workplace.
Understood.org is a resource dedicated to help 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 Margie DeSantis and edited by Mary Mathis. 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. Thank you for listening.
leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.