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Explore in Vulnerability: ADHD at Microsoft with Todd Ellis

I am so excited to be back after our little summer hiatus. To bring us back with a bang, I’ll be talking with Todd Ellis. Todd has been at Microsoft for the past 20 years and is a co-lead for a global group of neurodivergent individuals within that company. He’s also ADHD, dyslexic, and has just finished his training as an ADHD coach. Todd co-hosts the Schooling Struggle podcast.

Our conversation ranged from how to approach neurodiversity and accommodations in a multicultural company, what it was like for Todd to be diagnosed ADHD as a kid but not really dig into what that meant until middle age, and how we each got into coaching and why we do it. Plus many diversions, hopefully of the amusing and educational persuasion! Enjoy.

🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 51 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify | Youtube

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Show Notes:

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Transcript of Explore in Vulnerability: ADHD at Microsoft with Todd Ellis

Introduction

Sullivan: Hello and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast! I’m Danielle Sullivan, I am your host, and I am so excited to be back after our little summer hiatus. To bring us back with a bang, I’ll be talking with Todd Ellis, an ADHDer who’s been at Microsoft for 20 years and has just finished training as an ADHD coach. We had so much to talk about, we had trouble staying on topic. It’s a great show!

Before we get to that, I just want to thank my patrons for supporting this podcast. The podcast runs on patron donations. If you are interested, please check out patreon.com/Neurodiverging, where you can find out more about how to pledge to the Neurodiverging podcast to keep us running, keep us in business, and to get some very excellent behind-the-scenes perks. The Patreon is patreon.com/Neurodiverging, and pledges start at just $1 a month!

And a quick plug for the website at Neurodiverging.com, where you can find articles about neurodivergent issues, full transcriptions of the podcast, and a list of upcoming events I’m hosting, the vast majority of which are free or low-cost. I do monthly webinars, host support groups, and teach classes, so come join us!

Now let me tell you about our guest. Todd Ellis has been at Microsoft for the past 20 years and is a co-lead for a global group of neurodivergent individuals within that company. He’s also ADHD, dyslexic, and has just finished his training as an ADHD coach. Todd co-hosts the Schooling Struggle podcast, so please check that out, link in the description below.

Our conversation ranged from how to approach neurodiversity and accommodations in a multicultural company, what it was like for Todd to be diagnosed ADHD as a kid but not really dig into what that meant until middle age, and how we each got into coaching and why we do it. Plus many diversions, hopefully of the amusing and educational persuasion! Enjoy.

ELLIS: Hit it!

SULLIVAN: Ready?

ELLIS: Let’s go!

SULLIVAN: Todd, welcome to the Neurodiverging podcast! It’s good to see you again!

ELLIS: Hey! Thanks for having me, yeah!

SULLIVAN: Thanks for being here!

ELLIS: How’s it going, Danielle?

SULLIVAN: It’s doing ok! As we were just talking about, it is evening here, I’ve had a full day of coaching clients, so I’m feeling a little like, you know, let’s go with “fun.”

ELLIS: Ready to be done?

SULLIVAN: Ready to be – But also very excited to talk to you.

ELLIS: No!

SULLIVAN: Because we’ve met briefly before and talked a little bit, but it’s nice to, like, see you again.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: I think it’s been, like, a whole year, hasn’t it?

ELLIS: It’s been – No, yeah, it’s been a COVID speed bump is what happened.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

ELLIS: Yep.

SULLIVAN: Well!

ELLIS: It’s been a while, for sure.

SULLIVAN: That’s alright, though.

ELLIS: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: So, what’s new with you? What’s going on over there?

ELLIS: Well, you know, aside from COVID –

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) Aside from this (Unintelligible).

ELLIS: The enduring… what do we call it, the blur? Oh, God. So funny, people talk about, like, “Oh, remember when this started?” I was like, no—

SULLIVAN: No.

ELLIS: —I don’t actually remember when that started. No, really, nothing’s new. No. I think we talked about ADDCA; I finished my coaching class anyways. Haven’t got accredited yet, but that’s something that I was following up on. And then, still just enduring the day-to-day of life in this new normal. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: Are you still working at Microsoft? Or are you –

ELLIS: I do work at Microsoft. Actually… What’s today?

SULLIVAN: The 23rd.

ELLIS: 6/23. So, on 7/22 of 22 will be 20 years that I’ve been working at Microsoft.

SULLIVAN: Wow.

ELLIS: I know, that’s what I said.

SULLIVAN: That’s amazing.

ELLIS: I need to sit back like, “Wow.”

SULLIVAN: Congratulations.

