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How to Leverage Introversion as a Career Strength
Being an introvert doesn’t mean you lack great management potential—but you need to play to your strengths
Most of us understand what it takes to advance our careers when we first start out as individual contributors (non-managers, aka individual contributors, or ICs for short): Get better at your craft, produce high-quality work on time, be dependable and reliable, work well with others, and don’t be a jerk.
This approach worked well enough for me when I began my career at IBM, moved to Apple, and then jumped into the wild world of tech startups. As an introvert, I transitioned into management at eBay, became an executive at Yahoo, and eventually became the CEO of my own startup.
I found I had to move past initially pretending to be an extrovert to finally embracing my introversion in order to authentically and sustainably advance my career and be happy with my work. In this article, I’ll share seven examples of how you can leverage a strength associated with your natural introversion to advance your career and become a better leader.
The Problem with the Introvert’s Career Ladder
There are important differences between IC introverts and extroverts, and some of these show up in how people get promoted. Introverted designers, engineers, and researchers tend to move up just as quickly as their more extroverted counterparts during the early years of their career. One of the most common and respectful phrases used during promotion reviews for this type of IC, “Hey, they just get sh*t done!”
But some companies have clearly invested in a solid IC career path with principal IC roles, while others simply have not. The career path into management is more common and may be the only one available to you.
I remember many management discussions about our most senior ICs during the annual review cycle. The most obvious and common career path was to move them into a leadership role. This is where expectations and stereotypes would come into play, with the ideal leader assumed to be more extroverted. We would discuss ICs who were clearly introverted, and the gist of the conversation was often, “What are we going to do with them? I can’t see them taking charge of a team.”
“65% of senior corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership.” — Harvard Business Review, The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses
These discussions and the associated attitudes don’t exist in a vacuum. Employees are aware of the bias, and many have received feedback from their managers that they need to step up and develop their “executive presence” to be considered for a promotion. At this point, many introverts shut down: “Well, I guess leadership isn’t for me.”
This is a tragedy, because many of the hidden strengths of introverts lend themselves very well to becoming an amazing leader. (If you have any doubts on that, check out this TED Talk from Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts.)
What introverts must recognize is that this presence isn’t about the animated personalities of extroverts, but rather about your quality to deliver in tough situations. According to “Deconstructing Executive Presence” in the Harvard Business Review:
Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.
But first, let’s all get on the same page regarding this oft-misunderstood personality trait.
Accepting Yourself as an Introvert
For much of my career, I believed that I had to transform myself into more of an extrovert. I witnessed the career success of the extroverts around me, many of them powerful leaders in the organization. I felt that if I could change my behavior to suppress my introverted tendencies and force myself to embrace more extroverted activities, then my own career would take off.
So, that’s exactly what I did. I pushed aside my discomfort in social situations. I trained in public speaking and conflict management. I forced myself to embrace networking events. To this day, there are people who have known me professionally for many years who refuse to believe that I am an introvert at heart.
Did it work? Yes, I suppose it did for a while. I was promoted into management and began climbing the ladder.
Was it sustainable? No, not at all. You may be able to adopt more-extroverted behavior and suppress your introversion for a few years like I did. But the cost is a steady state of discomfort and stress.
The even greater tragedy is that I assumed my introverted tendencies were flaws and weaknesses that I had to eradicate. What a mistake! Some of the hidden powers of introversion actually lend themselves very well to extraordinary job performance. They should be embraced and developed, not suppressed. For example:
- Introverted leaders tend to perform better than extroverted leaders when their teams are composed of employees who are more proactive.
- Introverts tend to encourage, solicit, and listen more to input from others.
- Introverts are comfortable with developing deep one-on-one relationships and forming alliances behind the scenes.
- Introverts enjoy time alone for research and deep thought, and they will relentlessly pursue solutions.
If you’re working for an enlightened company that has seriously invested in an IC career path, you may never be required to manage others. Sometimes this is called a “technical track” or a “principal path,” and it allows you to continue advancing your career in increasingly strategic roles with a larger sphere of influence.
If your employer has not created an IC track in parallel to the management path, then you’ll need to take charge of your career to define the role and path to continue receiving opportunities for growth and promotion within the company. If you cannot find a way to define your own career path where you currently work, then it might be time to move to a different company.
