Paul Kingham CA shares why he views neurodiversity as a superpower
Aged 30, Paul Kingham CA was diagnosed with dyslexia and, at 48, with ADHD. As part of the Championing Unique Perspectives series, he explores their impact on his accountancy career – and explains how neurodivergence can be a ‘superpower’
Paul Kingham CA was already working for an accountancy firm, with hopes of becoming a partner, when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. “In my twenties, it took me four attempts to pass my CA exams – I had never failed an exam before in my life,” he says. “A few years later, I moved from audit and accounts to tax work, but when I took the CIOT [Chartered Institute of Taxation] exams, I failed them all by a small margin. It was then that my wife at the time asked whether I might be dyslexic.”
Back then, there were fewer resources available on dyslexia, and Paul himself fell prey to a common misconception. “I remember thinking, I’m quite intelligent, so I can’t be dyslexic,” he says. But tests confirmed he did indeed have both a high IQ and dyslexia. “Before then I had been able to rely on intellect for quite a while, but the CA exams were my crunch point. My neurodiversity came to the forefront.”
He was diagnosed with ADHD 18 years later. “ADHD is hereditary, so can be common in families – my older sister got diagnosed before me, and my son and my niece have both got ADHD too,” he says. He had noticed some of its classic traits before he was diagnosed. “I used to start projects with a lot of gusto and not finish them, and that held me back in my career. In hindsight I know that this was part of my ADHD.”
Feeling the benefits
Discovering he had both dyslexia and ADHD was challenging, but it has helped Paul understand his own working patterns a little better. “My dyslexia makes me a slow reader, and this is noticeable in meetings where everyone is reading a paper at the same time and you are the last to finish,” he says. It also makes him prone to perfectionism: “In the past I often used to go down rabbit holes trying to make something flawless and get stuck there.”
Another disadvantage, he says, is his tendency to be very easily distracted and not a “finisher”. “If something is taking too long, I can end up getting waylaid by something else or abandoning a project halfway through,” he says.
On the other hand, he finds that he has the potential to go into a state of hyperfocus: “If something really does interest me, I could work on it for hours on end. Working for myself is a benefit because I can ensure that I’m always working on things that I’m passionate about and therefore don’t get as easily distracted.”
When it comes to problem solving, he believes his dyslexia has actually been an advantage rather than a limitation: “I always say if you want a problem solving, give it to someone with dyslexia. I’ve always been good at looking at things from a slightly different angle and coming up with creative solutions.” And he feels his ADHD has made him a better coach. “People who have ADHD tend to be more empathetic generally, which means I show more empathy than maybe your average accountant might. I’m not just thinking about the numbers, but the people and the stories attached to them,” he says.
Paul’s conditions have also often proved to be an advantage for building trusting relationships with some clients. “I think the small business owners I work with who also have ADHD or dyslexia feel more comfortable in the knowledge that I ‘get it’ and understand their condition,” he says.
It would have been easy to let the demands of chartered accountancy hold him back, but he now knows better. “I remember one of the partners saying ‘we sell our time’,” he recalls. “It instilled a timesheet mentality where you had to account for everything you did throughout the day. As someone with dyslexia and ADHD, that time pressure became very stressful. But you’re selling your skills, rather than your time – your clients are interested in your expertise. And now I think of my ADHD and dyslexia as a ‘superpower’.”
Being more aware of the challenges inherent in his conditions has helped Paul recognise when his neurodiversity is making him behave in a certain way – and allowed him to set up processes and systems to help him focus.
“Ironically, as much as I hate timesheets, I do use a time recording app and give myself a certain chunk of time to work on a certain task,” he says. “The pomodoro technique [25-30-minute bursts of very focused work, followed by five-minute breaks] helps me push through procrastination, another trait of ADHD. And I use Trello [project management app] to keep all my tasks and reminders in one place.”
But, he says, having supportive people around you is also absolutely key: “Even just having admin support makes such a difference. If people are aware that you might forget things, they can help to keep you right.”
Paul has an important message for others who may be neurodivergent. “First, I want to reassure anyone reading this who might suspect they’re neurodiverse not to worry,” he says. Indeed, after more than a decade with NHS Scotland, latterly as Principal Finance Manager, and a year with the Scottish Housing Regulator, in 2017, Paul went on to establish his property investment company, Kingsmith, with his wife Mary Ann Smith, followed this year by Kingsmith Accountancy, which offers accounting and consultancy services throughout west Scotland. Paul also works as an executive coach. “I know other dyslexic accountants and people with ADHD who are very successful,” he says.
Own your superpower
For those who believe they may be neurodiverse, a formal diagnosis could be key to developing helpful coping mechanisms and making the necessary changes in the workplace. “Get an assessment done so that you know, rather than assume,” says Paul. “As soon as I was diagnosed it was like putting that final piece in the jigsaw puzzle and seeing the whole picture. It explained why I struggled with various things and it also relieved a lot of doubt in myself.”
It is also crucial to remember that having dyslexia is not a reflection on your intelligence. “It is not about how smart you are – it has much more to do with how you absorb and retain information. I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t grasp certain things, but I’m not, and neither are you,” he says. “Ongoing stigma can mean that, even though we’re more open about neurodiversity than we were 30 years ago, it is often perceived as a weakness rather than a strength. But don’t think of it as a disorder, see it as a superpower.”
And for people managing those with neurodivergence, Paul says there are practical steps that can be taken to make sure workplaces are open and accessible to neurodivergent people. “It’s so important for employers to embrace technology, so they can make life as easy as possible for neurodivergent employees – the technology that ICAS has available now, had it been around 30 years ago, would have made a massive difference to me,” he says.
He also believes that having open conversations is essential, as is keeping an open mind: “Give people the benefit of the doubt, let your staff know what you need from them and why, and provide them with the necessary adjustments to do their job effectively.”
Ultimately, Paul believes that, as for many entrepreneurs, his neurodivergence has been a driver of his success and an asset when setting up on his own. “The creativity and drive was always there, as well as the desire to not be employed by someone else,” he says. “It played a part in my decision to start my own business – without a doubt.”
He adds, “With ADHD, people can tell you that you’re lazy, or that you’re never going to get anywhere because you’re easily distracted. For years, I thought I was never going to amount to anything because of my neurodiversity. But I’ve used that as my fuel – so when someone says I can’t do something it makes me want to succeed even more.”
Read more CA stories from the Championing Unique Perspectives series