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By Lois Gilman, ADDitude Magazine
Founder and chair, Charles Schwab & Co.
Growing up in a family of modest means in a small town outside of Sacramento, Schwab had to struggle through Stanford before landing a job in a small brokerage house. It was a modest beginning for the man who would start the nation's fourth-largest brokerage firm.
As a child, he didn't know he had dyslexia — it was identified when the disability was spotted in his son 16 years ago. But he did know that he had to work much harder than other kids in school. He was good in math and science, but weak in reading and writing. "I eventually overcame dyslexia because I was a reasonably competent kid and had a pretty outgoing personality," said Schwab in Fortune Small Business. "I could communicate with my teachers, and I asked lots of questions in class. I think that's why I became favored among teachers. They'd say, 'Gee, Chuck really works hard at it. We gotta give him the B instead of the C minus.' "
His struggle with his learning disability shaped him as an entrepreneur. It taught him humility. "You're never quite certain you've accomplished what you wanted to do. It's wonderful fuel for motivation." It has helped him accomplish some things in his career that he wouldn't have believed possible.
"I was always aware of the fact that I excelled with numbers, even though I struggled with reading," he says. "I focused on my strengths and used my natural affinity for numbers and economics as the focus of my career."
Like economist Diane Swonk, he says, "I found something I was good at and became passionate about it. I also discovered that many skills and talents, in addition to reading ability, are as important in the making of a top executive. Character, ethics, communication skills, consistency, analytical and relationship skills. Those are important for leaders. I have some of those skills, and I work with a lot of great people who bring other strengths and talents to the table."
Add to that list of his assets, a spirit of generosity. After Schwab's son was diagnosed with dyslexia, the entrepreneur and his wife, Helen, decided to help other families who had learning-disabled children. They started schwablearning.org to give parents the answers to the million-and-one questions they have when their child has learning problems. They also began Sparktop.org, a Web site for learning-disabled children.
Like most executives, Schwab values teamwork. "I have strong people around me who focus on day-to-day planning and organization," he says. "They know how to streamline my paperwork and to minimize my reading. It's really no different from most people who run companies or large departments. It takes a team to make things work well."
What advice would Schwab give to others with AD/HD or dyslexia or another learning disability? "Find out what you can do well, focus on it, and work doubly hard," he says. "We all aspire to do the best we can with what we're dealt. Focus on your strengths. Don't be afraid to ask for help and to admit you need it." Look where that advice got Schwab.
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