But as I discovered with my own career, introverted personality traits can be powerful assets for a leader. In fact, I found that many of the behaviors unique to introverts help you redefine what leadership means so that you can be the kind of leader that many employees have always been seeking.
A New Type of Leader
With job satisfaction at an all-time low and employees stating that bad bosses are the primary reason for quitting a job, it is becoming clear that the standard extraverted model for leadership is not always serving us well.
Below are seven examples of when I decided to leverage a strength associated with my natural introversion versus taking the alternative approach. Please note that I am not saying that using the alternative is always a mistake. These other skills, behaviors, and styles are sometimes appropriate for a given situation or context—but they represent activities that won’t come naturally to an introvert. Adopting that style will quickly drain your energy and will not leverage your strengths. Instead, go with your strengths in these seven ways.
1. Empathy vs. Detachment
The boomers’ leadership style doesn’t play well in the workplace of today. Boomers tend to demand loyalty, respect authority, enforce a rigid chain of command, and value hard skills. This style has already created conflict with Gen X, and, as millennials have demonstrated, the workforce of tomorrow simply won’t tolerate it. It’s true that a certain base of hard skills is necessary, but soft skills are emerging as a competitive advantage for more successful organizations.
Empathy is increasingly recognized as a valuable soft skill that leaders can leverage to more effectively manage their teams. Senior leadership, boards, and consultants are now focused on identifying and grooming talent to bring more of this leadership style into their organizations. Luckily, the ability to listen, understand, and empathize often comes naturally to an introvert.
“These exceptional organizations all have cultures in which the leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other. This is the reason they are willing to push hard and take the kinds of risks they do. And the way any organization can achieve this is with empathy.”
―Simon Sinek, from Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t
Early in my career, I was actually coached to eliminate empathy and suppress any expression of it. Objectivity, professionalism, and emotional detachment were highly encouraged to maintain distance between leaders and employees. My ability to deeply connect with my team was sometimes derided: “His people only follow him from company to company because they like him.” Oh no, what a terrible situation!
I was also coached to dial up my aggression, debate skills, and political savvy to be able to “swim with the sharks” in the boardroom. I was working with a career coach at the time. She and I discussed various approaches to this issue. Did I really want to suppress my nature and become more like them?
Thanks to my coach’s guidance, I learned that empathy was actually a strength that had served me well in developing a strong team with a healthy culture. Becoming more aggressive, which ran counter to my introverted tendencies, was not a sustainable approach to my leadership development.
Today’s corporate climate is finally recognizing a need for introverted leaders who have strengths in skills such as empathy. What comes naturally to you is now often seen as a desirable leadership strength.
2. Coaching vs. Commanding
You’re likely quite familiar with leaders who lean heavily on their title and authority to get things done. These types of authoritarian leaders, also known as autocratic leaders, rely on formal structure, strict policies, and rigid procedures to dictate and control their teams’ goals, decision-making, and activities.
This style of leadership does not sit well with an introvert. As an employee, we prefer to be coached, mentored, and guided in our work. We also prefer this coaching style as we begin to lead.
Daniel Goleman, in his book Primal Leadership, describes the “coaching leader” as a more harmonious style of leadership for introverts:
An effective coaching leader listens one-on-one to employees, establishes personal rapport and trust, and helps employees work out for themselves how their performance matters and where they can find additional information and resources…Coaching leadership not only frees leaders from doing work for others, but fires-up and accelerates innovation and learning at all levels of the organization.
Goleman goes on to describe three other “resonance-building” styles of leadership: visionary, affiliative, and democratic. Contrast those with the two “dissonant” styles of pacesetting and commanding, which are more reminiscent of the ideal extroverted leader described earlier.
Developing and retaining talent are more critical than ever and have given rise to an increasing demand for leaders as coaches. A recent Brandon Hall Group survey found that “[a]ll executives interviewed cited ‘developing leaders as coaches’ as a critical strategy to improving that performance, yet nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents indicated that training leaders to be effective development coaches was their greatest challenge.”
Coaching is a role that uniquely taps into many of the key powers of introversion. I’ll come back to that below.
The good news for introverts is that these dissonant styles of leadership are no longer considered to be the only — or even best — way of effectively leading a team. My current career is a reflection of my own discovery that a coaching style of leadership was more resonant with my introversion.
