What do Elon Musk, Rosa Parks, Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, and Barack Obama have in common?
They’re all successful introverts.
You might find that surprising. I did, until I started to experience firsthand that some of the best leaders, from mid-level management to the C-Suite, aren’t always extroverts.
A decade into my career, a CEO at a publicly-traded company I worked for declined my recommendation to speak to the press (even off the record) or keynote an event. This shattered tried-and-true best practices in corporate communications and marketing. I pushed back to understand his thinking, assess how that decision aligned with our business goals for that year, and to ensure he understood the value of the strategies I recommended. I’ll never forget him telling me, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and the insightful conversation that followed. Yet he committed to always being there for anything we needed to achieve our goals – through the written word.
No company can succeed with management like that, right? Well, ranked at the top of the industry globally, I’d say things went pretty well. I also spent a day with Yahoo’s former CEO Marissa Mayer and witnessed her business savvy and communication style. In 2013, employee satisfaction at Yahoo hit a five-year high under Mayer’s leadership. Her feature in Vogue went on to catch many by surprise and spark a debate about the perception of female CEOs.
These moments changed my perception of what it takes to be a leader and forever inspired inventive thinking and confidence to break free of the status quo.
What does it mean to be an introvert?
Introversion is a personality trait. People commonly (and mistakenly) use the one-word textbook definition of the word to describe an introvert: shy. But that’s not always the case.
In reality, an introvert is simply someone who is more internal with their thoughts or ideas. Not all people are the same, so it goes without saying not all introverts are the same. Yet they often share common traits – such as being less apt to express themselves less freely, or feel overwhelmed in social situations and need their personal time to recharge. In a business setting, they may prefer small groups over large groups and are often analytical thinkers, good ideators and listeners.
Sounds like a recipe for business success to me. Yet introverts tend to face misconceptions and challenges in the workforce. An article in Harvard Business Review on the hidden advantages of quiet bosses notes “65% of senior corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership.” The data’s a bit dated and I hope the ability to knowledge share and cultural shifts in recent years have lessened that perception.
Often the quieter ones among their peers, introverts may seem less invested or less interested. Declining an after-hours outing can be misinterpreted as not being committed. Not contributing during a meeting or following up after listening and analyzing their thoughts may lead to someone being overlooked for opportunities.
But this is like saying a person can’t run a race because their shoelaces are tied differently. This is where awareness and leadership skills of management become career-changing for others.
My experience as an introverted leader
About five years into my career, I called my #1 business mentor – my dad. As a CFO for hospitals and corporations, he has seen it all when it comes to business. I explained the excitement of my career but how I found parts of it draining. I described dreading the anticipation of networking events and feeling mentally exhausted after social settings. I admitted sometimes feeling this way in my personal life, something few around me would ever believe. He caught me off guard when he said, “I’ve always known this about you.”
Was it possible that someone often described as a leader and an extrovert was, in fact, an introvert? Undeniably, yes.
My career has taught me about myself, most importantly revealing that throughout my childhood and into my career, I learned to cope and adapt as an introvert to the expectations and opportunities around me – something many professionals can relate to.
I’m definitely not shy. But coming from a family of nine kids, having committed parents who often exposed us to diverse social settings, and having changed schools five times, adapting, making friends, and taking interest in things and others became survival. I coped and I pushed myself – and still do – because I knew what I wanted.
It didn’t mean I wasn’t adventurous, bright nor creative. I excelled in school and found my outlets in piano, theater, writing, performance, sports and community service. Is it easier for me to perform in front of a crowd of thousands, speak on stage, negotiate in the boardroom or lead a press conference than it is to work a room or attend an event solo? ABSOLUTELY. Can I explain why? Not a chance.
Raising kids isn’t much different than the skills needed to manage teams with diverse personality traits. It’s giving trust and space to be who you are, listening and knowing one size doesn’t fit all, and creating opportunities in areas where someone excels. Because of that experience back then, I’m capable now of arriving knowing no one in the crowd and will walk away from an event having had genuine networking conversations, enlightening moments and new relationships. And I still use my outlets to refuel.
From sharing these experiences with others, I know I’m not alone in the workforce when it comes to this.If you find this relatable, cheers! You’re doing great.
