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Personal Stories

Turning Differences Into Advantages

By: Donald A. Winkler
Donald A. Winkler

I walk into a room crowded with people all looking at me with expectant faces. They are Ford Credit employees gathered from around the world waiting to hear the words of their new chairman and CEO. My introduction is given, and our employees are told that today Ford Credit has 9 million customers, 11,500 dealers, $1.26 billion in profits, 19,000 employees, 290 offices around the world and $15.5 billion in assets. The audience waits to hear what I will say. I walk to the podium thinking, these people probably believe that I must be so smart, capable and confident to be in this position. They do not know the steps that I have taken to be walking here. The reality is that I work harder than most people. The reality is that I am using a variety of compensation mechanisms to help me deal with dyslexia and a series of learning differences that make it difficult for me to concentrate, make it difficult for me to read and handle numbers, and make it difficult for me to visualize normal every day things. The reality also is that with the support of family, friends and teachers, I have taken what could have been an insecure life filled with self-doubt and minimal personal and professional success and turned it around to contribute to the growth of organizations and people. The reality is that I have taken these same differences, which could have held me back in life, and used them, used the backward way I often think, to find successful solutions to business problems that other people never would have discovered. I firmly believe that this potential for a fulfilled life is available to all children with learning differences when they learn how best to cope with the academic, social and professional challenges that they face.

When I speak to children and their parents and teachers I offer my story and experiences as learning tools. I want them to know that through their attitudes and willingness to acknowledge and understand these differences, they too have the mechanisms available to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

The first step in the process is to understand that people with learning differences are confronted on a daily basis with situations and struggles that can create intense misery. The simplest reading assignment, presentation or conversation can create the most frustrating experiences and drive down a person's self worth, day after day. Misery was when I was in the third reading group at school and hated to be branded stupid. Misery was when I was singing in church as a child. I loved to sing and sang loudly. However, so many times I misread the words to the hymns and they came out all wrong. I was ridiculed, isolated, admonished by the adults. Yet, I was fortunate that the minister of this church began to suspect that I was not some kind of rude kid, and that there was something else going on with me.

In the 1950's there was no name or recognition for how I viewed the world. However, this minister turned around his thinking; he did not see me as stupid, so he began to turn me around. He spent the time helping me, rehearsing me, preparing me, and it worked. I joined the choir and loved it. More importantly, it opened the door to one of the most critical aspects of a life with learning differences: acceptance.

People with learning differences need acceptance; not only from themselves, but also from their parents, teachers and friends whose support they need to succeed. Although acceptance appears an easy concept to understand, often it is one of the most formidable barriers to achieving a turning point in life for a child with differences. Without internal and external acceptance, this child will not be open to develop the coping mechanisms that are right for him or her. The minister opened that window of acceptance for me and all parents and teachers must understand its power as well.

Denial, however, is an equally powerful psychological tool and I have seen too many parents who wrap themselves up in the comfort of denial. It happens around the first or second grade for children with learning differences. How could it happen to their children, who look so normal? They want to help, and yet they deny the severity of the problem and deny that it will remain for their child's entire life. Or I encounter many teachers who will not recognize the severity, thinking that some special classes are adequate, and they are geared to just pushing the kids along. I know. In my case, I kept on being pushed along, being miserable at every stage and not making progress. This denial continues right through to college. These institutions may say that they accept students with learning differences. I have found that often the day to day acceptance of this fact is missing and there are limited support mechanisms to help them achieve success. From first grade teachers to university professors, there is often limited understanding that people with learning differences do not think in a linear fashion. Without this knowledge, educators are ill equipped to provide the support that is necessary.

Thus the second step in the process is to accept these differences fully, work to understand the complete ramifications of these differences, and devise the right compensation methods that can create turning points in children's lives. The key to this acceptance is the full knowledge that we will need support and coping mechanisms for the rest of our lives.

When I began to make my way in the corporate, financial world, working for prestigious institutions with brilliant well-educated people, there were countless times that I was afflicted with high anxiety and intense insecurity from my inability to concentrate on one subject at a time. My coping mechanism for this anxiety is a simple one: a mirror. When I am on the phone, I look in the mirror, make eye contact with myself, so that I can concentrate on the conversation. It works. At times now, I look at myself on a video screen to help me concentrate and stay focused. I eliminate the misery of being out of control by accepting that this is a part of me and designing a solution that works. Another problem that can put me into misery is that I have difficulty concentrating when I read. By accepting that problem, knowing it will always be with me I devised a solution that enables me to focus. Whenever I get a distracting thought, I stop reading and speak this thought into a tape recorder. By the fifth time, I am able to concentrate on the subject, having put my distracting thoughts into another place.