ELLIS: Yeah, thanks. I never thought I’d be there for 6 months, let alone 20 years.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: So, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Well, especially in that kind of realm of jobs, people jump every 2-ish years or so, right?

ELLIS: Nowadays, they do for sure, yeah. Absolutely.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah. Maybe not when you started?

ELLIS: Yeah. (Laughs) No, I don’t know, that didn’t used to be a thing where the jumping was… That’s kind of a, with the newer… Now I’m dating myself. With the young kids, the newer generation, their interests just take them… Well, and I think the industry supports it too, but their interests take them in different ways, and there’s so much to do in that industry that jumping around just makes more sense. Plus, if you want to go for the money, you have to jump around sometimes.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Absolutely, that’s kind of an important… Especially for people starting off and just getting into their career, right, that you need an income. So.

ELLIS: Yep.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Absolutely.

SULLIVAN: So for folks who don’t know you:

ELLIS: Oh yeah.

SULLIVAN: You’re an ADHDer; you have just completed the initial part of your program to become an ADHD coach.

ELLIS: Correct.

SULLIVAN: You’ve been with Microsoft for 20 years.

ELLIS: Yep.

SULLIVAN: What else should folks know about you as we go into this conversation?

ELLIS: I have ADHD and dyslexia, and I’ve been that way since, well, probably since I was born, but I got diagnosed when I was 8. I’m 46 now, so it’s been a while, it’s been a minute that I’ve been knowing that. And I’ve taken a lot of drugs to deal with that in my life. (Clears throat) I have 4 children and 2 grandchildren. My youngest son is 19, so I’m, again, aging myself. I have 2 redheaded stepchildren, which are gonna be just like me, which is obviously terrible. Looking at that, I’ve realized that one of the blessings of grandparenting that you don’t know—well, I didn’t know—that you don’t know ahead of time is that it will expose glaring gaps in your own efficacy as a parent, and so those are now becoming very evident for my daughter and myself, so it’s just kind of funny. …What else? I’m never going to commute back to work again. Decided that. So that’s something else.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I can’t imagine going to an office situation ever. Ever.

ELLIS: No. Definitely not now. Thank God for the pandemic, right, like, look what we’ve finally found! We can be equitable; that’s fantastic. And gas prices, at least here, I’m in Seattle, and we’re nearing $6 a gallon.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Which just seems ludicrous to me, but. (Unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: We’re at $5, $5.50 here last I checked. I actually have to refill my tank, so I will find out tomorrow!

ELLIS: (Laughs) Yeah. I do not really look forward to it. You should go to Costco. That’s the best place.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah. So.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Well, so let’s— we have many things that we could talk about.

ELLIS: Let’s.

SULLIVAN: One of them that I was interested in is: You said you were diagnosed ADHD and dyslexic when you were 8. And I feel like the understanding of both of those things, really, of ADHD and dyslexia, have changed so much—

ELLIS: Actually, I should clarify: I’ve never actually been clinically diagnosed dyslexic. But through my work with neurodiversity, and through the way that words and numbers swim across pages for me, (Laughs) I’m pretty sure that I’m dyslexic. So I just say that as a comorbidity, but it’s not official.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for clarifying.

ELLIS: Yep.

SULLIVAN: But we also accept self-identifications here.

ELLIS: I mean—

SULLIVAN: I feel like there are so many people who are left out of the traditional diagnos—

ELLIS: Yeah. It costs so much money. It’s ridiculous.

SULLIVAN: Oh! Exactly. Like, there’s all sorts of equity issues around the diagnoses.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And, you know, as a woman with autism, a lot of our traits aren’t in what doctors are looking for.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So there’s all sorts of exclusions. People of color get left out; everybody gets left out.

ELLIS: Absolutely.

SULLIVAN: But what I was gonna ask is: Having had this identity for such a long portion of your life, as opposed to someone like me and a lot of our listeners who were identified in their 30s, 40s, 50s, have you seen attitudes towards ADHD change a lot in the past couple of decades? How do people treat you now versus when you were a kid, are there a lot of differences?

ELLIS: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. (Pauses) I’ve been working on my pregnant pause, how do you like that?

SULLIVAN: It’s going really well. (Laughs) I am not good at them.

