Will Your Next CEO Be an Introvert?

As an introvert, I feel like my day finally may be arriving in its own understated way. President Obama was said to be an introvert who preferred meditative reflection late at night to backslapping on the Washington party circuit. More importantly for my own realm, the business world is beginning to recognize the strength of introverts. At a time when it’s too easy to make snap decisions and judgment with social media and messaging that arrives moment-to-moment on mobile devices, the quieter, more deliberate-minded introvert holds some appeal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about introverts lately while working on my upcoming Training article on introvert versus extrovert leaders, due to be published in our May/June issue. The message I received from the companies and consultants I spoke with is both personality types have the potential to be great leaders. This news is a great relief to me because as a child and teen, that wasn’t the message I was sent. My father, himself an introvert, would always speak admiringly—almost enviously—of people with “outgoing” personalities. He made it clear that an “outgoing” personality was what you wanted. Being quiet and reflective weren’t qualities other people gravitated toward.

An article by Diane Davis published recently by The Telegraph, out of the UK, gives advice on how introverts can succeed in the “brash, modern workplace.” It advises introverts to push themselves outside their comfort zones to circulate more socially, rather than squirreling away (as my extroverted mother referred to my tendencies) in their office. However, Davis also notes the value of the typically less confrontational style of the introvert. Many employees prefer to be interacted with in a strong, yet gentle, way. Even the most over-the-top extrovert doesn’t necessarily savor hard-edged, abrasive feedback from managers. The soft-spoken, thoughtful introvert manager, who can take the employee aside and give feedback in a sensitive way can be an asset.

Whereas an extroverted, less reflective boss might mark up a report by an employee with directive-sounding instructions in all caps inserted everywhere, an introvert like me would take a different approach. Instead, I would probably wait until the end of the report, and then at the bottom, make a list of questions (not in all caps and with just one question mark per question) that the report left me with. To preface the questions, I would say something like: “Thanks for putting this together! Here are some questions that came to mind after reading it…” The extrovert manager may not want to be abrasive and offensive, but he may not be reflective enough to consider how directives squeezed throughout a carefully put-together report, printed all in caps as though to connote shouting, will come across to the recipient. It’s usually a more thoughtful, reflective kind of person who considers how messages will be perceived—and misperceived—by others, and who cares enough to alter the delivery.

A tactic that has worked somewhat well for me in my career has been delivering difficult-to-express messages by e-mail to my managers. If you’re an introvert, it can be hard to get out everything you have to say in a meeting with extroverts. You find yourself frequently interrupted, and sometimes even shouted over. Add in the shyness that often accompanies introversion, and your chances of communicating a tough message, such as your unhappiness with the way you’ve been treated or a problem you’ve noticed in your work group, becomes a tough climb when in person. A good balance is to deliver the initial message by e-mail, so you know you’ve gotten out everything you needed to say. Then follow up with an in-person meeting to allow your managers, or employees, to ask questions and push back.

The power of the introvert in one-on-one settings also can be leveraged to our advantage. An extrovert may own the room at a cocktail party or when giving a presentation at a meeting, but the introvert may get a leg up in one-on-one, in-depth conversations. It’s easier for many extroverts to spread themselves out in a large setting with thin, though highly pleasant, conversation. And it’s easier for many introverts to do a deep dive in thought and conversation, though often not entertaining, when speaking to just one or two people. The good news for introverts: While the initial opportunity can be hatched in large settings, such as parties or networking events, the final deal, and all the most meaningful details, likely will be cemented in small group settings or one-on-one.

In a personal growth exercise in my college sorority years ago, we broke into groups, and were asked to write descriptions for each other in a few words. The one that was written about me that I’ll always remember was “quietly assertive.” As I remember how I was an officer every year I was in the sorority, and eventually, during my last full year, became one of the vice presidents, I think that’s an accurate way to sum up my personality—and that of many other introverts.

Do your high-potential and leadership development programs recognize the many variations of personalities leaders can possess? How do you ensure you’re not overlooking a quieter, but just as promising, future leader?

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