What is interesting is that the many coping mechanisms that I use not only help me cope with the daily aspects of life, they also have helped to create unusual solutions to business problems that evade others. Because people with differences think more. First we think about something and then we think about our thinking. Our brains may be exercised more than most. For me to begin the workday, I ready my mind for thinking. My day starts at three in the morning. I wake up that early to practice reading and comprehension. I do very simple math problems. I meditate. I relax. This reduces a level of high anxiety that I and others with learning differences face every day of our lives when we are placed in challenging positions. It also does something else; it relaxes my mind so that the many different thoughts and associations racing through my brain can be pulled together to come up with unconventional and extremely successful ideas for the companies with which I have worked.

People with learning differences naturally question things that other people do not. Because I question why letters look a certain way or question why my thoughts can be so disconnected at times, this questioning leads me to question other things that people take for granted. For example when I was first hired by Citibank to work with its five billion dollar branch in Greece, I found that customers complained of poor service and the bank was losing money. I questioned something conventional. Why was the bank president sitting in his executive office so far away from the customers? So I put his desk in the middle of the lobby so he could hear and see the problems first hand. This little move resulted in a complete overhaul of the consumer bank and the installation of new technology. New accounts started to pour in and the bank profits rose 5,000 percent in less than five years. There are many other examples where my seemingly backward look of the world led to solutions that were unique and successful. It all comes down to acceptance that we are different and the motivation to develop individual ways to compensate.

We are also fortunate that we have the technology now to assist us and to reduce the frustration of daily tasks. Five hundred different numbers are programmed into my cell phone so that I do not have to deal with the difficulty of wrong numbers. My laptop and computer keep my schedule and organize my work. When I give a speech, I use special TelePromTers with, for example, question marks at the beginning of sentences not at the end and a little listening device in my ear so that my assistant can prompt me if I forget words or get distracted. The point is that we should continually look for new ways to harness technology to help compensate for the daily struggles that impede finding our talents. Technology for us does not only mean a faster foundation of information, it means a secure foundation of information on which we can relax enough to discover the talents we have to offer, not just the obstacles we have to face.

Educators and parents must work aggressively to ensure that these types of solutions are available to their children. We cannot deny the fact that we are different. It is not just a matter of being slow in reading or having trouble at school. Dyslexia can affect every single aspect of a person's life - both personal and professional. It can railroad self-esteem, undermine confidence, isolate and intimidate. And yet, I know that does not have to be the case.

It takes courage and strength to shed the limitations of the different box that frames our reality. It is essential to have the support of parents, advocates, friends and teachers who take nothing for granted about a person with learning differences. This support and understanding builds a level of acceptance that will create the mechanisms needed to compensate for the differences.

It will also create hope.

When I was talking recently to a group of children with learning differences, one girl raised her hand and said, "My parents said that I will never go to college. I have to go to a trade school," and she starts crying. I said, "No, that does not have to be the case. And she said, But I have to go to trade school. I said, In my world, the word but is not in my vocabulary. How about using and thinking the word and? I went to trade school first and then I went to college."

This simple change created a noticeable shift in her thinking. I could see it in seconds as the expression across her face changed to one of hope. When someone tells me that she cannot do something, I make her say, "up until now." Once this change occurs, the potential for creativity, unique contributions to society and for personal happiness grows as well.

I do not pretend to know all the answers or to solve all the problems that learning- different people confront. I do know, however, that sharing information, new resources and new ideas and promoting continual efforts to educate teachers and parents can result in true success. At Ford Credit, we are beginning to ensure that support and resources will be available to all families, which are seeking new and pragmatic ways to compensate for learning differences. These resources can be found on my web site, Cyberwink.com. Visit it, use it and write me with your questions, experiences and new ideas. We all need to continue to learn about learning.

About the Author

Ford Credit's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Donald A. Winkler is anything but your average corporate CEO. He is a pioneer in engaging people's creativity, ingenuity and common sense to devise unusual approaches for boosting productivity.

Prior to his appointment to Ford Credit, Mr. Winkler served as Chairman and CEO of Finance One, the finance company subsidiary of Bank One Corporation. He also served as Executive Vice President of Bank One Corporation.

An active participant in civic life, Don is a national spokesperson in educating people about learning differences. He is a board member of IDA and has served as a trustee of the Forman School in Litchfield, CT which educates learning-different children.