ELLIS: (Laughs) Thank you. (Pauses) I think it really depends. I think there’s 2 different ways that I see it. I think one way that I see it is through…

So, to add a little context: At Microsoft, like, I co-lead a global group of neurodivergent individuals within our company. And so as I navigate that group, I see it from the perspective of the mass—like you said, the people like yourself or the listeners, who have maybe just recently learned this about themselves later in life. But then I also see this through my own lens of growing up and how I’ve experienced it. So when I think about my own lens, I think about… My experience, obviously, was heavy for me, but I think that, in my sharing of that, it allows other people to release their own reservations about kind of the grief they feel looking back on their lives like “Oh, I just figured out this thing, and now, look what I could have been.” And, you know, then there’s this overwhelming shame and all these things. Not to say that that doesn’t come with both of them, but holistically I think, especially since COVID, that there’s a much more broad awareness and acceptance of all things neurodivergent. But ADHD, I think, is always one of those ones that feels like “Oh, you know, 1 in 7,” and then they’re like, “Well, you’re not so special,” but it doesn’t really matter because I’m not looking to be special, and it doesn’t make my brain work any better that you think that you’re more like me than you’re not, right?

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

ELLIS: So there’s that, but— Yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think it’s loosening up, and I think that people as a whole are becoming more accepting that there are actually differences that can add positive values as opposed to setting us apart.

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm. So there is still stigma against a lot of neurodivergences. But you’re seeing that, at least with ADHD, it’s becoming less, at least in certain spaces, over time.

ELLIS: Yep. Yeah, I think— Actually, I think overall, it’s becoming a little better. I think there’s still a lot of lost clarity in, like, what does neurodivergent mean? You know, like, what does that encompass? Why are all these things grouped under there? And does mental health fit in there? There’s a lot of grey areas, right? And then, another part that I see too is different cultures. So, like, at Microsoft, we’re a melting pot of, you know, everywhere you can imagine. And, like, in Asia, we don’t talk about this. Like, I’ll be on a panel in the morning in Indonesia, and I’m wondering, when I was prepping for it earlier, the lady who’s gonna lead the panel was talking about, “Just try to be very inspiring to people that they can support their family or ask better questions about this thing.” And I was like, “Yeah, but if that’s not your culture, then I don’t want to feel like I’m over here spewing my privilege about how cool I am in the United States—”

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: “—about how you guys could do so much better. But I do know that definitely, and like you were saying earlier, minorities and differently represented groups, I think that there is still a lot to come up even to where we’re at, you know, that we take for granted.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: So. Yeah, there’s a lot of different aspects.

SULLIVAN: And I’ve heard from other guests who are located in, like, Great Britain or Australia, where they are kind of as a group—to speak very broadly—with neurodiversity, especially with autism, which I know a little bit more about, but perhaps with ADHD too, is just, like, leagues ahead of where the US is generally in terms of support programs, general public understanding, how schools treat it, all that kind of stuff, so.

ELLIS: Yeah. I would say yeah. I’ve talked to some people in Australia recently who—and I don’t follow politics, or the news, or anything at all, but—some of the things that they say in the Australian political arena are just so against inclusion that sometimes it’s just flabbergasting.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: I was like, “What?” So, I don’t know. I think in some ways they are ahead, but in some ways, you know…

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

ELLIS: There’s always some discrepancies.

SULLIVAN: Just different sets of stigma.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense, thanks.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And so, you’re part of this neurodiversity team at Microsoft.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Have you been doing that for a long time?

ELLIS: We started it I think about 5 years ago.

SULLIVAN: Ok. Nice.

ELLIS: So, yeah, it was just a couple of us who, late at night, found some artifact that somebody left over, and we sent a mail to it and nobody ever responded, so we were like, “We could do better than this.” And so we started building a community around that. And it’s become pretty big, so, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. What are some of the pieces of that? Like, what do you do, what does the team offer for..?

ELLIS: So, I think the biggest piece about what we offer is the community and the support. And so, most of the people that we welcome to the group are like, “I never knew this existed,” or, “There’s more people like me, and I would have never thought to look for that at work.” And so that’s the biggest piece that’s most inspiring to me. And then, on the other side of that is, obviously, Microsoft has tons of cash. I mean, we pretty much make it ourselves. And it’s cool to know that you can leverage a corporation of that size in ways that a lot of places can’t do, or a lot of people never can fathom. Like, we create neurodiverse hiring programs. And then we go out into the wild and, like, how can other companies do this? We share what we learned with them to do that. And then, just different ways of inclusion and accessibility and things like that that are clearly just privilege levers, you know, but it’s really cool to have billions of dollars, you know. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: You can kind of toy with things as experiments, and then learn those things, and then share them outward; I think that’s really cool. But yeah, aside from that, it’s just— Hooking people up with accommodations is another big thing. People in the United States, anyways, and obviously it differs by region, but the protected class of disability, if you fall into that, offers you certain workplace accommodations, benefits, things like that. So explaining that, and pointing people to get hooked up with those things that they never knew existed is also somewhere that it fills me with joy to do that.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that’s fantastic.

