Successful Introverts

Famously successful introverts – Top row: Marissa Mayer, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Martha Minow (dean, Harvard Law). Bottom row: Katharine Graham (publisher of The Washington Post for 20 years), Elon Musk, Andrea Jung (CEO of Avon), Larry Page

Last week I was on one of my monthly coaching calls (open to all of our programs’ alums), and although we were talking about an entirely different topic, the issue of introverts in the workplace came up and I blurted out, “If you don’t know how to manage and lead introverts, then you are missing out on the talents of nearly 50% of your people. Go read Susan Cain‘s book, Quiet.”

Introvert [noun] – a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being around other people.

Now, as any of you who have met me knows, I am not an introvert.  Not even close!  But I appreciate what introverts bring to the table, and the many ways they can help me succeed as a leader.  As management guru Tom Peters says, “If you take it [Cain’s book on introverts] seriously, it could transform your project team or entire company.”

In many ways, introverts as a group suffer from many of the same disadvantages that women traditionally experienced in business. They are unfairly typecast (unfriendly, not team players), underestimated (they don’t get big things done) and misunderstood (they don’t contribute much).

Introverts are not necessarily unfriendly, but they are quiet. And no, they are not team players when they are in the midst of the team, but they can contribute a lot when allowed to go off and think about what the team is doing and how they could do it better. They are highly creative — think the Macintosh (Steve Wozniak), PayPal (Elon Musk), Google (Larry Page), and Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling). And when they do make a big contribution to the mission, they are quietly satisfied. Introverts virtually never toot their own horns.

Given this profile, it’s amazing that there are so many successful business leaders who are introverts. Especially when it comes to women. How can you “lean in and speak up” when it’s your nature to sit back, observe, listen and think deeply?

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”  — Susan CainA good leader who has taken the time to learn about introverts can pick up the slack and earn lifelong loyalty from these serious and reflective people.

For example, introverts aren’t crazy about meetings, but when they must attend, they listen and think about what everyone is saying. Don’t prompt them for their input (unless you’ve given them a heads up), but check in with them later. They will have seen and understood things — even subtle currents — that you (as the busy leader of the meeting) and your extrovert team members will have missed.

Give them appreciation and recognition for their observations, but don’t ask them to stand up and be acknowledged. And don’t press them if they don’t want to attend office social functions — wine and cheese meetings with the sales reps, team Happy Hours, or company outings.  These kinds of events are usually anathema to them. If you think that’s unhealthy, bear in mind that to your extrovert team members, sitting alone with their thoughts is anathema!  Different strokes for different folks.

Forbes states that a full 40% of executives describe themselves as introverts. Of course, when you get to the top, no one is going to chide you for being different. But on the way up, it can be tough. Here are some other suggestions for the care and feeding of your smart and innovative introverts.

  • If you really need them to attend a meeting, give them the agenda beforehand, let them know if you want them to report or offer ideas on anything, and hold the meeting early in the day before their energy has been drained by all the social contact that working in an office entails.
  • Whether in a team environment or one-to-one, give introverts time to organize their thoughts before they speak. That might mean enduring five or ten seconds of silence. It will surely mean stopping others (and yourself) from jumping in or interrupting them.
  • Ask their opinions on new ideas that come up. Harvard Business Review reported on a study that found, “Introverts tend to listen carefully to the creative ideas suggested by others, and they help others feel valued and motivated to do their work. By contrast, extroverts tend to feel threatened by the innovative ideas proposed by others and are thus less receptive to them.”

If you can harness the power of this big sector of your workforce, you will benefit from their insights, their innovation, their support of others, and their loyalty.  (And if you’re an introvert yourself, I hope you feel recognized and warmly affirmed. We extroverts couldn’t do it without you!)