I found that I truly enjoyed developing the careers of others and building a mentoring relationship that extended far beyond the walls of the current company. Being a coaching leader not only worked well for developing and nurturing the talent of my team, but it also resulted in establishing strong relationships with talented people that have lasted for decades.
3. Strategic Vision vs. Operations
A true leader must have the ability to create and communicate a strategic vision. We’ve all witnessed the decline of companies that failed to establish and motivate their employees with a compelling, unifying vision. Introverts are especially good at creating and finding ways to articulate this kind of vision.
Of course, companies can also fail if they have vision without successful execution. But operations can be one of the more difficult aspects of an introverted manager’s work.
As an introverted leader, one of the most unpleasant aspects of my corporate job was being in endless hours of operational meetings. This sometimes felt like my personal version of introversion hell: being stuck in a small room, listening to droning conversations, making small talk during breaks, engaging in endless arguments, and dealing with the constant political maneuvering.
I can’t tell you how many times I would gaze longingly out the window at the trees, aching to get out of the room and take a walk alone. I needed a break. I needed time to recharge, even if only for a few minutes.
As an introvert who wants to rise into leadership, I advise you to carefully define your role so it plays to your strengths and spend more time creating the strategic vision for your product or service and organization. You will still need to manage the requirements of the role that drain an introvert. How?
Trust and delegate. Hire smart people who are great at the operational details. Send your best representatives to these meetings. As a leader, you need to be willing to abandon a traditional command-and-control style of leadership.
“Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so; they want to do things because they want to do them.” —Irene Rosenfeld
Great leaders need to do so many critical things for their organizations. But you cannot be all things to all people. Invest in your introverted strengths to inspire, innovate, and motivate. Delegate the operational details to the smart people you have hired and motivated.
4. Innovation vs. Incrementalism
If you want your career to advance, you will need to demonstrate some degree of innovation in improving your product or service, organizational structure, or work processes. As an introvert, that means giving yourself dedicated alone time to think through problems and generate new ideas. If you’re like me, you find it exceedingly difficult to come up with amazing blue-sky ideas on the spot in a group setting.
Over my 23-year career, I can’t think of a single time that a truly innovative breakthrough occurred in a group brainstorming meeting. Yet companies continue to persist in the myth that forced collaboration, open office spaces, and group off-sites are the key to innovation. Unfortunately, this interferes with how most introverts prefer to engage in deep thinking to spark innovative and creative ideas.
At one of my companies, we approached innovation differently and enabled and fully supported the offline style that many introverts prefer. We found more success by giving people a problem to solve, and then letting them do whatever they needed to do to bring their best thinking to the table.
Telling introverts to go off and work alone is music to their ears.
“The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.” —Adrian Furnham, PhD ( “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, New York Times)
I’m not saying that group collaboration sessions aren’t necessary or effective. I think they work well for digging into the details of assessing ideas, planning execution, and generating evolutionary ideas to improve a product or service. But group sessions are not where radical, original, breakthrough ideas will be spawned, and such groups don’t reflect how introverts can play to their strengths and generate their most creative ideas.
5. Deep Thinking vs. Snap Decisions
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience points to physical differences between the brains of introverts and extroverts. Most notably, introverts tend to have thicker regions of the prefrontal cortex in areas associated with abstract thought and decision-making. This may partially explain the introvert’s preference for deliberate thought processes, as opposed to the extrovert’s tendency to live in the moment. Introverts tend to need time alone to read, research, think, evaluate options, and come to their own conclusions. They will be quite unhappy when they are forced to bypass their usual process and make a decision right here, right now.
It’s common to be put on the spot during meetings in Silicon Valley. Some companies even encourage adversarial behavior in meetings, claiming that the conflict leads to better decision-making. I encountered this numerous times during my career. The demand for a quick decision would occur in meetings and during phone conversations. I still dislike this type of time pressure, and research has actually demonstrated the risk of such hasty decision-making.
“There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information gets very dangerous.” —Edward de Bono
As an introvert, I began redefining my decision-making process to better support my potential for career growth. I refused to be put on the spot and forced to make a decision before I had time to research an issue more deeply, consider alternatives, and come to a conclusion that I believed was best.