ELLIS: Yeah, that’s cool.

SULLIVAN: I don’t know if you know the answer to this, so feel free to redirect me or rephrase me. But you mentioned the Americans with Disability Act, right, that supports accommodations for people with certain sort of labels. And ADHD doesn’t, to my knowledge, fall under that category, right?

ELLIS: Mm-hm.

SULLIVAN: So how does Microsoft approach, or how does your team approach—I guess whichever level you feel comfortable answering for—inclusivity and support for folks who aren’t covered by the ADA but still could use some extra [support]?

ELLIS: Yeah, I mean, it’s another one of those things where, you know, we—I won’t speak for Microsoft, but I kind of will, because it’s kind of a thing, it’s not official Microsoft talk, let’s put it.

SULLIVAN: Yes, understood.

ELLIS: We’re in a position where we… So our mission is to empower everybody in the world to do better, right? And so, we kind of take that to heart. I mean, we fail a lot, don’t get me wrong. But where we’re able to, I think we are able to spread the benefits across the board in a way that is inclusive of everybody wherever we can. So unless it’s forbidden by law, you’re gonna by and large get the same benefits wherever we are able to give those to whoever. So there’s not really a clear delineation of “are you official or are you not,” it’s just your benefits are going to cover. So, yeah.

SULLIVAN: So you really are coming at it from this perspective that anybody who needs something enough to ask for it or make it known that they would like it could access it without a lot of proof.

ELLIS: Yeah. It’s pretty much the verbiage, yeah, is, “You don’t have to bring a diagnosis if it’s a reasonable request.” They’re just gonna grant it, right? Which is cool.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. That’s awesome.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Because I have talked to so many guests, and so many clients, too, who have reported a lot of difficulty with their workplace accommodations even when they come in with a very complex diagnosis and a lot of paperwork to support that.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Do you have ideas about—or maybe in your work that you’ve already done, coming up with these systems and then dispersing them to other companies who want that—what are some of the basics of good workplace accommodation plan that have been most helpful at Microsoft, or that you’ve seen put to the test

ELLIS: I think there’s 2 different sides. There’s definitely 2 different sides that I see contrast. One is due to labor laws, right? So at Microsoft, we have full-time employees, we have interns that come frequently every year or so, and then we have what we call contingent staff, so, people who vendor or contract to Microsoft. And so our company has what’s known as employee resource groups, so ERGs is the acronym for that. Some of them call them BRGs in different companies, but they’re basically the same thing. Those are meant for and designed, policy-wise, for labor laws, and I’m sure there’s a whole host of reasons, for the full-time employee experience. And then, there are what they call employee networks, which are kind of more across-the-board open and inclusive to include the vendors because they don’t have specific processes. Like, they won’t have get-togethers that are inclusive or, by design, exclusive, but the other ones do. The ERGs have them. So there’s clearly 2 different paths. And we clearly created our neurodiverse spot in the center of that, because we feel like we didn’t want to out anybody, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Because everybody should feel included. And that’s kind of one of the big dividers of our community and the employee resource group, is [that] they allow us to persist because we have kind of defined the model of how to move forward with inclusivity, and we don’t have, yet (Laughs), these functions that cross that line. And so they allow us to kind of bake in the sun and reap some of the benefits. But at the same time, eventually, there’s going to be a rub where those come together.

But when I think to both of those sides, I think the most important part is creating a community that is welcoming to its members no matter what legal bounds there are, right? So, for example, if you get into a community and then you feel like you don’t have a safe place to talk, well, what’s the point of being in a community? So we try to make it as open, and as welcoming, and as supportive as we can, without having to moderate or manage all these policies, or— you know what I’m [saying]?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: I don’t know. So it’s tough, but I think building that community, that organic community feel, and then ensuring that everybody knows it’s a psychologically safe place, and then they’ll begin to invest in themselves, and then, pretty soon, nobody has to own it, it just goes by itself, and I think that’s the most beautiful part about it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. That’s awesome.

ELLIS: So, if I was getting at frameworks, that’s what I would say. And then, obviously, if you’re able, have dollars to back that up and keep it going and market it, and all those different things. But…

SULLIVAN: Yeah. What are some of the practical pieces of making a community feel safe, in your experience? At least in this context.

ELLIS: For me, it’s just constant contact, and it’s personal authenticity. And so, everybody who gets—I think we’re at 3100 people now—everybody who joins our community, it goes through a request I see the request, it pops up, I send them a message with a whole bunch of resources in it. And they reply, more often than not, with, “Hello?” I’m like, “What do you mean, hello?” They’re like, “Oh, you’re a real person?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s not just some random robot over here, you know!” And so I think that’s probably one of the most key pieces, is: once they realize somebody is behind the curtain pulling the levers, they’re like, “Oh, this is different than, most groups you just get some email or something that says ‘you’ve been joined to the group!’ and then, you know, you’re on your own.”