Raising an introvert: A hands-on master class in empowering others
Midway through this outgoing lifestyle I had grown into, life threw me for a loop raising a quiet, genuinely shy, introverted daughter – who is one heck a leader. She started talking at 10 months old, reaching five-word sentences by the time she turned one. But from a very young age, she showed the common personality traits of an introvert. Situations that feel normal and natural to many of us don’t always feel comfortable to her yet – something we don’t often recognize about one another, especially among colleagues.
When she was a toddler, my observant and intuitive mentor (now affectionately “Papa Lou”) commented, “She may be quiet, but she knows what she wants.” And he wasn’t wrong. It’s a trait that makes introverts effective.
It wasn’t until an outing together that my daughter’s and my eyes met and I was struck from her glance with a very familiar sense of what my then-kindergartener was feeling. Without saying anything, we knew each other understood – how one can be in the experience where they want to be, but sometimes it takes a lot inside to be there. From that day forward, with that new understanding and relatable connection, I knew from her sense of adventure, the way she’d take things apart and put them back together, and her unending curiosity, planning, and creating, that there was nothing stopping her.
I’ll admit, raising a bright, adventurous, introverted child has been the most challenging experience as a parent. It’s taken learning, problem-solving, pivoting, and empowerment skills that in turn have strengthened my business and management skills.
A few years into serving as her Girl Scout troop leader, I witnessed a quiet young girl discovering courage and coping skills, developing confidence, and emerging on her own as a leader because she was given space to try and fail, opportunities to lead or follow, and guidance with an open book to explore her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
My daughter has taught me a lot about introversion: the wheels in her mind are always turning, and her analytical mind breaks things down and emerges with solutions. She embodies a desire for adventure, listens with intensity, envisions the big picture, shows compassion for others, and each action has intention.
Witnessing this reminded me of the CEOs I had worked with, and I realized before my eyes, once again, that some of the most effective, brightest leaders are indeed introverts.
A few weeks shy of becoming a teen, she’s still navigating the balance of feeling comfortable in the doors that have opened and experiences she desires. And she has a promising start on what her future will look like as she serves her third year on Student Council, quenches her competitive nature on the soccer field, and generates meticulous ideas for experiences and small businesses. She knows what she wants – including quiet nights at home. Ahh, the life of an introvert.
Tips for tapping into introverted leadership
Active awareness of our personal management style and leadership skills creates a growth culture where all personality types can thrive. This practice is especially valuable in helping introverts on your team reach their potential.
For inspiration and fresh perspective about leadership or workplace dynamics, turn to Wharton’s organizational psychologist Adam Grant, and buckle in for a few “a-ha!” moments. (And as I was writing this article, this post appeared in my feed. How timely!)
Here are some tips to empower introverts at work and avoid overlooking high-impact leaders on your team:
- Lead with intention. Your job as a leader is to empower others. Expand your understanding of personality traits, make purposeful decisions, and ask questions with intention to create forums where introverts are comfortable sharing their ideas and having their voices heard.
- Invite quieter colleagues to the table. Include colleagues who are more reserved to meetings, brainstorms and small lunches. Initiate conversation with them or pause and ask the individual for their feedback and ideas. In his book Meetings Suck, author and executive coach Cameron Herold identifies four personality traits in meetings: Dominant, Expressive, Analytical and Amiable. Awareness of these traits and drawing engagement out of your employees who tend to think longer before speaking will reveal ideas and solutions that propel your business forward.
- Give introverts ownership. Delegate and hand tasks over to introverts on your team, or appoint them to lead projects that compliment their skill sets or give them a fresh challenge. They may not always raise their hands, but more often than not, they’re up for the task and their skills will develop and shine.
- Allocate time for passion projects. Work innovation into your culture. Encouraging employees to allocate 10 hours a month toward passion projects may reveal a golden egg that moves your business forward or a standout thinker who isn’t on everybody’s radar.
- Recognize effort and great work. Recognition waters your garden. It keeps employees invested and is an opportunity to highlight the contributions of those you may see or hear from less, making others aware of their strengths and impact on the organization. A mention during a meeting will go a long way, as do internal awards or shoutouts on a dedicated #recognition chat channel like we have here at Hennessey Digital.
Not everyone has a leadership mindset, nor the desire for responsibility. But we must be aware of biases and the talent we’re surrounded with. The next Albert Einstein might be on your team.