How to be an introverted leader

“If you don’t speak up in the next 10 minutes, I’m going to call on you and ask for your opinion.” I received this text message from my CEO (and boss) during an executive offsite. We were 20 minutes into the kickoff, and the executive team was discussing what they were afraid of and excited about in the coming six to 12 months. The people who enjoyed voicing their opinions in these types of discussions had already covered everything that I was both nervous about and looking forward to (multiple times, in fact), and I value efficiency over talking just to talk, so I stayed quiet.

This was in line with the recurring feedback I kept getting from my CEO–speak up more, contribute more to discussions and conversations, have an opinion. But I kept thinking, there must be another way for me to demonstrate leadership. I’m an introvert. I think to speak; most of our executive team spoke to think. So how do you lead effectively without the dynamic, charismatic, unafraid-to-speak-in-front-of-groups qualities that most executives possess? How do you inspire trust and confidence as an introvert?

First, a brief look at the difference between introverts and extroverts: introverts work better alone, extroverts work better in groups. Introverts think to speak, extroverts speak to think. Introverts love deep 1:1 conversations, extroverts like to have brief interactions with a lot of people. Introverts prefer writing, extroverts prefer talking. When we think about famous CEOs and executives, we think about people who are comfortable walking into a room and owning it, we think about charisma, charm, confidence; people who can sell a vision to investors, business partners, public markets. We think about people who are social butterflies, who are completely magnetic in a room full of others. We don’t think of introverts.

Interestingly, valuing extroversion as a leadership trait is relatively new–it began in the early 1900s. One of my favorite books on this topic, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, notes: “America shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality–and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover. In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. Every American was to become a performing self.

”However, there is a lot of research that shows that the best leaders are, in fact, introverts. The best leaders have been described as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated.” As Jim Collins, a famous management theorist, once said, “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run.

”Okay, so the evidence shows that introverts are effective leaders. But how do they stand up to the extroverted leaders that dominate successful companies today? I’ll share some tips, but in general you should ask yourself: how can I maximize my introvert qualities; not how can I learn to be more extroverted?

Here are some things that have worked for me:

Lean in to your natural desire to have meaningful 1:1 conversations.

One of the most helpful things my coach ever said to me was, “there is no trust without voice.” Meaning–how can your fellow executives, teammates, and employees trust you if they don’t ever hear your decision-making rationale that highlights how you use your judgment? The fallacy is that you need to be talking all the time, or only in group meetings. You don’t. But you do need to build trust and you do need to learn how to walk people through your thought processes. I’ve found that 1:1 conversations are the best forums for me to do this. A format that continues to work for me in 1:1s with team members is:

1. What do I need them to know?

2. What do they need me to know?

3. Are there things they’d like to workshop together?

4. Feedback (both positive and critical).

Ask for structure and be prepared.

One of my least favorite weekly meetings for a while at one of my previous employers was the weekly leadership meeting. When I joined, it was unstructured, which led to the people with the loudest voices sucking the oxygen out of the room and dominating the conversation with things that mattered most to them. I often sat there thinking, this diatribe is useful for at most three people in this room, why are we all an audience for this? I may have an opinion on the topic but it doesn’t really matter because I’m not an informed stakeholder. So, we created structure. It went through months of iteration before it got to the most productive state, but we finally got there. And as an introvert, I felt so much better knowing exactly what I’d be asked to share to the team. I made sure I was a “subject matter expert” on all of my updates so that I’d have answers to tough questions. BS-ing something on the spot is not a strength of mine, so having all of the information I needed prior to the meeting was hugely important.

Relatedly, carve out specific time for prep.

In my current role as COO, I have to give the revenue and business operations updates in our weekly team All Hands. This isn’t something I take lightly–employees look to leaders to know how to feel, and the way you deliver messages to the team is hugely important. Because I’m not a natural talker in group meetings, I have 30 minutes blocked on my calendar before every All Hands to prepare. If I’m delivering really important updates, like quarterly revenue reports or annual goals, I will literally write word for word what I would want to say out loud if I could do it perfectly. Writing it down is extremely helpful, not only to be able to articulate what I want to say ahead of time, but I am part of a remote team and do videoconferencing, so I can actually read what I wrote while I’m talking. And, bonus, I’ve basically already written the recap email that I was probably going to send after the meeting.

Use written communication to your advantage.

Most introverts prefer to write vs. talk; however, you’ve likely noticed that written communication is a lost art form. Most people aren’t naturally great at it or they don’t prioritize it. They do still recognize good written communication when they see it though, and I can’t tell you how many times people have complimented, or even included in a performance review, my written communication skills. Now recognizing that this is both a unique talent and something that’s valuable to most organizations, I find as many opportunities as I can to engage in written communication. I send meeting prep emails, I send thorough recap emails, I can master internal communications regarding big announcements (good or bad), if I want to advocate for something (resources, a decision I feel strongly about, a team member), I’ll send an email before I schedule a meeting to discuss it. Anytime I need to persuade someone, I do it via email. I also ask that my team do the same–if they need me to make a decision about something, I need to have the information in writing. Part of me wanted to implement the Jeff Bezos memo policy across the last company I worked for but I never ended up doing it. Maybe it’ll happen with this one!

Design your meetings and your workspace to be ideal for your introversion.

There’s actually a lot of emerging research that shows that the open office plan is counterproductive in many ways. If you’ve been in a mid-size or large tech company office recently, you’ve probably seen the awkwardly large solo phone/work booths dotted around the office. That’s because most people, and especially introverts, do their best work alone. There is also so much evidence that shows that brainstorms, group working sessions, etc. are actually detrimental to business outcomes. If you can, don’t hold brainstorms for your team. And if you don’t have the power to make that decision, talk to your manager and ask if you can try a different format for the brainstorm–one that requires people to submit ideas ahead of time, or that begins with a readout of work prepared in advance by each person. And if you’re a stakeholder in office design, try to carve out more spaces for people to do individual work. If you don’t have the ability to impact your office design, either find a quiet place (I used to always work on random couches tucked in remote corners of the office) or use headphones or some other way of signaling that you don’t want to be interrupted. You can also just have an honest conversation with your team about how you like to work.No personality type is hands down better at leadership than another. However, if you’re an introvert in today’s business culture, it’s easy to feel drowned out by the louder, more gregarious, and perhaps more charming extroverts. As someone who felt constant pressure to take on qualities I simply didn’t have, I spent a lot of time working with a coach and doing my own research on what makes a great leader, and trying to determine if those extroverted qualities were crucial to my future success. I’m happy to say that they’re not. What is crucial to good leadership is sound judgment and decision making, excellent communication skills, ability to build trust within teams and across the organization, and a constant understanding of what you know and what you don’t know. Luckily, those are skills anyone can develop.

This article is from Elpha.