SULLIVAN: Automatic— yeah.

ELLIS: So I think the first part is authentically connecting with people there, and then they realize that this is different than most groups. That’s been my experience, utmost, that’s probably the biggest one.

Second to that is actively seeking and responding to feedback from everybody in there, to make them feel safe. So, for example, just last week, somebody was like—we have this anonymous suggestion box, anything can go in there, you just put whatever you want, and then we read it as this little group of people—and somebody was like, you know, disclosure obviously is a huge concept across all neurodivergencies, but how come we don’t have an anonymous way to ask questions? Because I don’t want to out myself by asking this question, because I’m new to the group. Oh! Well. And then, a couple days later, we create this anonymous post thing.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And it’s like, you send it here, we’ll push some buttons, and then it will post, and we call it “asking for a friend.” And so it’s like, somebody actually came up with that idea, and then they see that come to fruition, and then they know somebody’s listening. Right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: So it’s just that, those kind of mechanisms, I think, are the most profoundly impactful things that people can find to feel supported.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And create trust.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: That fantastic, thank you.

ELLIS: Yeah, trust. That’s what [it is]; that’s all it is, really. Because it’s hard to trust a corporation with 130,000 people in it to be having your best— you know, big brother is everywhere.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Guarantee he works in there.

SULLIVAN: Especially for… Even within that size of a corporation, if your group is 3100 people, that’s a big group, you know?

ELLIS: Yep.

SULLIVAN: I can imagine coming into a group like that, and even if your facilitator is very responsive and very authentic, it’s still a lot of pressure, sometimes, to connect with that many people, that— yeah.

ELLIS: Absolutely, and like, where do you start? What questions can I ask?

SULLIVAN: Where do you start, what do you do? Yeah.

ELLIS: Yeah, right, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: So, yeah. Interesting. It is very interesting.

SULLIVAN: Do you—

ELLIS: But some people you get on the other side who are just off like a rocket; you’re like, “look at them.” So you get both sides, but.

SULLIVAN: No, that’s true, that’s a good point. Do you have any sort of systems in place to support… So, obviously, people with some neurodiversities have this kind of disability lens or are coming from this place of minority group, but you also have other minority groups in there, right, you have people of color, you have people from different countries, you have people with English as a second language, all these other things, women.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So, do you have any ideas, or what have you done, to kind of support people who are multiply oppressed in a group like that, that’s so… Especially at a big tech company, where there are certain types of people that tend to have more power?

ELLIS: Absolutely. So— God, you’re just full of great questions.

SULLIVAN: Oh. (Laughs)

ELLIS: I think that personally, the best way that I’ve found is—you know, building on top of the things I’ve said—you have to have that safe space where people are willing to interact. Like, if you try to hold a forum and nobody wants to talk, you’re not gonna get anything anyways, right?

SULLIVAN: Yep.

ELLIS: So if you’re able to get people who are either on the top end of just full open, full throttle, “I just want to talk about this,” no holds barred, and then you get people who are just kind of putting their toe in the water to figure it out… If you’re able to get those people together, especially in those conflicting demographics, and then, to further that, you look at the intersectionality between— It’s really interesting for me, because disability sits in the center, it’s like a hub, right? Like, of all the other employee resource groups, like we have Blacks At Microsoft, and we have Women, and we have Hola, and all these different ones, right? But you can be Black and disabled and a parent from the military.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Like, there’s so many different mixes, right? But you have to be willing to talk about that at the center. And so you have to have common ground, but then you also have to have… I heard this term yesterday at a podcast: You know, like, if they have a big conference, like, they have an agenda and they bring everybody together? Well, now they have this thing, I think it’s called an unconference, where you just find all the people, and you bring them together, and you say, “What do you want to talk about?”

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And they create their own discussion, right? And so that’s kind of what you have to have. It’s like, you can’t have a set agenda and talk about ADHD and I’m Black, because that’s kind of narrow, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: But if you say, “I’m disabled and I’m any of these flavors from across this wheel,” then you can have a really interesting conversation about how that falls for people personally, and they’re more willing to talk about that. So, I think that that’s the most interesting part about that intersectionality, is, 1) being willing to explore it, 2) finding people who will explore it with you, and then 3), which actually could be number 1, posing it as an experiment to realize that there’s no expectation of this entire thing. Like, we’re just gonna come together and have a conversation. If we learn something, cool. You know. If it fails, and we still learned something, well that’s cool, we’ll take that away too, and next time we’ll make it different or make it better based on what we learned.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: So, yeah. That’s— yeah.