If you find yourself in this situation, you may have to state firmly that you need more time to make the decision.
Yes, I know that this runs contrary to Silicon Valley’s love affair with “move fast and break things.” But at some point you realize that you need to take care of yourself and define a working style that is more harmonious with who you really are. If your boss or company refuses to accept that, then it may be time to find an environment that values your strengths and respects how you do your best work.
6. Mentoring vs. Managing
As mentioned earlier, I discovered that I actually enjoyed one-on-one meetings with my team. I found it quite rewarding to advise, mentor, and coach them in their careers. I knew that relationships with talented people extend far beyond the walls of the corporation. I have maintained close relationships like this for up to 20-plus years with some of my colleagues.
Managing people as “resources” is an approach that never sat well with me. The focus of traditional management is typically very operational. This is a view that work must be done by a certain deadline and at a given level of quality and that your team is the resource you manage to make all of that possible.
For this reason, managers are often quite tactical, and very few provide any longer-term career guidance to their employees. When I ask my clients and community when they last had a career discussion with their boss, you would be surprised by how often the answer is “a year ago” or “never.”
A number of my past companies claimed that a manager’s role included doing some degree of mentoring. But let’s be honest, how many of us can claim that many of our past bosses were great mentors, when only 18 percent of managers have a “high degree” for managing talent?
The ability to mentor is a skill that will serve you well as you seek to advance your career into leadership. While introversion may cause you to avoid small group discussions, the deeper one-on-one conversations required for mentorship will feel more natural and comfortable.
Embrace these types of relationships that play to your natural inclinations, rather than behaving as if you’re just managing some amorphous team, and your career will benefit.
7. Public Speaking vs. Small Talk
The very common fear of public speaking is shared by introverts and extroverts alike. However, a number of famous introverts are great public speakers (for example, former president Barack Obama). I often talk about the importance of public speaking for advancing your career, but I’m not going to tell you overcoming that fear is easy. It takes a lot of work and a great deal of practice, practice, practice.
Mastering public speaking will have a huge impact on your career growth. Warren Buffett, the world’s wealthiest introvert, once told a class of business students that he would pay anyone in the room $100,000 for 10 percent of their future earnings. If they were good communicators, he would raise his bid by 50 percent because public speaking would make his “investment” more valuable.
Some of your introverted superpowers can actually help you become a great public speaker. There is more to giving a great speech than simply jumping up onto the stage with a big smile and a booming voice. Introverts have no problem going off alone to conduct hours of research and deep preparation and perform endless rounds of practice to nail down their timing and delivery.
Introverts are also comfortable with the focus of a talk being on the key message, not themselves. This was my breakthrough moment with public speaking. Like many others, I had a deep fear of public speaking for most of my life. But I finally learned that it was really a fear of two separate yet related issues.
The first was a fear of failure. Nobody wants to bomb and make a fool of themselves in a very public setting. But the risk of failure can be overcome with mostly solitary preparation and practice, which any introvert is comfortable with doing.
The second issue was my introverted discomfort with networking and small talk. I had associated public speaking with an image of group discussion and audience Q&A. Participating in a number of public speaking events made me realize that it has almost nothing in common with the typical discomfort associated with these awkward networking events and discussions.
The focus instead was on the carefully prepared message and information that I wanted to share with the audience. I was delivering my uninterrupted speech from a distance, up on a stage, not trying to get a word in edgewise among a group of strangers clustered around the loudest voice in the circle. The experience was liberating, and I quickly began to enjoy it.
As an introvert, it is so much easier to speak to an audience than trying to have a group discussion with other people.
Embrace Your Introversion
Pretending to be something you are not isn’t a recipe for long-term career success. Thankfully, modern companies are evolving and recognizing that successful teams are composed of a diverse population of people. It is also becoming increasingly clear that introverted leaders can provide the type of coaching leadership that so many employees need.
Take stock of your own hidden powers of introversion. How can you best leverage them to design a more fulfilling career path? Are there companies that recognize the unique value you can bring to their organization as an introverted leader and provide you with a great opportunity?
In the end, we all want to focus our time and energy on the things we’re great at and enjoy doing in order to be more successful. Take complete ownership of your career path, and you will be able to shape your future and play to your strengths of introversion to make that come true.