Most people who know me would be surprised to learn I’m an introvert.
As the CEO and face of my company, I spend ample time giving speeches and attending networking events. And yet, I can feel the energy drain out from me when I’m the center of attention. Yes, I begrudgingly take the spotlight when it’s best for the business. But my closest associates know that I don’t even like telling people when it’s my birthday, for fear of all the fuss and attention.
People commonly believe extroverts make the best business leaders, with assertive CEOs like Jack Welch and Larry Ellison being the stereotypical models. And, in many ways, extroverts make fantastic executives: They’re action-oriented and project optimism and confidence. They’re eager to talk with employees, shareholders and media. They form friendships quickly and readily inspire trust.
Yet research indicates introverts have their own strengths: in fact, 40 percent of top-level executives share this trait with me. A Harvard Business School study even suggests introverted managers excel at leading proactive employees. Famous introverts like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos have not only achieved great success, but have disrupted their chosen fields.
So how can introvert leaders thrive alongside extroverts: By leaning on their natural strengths and leveraging the talent of those around them to fill in the gaps.
Harnessing the power of listening
Listening is a critical skill that comes more easily when you spend less time talking. I’m not just talking about hearing someone’s words—a good listener pays attention to the deeper message that’s not being said, and develops empathy for the person speaking.
This can pay deep dividends inside businesses. At Apple, Tim Cook was once the quiet, behind-the-scenes vice-president who left the limelight to Steve Jobs. An introvert by nature, Cook was an adept listener who knew how to read his famously hard-headed boss, and when to disagree. This built the kind of trust that enabled Apple to move so quickly and decisively during the wildly innovative stretch when the iPod, iPhone and iPad were all unveiled.
Empathy extends outside the company, too. My business would not exist without it. I was a home builder in 1999, and on one project my clients had become frustrated with the delays. They were stuck living in a hotel because our supplier couldn’t get their floors in on time. I felt their desperation and decided to create a website where customers could order building supplies as easily as they could buy books or their favorite CDs.
Looking inward for original solutions
Introverted CEOs often spend more time examining their own thoughts, as well as the companies they lead. This can translate into more willingness to explore unconventional fixes. At times, I think this can be a huge advantage.
Take introverted serial entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, whose personal mantra is to “constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” Musk’s insistence that an all-electric car could take the market by storm – when the biggest car companies were still focused on hybrids – is a testament to his powerfully original thinking. The Tesla 3 has a years-long waiting list in large part because Musk looked inward for a solution, rather than going along with the crowd.
On a personal level, I’m generally slow to speak or act. Some might call this a liability, but I think it sometimes helps me see solutions other might miss. During the housing market crash in 2008, for example, my company went from a $50-million run-rate to $20-million overnight. No outside investor would brave the historic financial storm to rescue us. The conventional solution would have been to downsize, seek a buyout or just close shop. But I looked inward and discovered our own rescue plan hidden in the unique way we collected data. We pivoted, realizing that data—not product like flooring and faucets—would take us forward.
Finding a yin to your yang
At Facebook, famously introverted founder Mark Zuckerberg prefers to focus on the analytical side of the website and platform, leaving his more outgoing COO Sheryl Sandberg to build the business and cultivate connections with advertisers. This relationship has been critical to the network’s sustained growth and, arguably, to the improved popular perception of Facebook in recent years.
What’s important here is that Zuckerberg was able to recognize his strengths as an introvert … and also his weaknesses. And rather than trying to “fake” the essential public-facing parts of his leadership role, he found someone eminently capable to fill in the gaps. I think this kind of honest reckoning is important for introvert CEOs. We’re not going to be good at everything; so it’s key we find trusted colleagues who can complement our shortcomings.
I have exactly this kind of relationship with my co-founder, Rob Banks. Rob is a natural storyteller, and he’s always jetting off to build relationships with suppliers around the world. Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time thinking about the people and culture within our company, as well as analyzing the numbers. This dynamic allows me to lean into my strengths as an introvert, rather than always having to play the role of pseudo-extrovert.
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying introverts or extroverts necessarily make better leaders. In fact, every leader should be able to move between these two roles, even if one happens to be more comfortable. There are times I do need to give speeches or talk to reporters: I don’t always love it, but I’ve learned how to be good at it because it’s part of the job. My point is simply that introverts bring unique (and sometimes overlooked) value to the business world, in the depth of their relationships and the thoughtful way they process the world. As leaders, we can thrive by leaning on these qualities and treating them as strengths, rather than looking at them simply as barriers to be overcome.
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