SULLIVAN: So approaching it from that growth perspective of: We’ll try it, and we’ll stretch a little bit, and if it doesn’t work, well, we got something out of it.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And it might be uncomfortable! Like a lot of the things that we start, at least the way I start a lot of conversations is, “I’m probably gonna get this wrong.” And there’s probably gonna be people in the group, or in the audience, that are gonna be like, “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” or, you know, “He screwed that up!” And that’s ok, because I’m at least trying, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And if you come with the same ideal, or the same outlook on it, that growth like you were talking about, then how can we go wrong? We have to be able to explore in vulnerability if we want to get anything, if we want to learn anything, so if you don’t want to do that, then go sit somewhere else. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah. (Laughs)

ELLIS: Might not want to be there.

SULLIVAN: That’s one thing you learn as a coach, right, is how to be wrong and take something from it, and kind of move on and grow from it.

ELLIS: Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah.

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) As opposed to getting stuck.

ELLIS: Right? “Uhhh…”

SULLIVAN: I don’t know, I think—

ELLIS: Yeah. Coaching’s interesting, isn’t it?

SULLIVAN: I really enjoy it so much, and it has stretched and pushed me… not pushed me into the wilds, but more, it constantly causes you to stretch out just a little farther, just a little farther, just a little farther, every time.

ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah! Depending on how far you’re willing to go into it, right? That’s what’s so interesting.

SULLIVAN: Yeah! Yeah.

ELLIS: What got you into coaching?

SULLIVAN: Oh, it’s Interview Danielle, now! I started this podcast. I started this podcast a month or two before the pandemic, and then there was a pandemic, and people were at home, and people kind of found the podcast and the blog and were looking for resources. And it kind of, by total luck—because it was a very ADHD thing to start the podcast, I was just like, “I’m gonna do this!” and then I put out like 7 episodes and then went away for a while—and it got, not hugely popular, obviously, but it got some traction, and I was like, “What is this?” And then people started getting in touch and asking if I had resources. And after enough time of doing that, I was like… I looked into coaching, and went and enrolled in classes and did all that stuff, because it was just like— There was a dearth—

ELLIS: “I could do this myself!”

SULLIVAN: Maybe you’ve experienced— I don’t know; maybe we should talk about what got you into coaching yet. But there was, from my perspective, a dearth of resources specifically for autistic parents. There was a lot for people parenting autistic children, and some for autistic single people, like youth and young adults, but there was hardly anything for me in my 30s, falling over with an autistic kid and an ADHD kid, as an autistic person. There was just, there wasn’t anything, so I was like, “I’m making this.” You know?

ELLIS: Nice work. Yeah! That’s awesome.

SULLIVAN: Well, thank you! What got you into coaching? Because that’s a relatively recent development, is that true?

ELLIS: Yeah, it’s in the last year. Actually, what got me into it was… Well, it was a host of things, but ultimately what got me into it was also the pandemic.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: It was… I mean, if I’m being honest, at Microsoft we have 3 core values that we espouse: accountability, integrity, and respect. And so a year into the pandemic, I’m in Microsoft, my official career is a software engineer or service engineer, which doesn’t matter because who really cares—so it’s engineering, right? Coding and all these different things. Over the last 6 years, maybe 8 years, I had a series of events happen where I was able to uncover who I really am and feel comfortable with that at work, which led me to all these different things. But during that time, I kind of holistically grabbed onto these values as something that resonate with me. And I was like, “Man, these are really core, this is cool!” So I kind of got out of engineering for a little while, and I went to culture folks on the culture work of Microsoft.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And this was right before the pandemic hit. And so I was doing this work, and it was, like, the dream job; I’m like, oh my God. Every day I go to work, I’m like, “this is the greatest thing ever.” And so, as the pandemic began to slowly unfold, they realized that there was gonna be economic impact and all these different things. And so, as a company does to isolate itself and its shareholders, they began to batten down the hatches because there’s going to be a storm. And so, you know, sometimes the first things that go away are, in retrospect, maybe the most meaningful things that you’ve began to work on, and they’re kind of on the fringes. So what happened was, they got rid of that position, and they said “you’re gonna have to go back to engineering.” And I was highly resistant to that because, you know, I’m at the mountaintop eating the milk and honey, and I’m like, “I’m not coming back over there.” (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah. (Laughs)

ELLIS: What, we’re just gonna be sick for a couple days then we’ll go back to work, it won’t be a big deal, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah…

ELLIS: And so I went back to engineering, and what I found was that although, you know, I’d been touting or re-amplifying this message of these values that the people that I had worked for, and who had welcomed me back, they said one thing and did something completely different. And so, that was misaligned. And I was like, “Well, wait a minute.” And so it really hit me one day because now I’m working in my living room and, you know, I’d gone away, for 17 years, to work, and I would come back, and, you know, you put on different hats, and my family’s here, and they’re not there. And when I would come home, I would try to put on my at-home-Todd face and come back in the house. (Laughs) Well, when you can’t escape work because you’re working in the living room, then everybody gets to see what really happens as far as how you carry yourself. And clearly the pandemic added some stress to that.

SULLIVAN: Oh, sure.

ELLIS: There was one day when my wife was like, “You seem so unhappy at your computer, like, you’re just sitting there pissing and moaning all day long,” and I was like, “Yeah.” And she was like, “Why? I thought you loved your job.” And I was like, “Oh. Well, I don’t know why!” And so I took a leave of absence for 3 months, and I went and sat in a yurt in the middle of this island for a week or two, and I did a bunch of internal reflecting. And what I realized was, what I thought were my values weren’t actually my values, and I was trying to adopt somebody else’s values and make them fit. And so, in doing that, I became completely out of alignment and, you know, just lopsided in all sorts of things. And so that’s what started the entire coaching thing. So I went back to work and I got a performance review that was less than I had ever got in my entire life, and I was like, “It’s because this is out of whack, and if my values are to build this community, help these people, and follow my mission to inspire everybody to be hopefully better than I’ve been based on the sharing of my experience, why don’t I do something that aligns with that?”

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And so coaching just became the next thing, and so I went in with that intent of monetizing it to get out of this work that I’d been doing. …Which is crazy, because like I told you before the show started, I don’t even feel like I should be charging, because I’m just trying to do a service, right, and so there’s a whole dichotomy there. But the most interesting part for me was, as I started going through the class, my minimum bar became, “I have never really invested in learning about ADHD myself.” Like, it just got applied to me when I was 8, and I was like, “Oh, ok, well, I guess I’ll take all these drugs and do the best I can.”

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: But when they started unfolding, like, “here’s the neuroscience, here’s the tools you probably missed,” and you started filling in all these pieces, I was like, “Man!” Like, you know, my son’s ADHD, my grandkids, guaranteed. So now I’m like, we’ll have a more equivocal stance and ground that I know more about myself, and I know more about how I can help to impact them, and so I’m still meeting my goal, it’s just [that] the target kind of moved.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Yeah. So that’s what got me into it.

SULLIVAN: That’s really cool.

ELLIS: And then now, I help people at Microsoft. Obviously, we have benefits for coaching and all kinds of stuff through accommodations, but the nuance of where I see myself at Microsoft is, because of the length of my tenure there, people are like, “Oh, well you must have seen this,” or “What’s your advice on this?” So it’s a weird, quasi-, not-quite-coaching, kind of giving advice, which you’re not supposed to do if you’re a coach, but it definitely fits the demand, or the hunger, for that kind of insight. So that’s where I’m at now. But, yeah, that’s a long story.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, it sounds like sort of the coach approach but also the mentorship, right?

ELLIS: Yeah, it’s a mix.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: For sure.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Combining those roles is really hard.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah.

ELLIS: It feels wrong! Because they teach you when you go to coaching, at least that’s what I picked up from it was—

SULLIVAN: Absolutely.

ELLIS: —”Never give advice.” And I’m like, “eh.” But, people want that!

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Right? So it’s interesting.

SULLIVAN: I have been interested, as also a neurodivergent coach who coaches neurodivergent people, that I try to share information and not advice. Like, I agree with you that, generally, giving advice is not usually ethical or appropriate, but there are some cases where you’re like, I’m just gonna throw these resources at you and hope that you take from them what I get from them, which is “don’t do that thing,” you know?

ELLIS: (Laughs) Yeah.

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) But it’s really tricky!

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Especially when you’re working with people who are sort of new to their neurotype or new to their understanding of what ADHD, or autism, or whatever it is is. And it’s like, I just want to download all this information to their brains for them!

ELLIS: Yep. Oh, it’s so funny. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: You know?

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So, yeah. I have felt that. Yeah.

ELLIS: It’s hard. You have to preface it with, “Do you mind if I share some resources with you?”

SULLIVAN: Yes! Exactly, yeah, you don’t just throw things at people.

ELLIS: (Laughs) No.

SULLIVAN: You, you know.

ELLIS: “Here, do this!”

SULLIVAN: People meet those resources when they’re ready and not before, right?

ELLIS: Mm-hm. Hopefully. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So. There’s only whatever you can do.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Do you foresee this kind of role of the mentor-coach at Microsoft sustaining you for a bit, or are you still considering shifting into a more, I guess, traditional independent coach role? Or something else?

ELLIS: No, I think it’ll sustain for a bit. I’m fortunate that—I don’t know if I was telling you during the show or before, but—my kids are getting old, right? So I don’t have all of these things… Because it used to be— I mean, I still have a mortgage, right? I still have a wife, like, spend money, and I like to spend money myself, so you become comfortable with what you have.

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: But I could live with substantially less. And each day I’m realizing, for the amount of toil that I put in being unhappy doing the thing that I don’t want to do, that I now know I don’t want to do… Like, where’s the rub, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: What’s the payoff in that? And so, I can keep it afloat long enough, I’m pretty proficient at my job, so I keep that going in order to do the things that still fill me up.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: At some point, there will be an unbalance, is that a word?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, imbalance?

ELLIS: Imbalance, there it is. There will be an imbalance, and then I’ll have to choose one way or the other. And, I mean, it’ll probably be more towards helping people, because I’m kind of sunsetting in my life, and that’s what fills me up more. So, I don’t— yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, the service aspect is really fulfilling for me too. So, I feel that.

ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: But you’re right, it’s hard to balance the income generation with the service aspect.

ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Without feeling like you’re taking advantage.

ELLIS: Especially when you see it as a service, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah.

ELLIS: We need more people like us, especially like you. They find the spot in the middle, and then they’re like, “Wait. We can do something about that to make that better.”

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: I think that that’s a good trait, so good job.

SULLIVAN: Well, thank you. But also, the neurodiversity group at Microsoft, in the context of these circles, is kind of famous for a good reason: that the amount of resources and, like you said, financial capital that’s been thrown at this project, but to do some of those testing, experimenting pieces, so that people with less capital who are just sitting out here can still access it.

ELLIS: Mm-hm.

SULLIVAN: That’s so fantastic, and it must be so exciting to be part of that. Even if it’s not your main job, but just to, like, to lift those folks up..

ELLIS: Yeah. It’s pretty cool, yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Sometimes it’s interesting because sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Because the politics is always ever-present.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely.

ELLIS: It’s always over here like, “Ahh, we can’t really do that.” And so you’re like, “Mehh, you know, why don’t we shake it a little bit?” And I think that’s where it helps to be a neurodivergent individual within the ranks of trying to do neurodivergent work, because you’re not constrained by those bonds. Like, I’ll just question anything.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: Because why? Because I’m just curious. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

ELLIS: You know? They might not want to tell you, but maybe by you asking that question will change the outcome of what they thought we needed, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: And so I think that that’s very interesting to think about all the time.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ELLIS: But, yeah, it’s cool.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, there’s—

ELLIS: I like it. If you ever see a spot where we could do better, or you’re like, “Hey, I wonder what Microsoft’s doing,” just let me know, because I’ll definitely fill you in.

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) Thank you!

ELLIS: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: Yeah, your point about that is really interesting, because I also—much more on the ground level working with individuals rather than with a huge company, but—you do see people in, I guess, neurotypical society, neurotypical culture, I don’t know how to phrase that, but there are certain expectations that “things will just go this way.” And when you question those expectations, a lot of times they will change their minds, because just never thought to question the expectation.

ELLIS: Mm-hm. Yeah!

SULLIVAN: But then we’re coming at it from this outside, going, “…How is this even an expectation? What did this come from? What is this for?” You know?

ELLIS: (Laughs) Yeah! How do you [think] people got together and made this up? Because that’s crazy!

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: And it’s just sort of, “this is the way it’s been,” right? And so when you… I was gonna say “challenge,” but I think a lot of times we don’t even mean to challenge it, right? We’re not trying to take authority over it. We’re just sort of like, “But why?”

ELLIS: Just questioning.

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

ELLIS: Yeah, exactly.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, so that’s a really good point.

ELLIS: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Cool. Alright, well—

ELLIS: Yep!

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) Thanks so much for being here today, I really appreciate it!

ELLIS: Yeah, thanks for having me, I appreciate— yeah!

SULLIVAN: This was a great discussion.

ELLIS: For sure! Thank you, I appreciate it. And have a good day.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, you too!

Thank you so much for joining us on the Neurodiverging podcast today. Check out the links below and in the show notes for more information on Todd and his podcast. We have a transcription available for folks who would like it at neurodiverging.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider putting some money in the pot to support it through Kofi, PayPal, or the Patreon, links below. I look forward to seeing you again in the next podcast.
Please remember, we are all in this together.

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