Is there room for introverts at the top?
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The surprising upside to an introvert as boss. (Credit: PhotoAlto/Alamy)

Introverts, as lawyer turned best-selling author Susan Cain explained in her 2012 book Quiet, are people who gain energy from being alone.

In business, this means they often excel in roles that require solitary thought with minimum contact — such as coding or creating spreadsheet analyses.

But leadership? Today’s leaders seem to be required to schmooze clients and deliver TED-style inspirational talks. Is there a place for introverts at the top?  

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Doug Conant is proof that there is. An affable American who’s been chief executive officer of Campbell’s Soup and president of the Nabisco Foods Company and is now the chairman of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute is also a self-identified introvert.

But that doesn’t mean being a quiet, reflective type has been an easy mix with the corner office.

“Being an introvert has been a challenge all my career,” he said. “The world tends to favour those who engage and speak out in a clearly visible way and I tend to sit back and be reflective and look for the appropriate time to make a comment and try to connect.”

Coming out

Early in his career Conant realised that his introvert tendencies were holding him back. For instance, rather than make direct comments at meetings, he’d wait until afterwards to discuss his thoughts with the people involved, which had far less impact.

But rather than hide his true personality and pretend to be an extrovert, Conant learned to take the opposite tack and, in his words, “come out” as an introvert.

High-profile leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are well-known introverts

“I tried to let people know ‘this is me.’ And I found that as I made myself more vulnerable people just said ‘oh, no problem, you’re just an introvert,’” he said.  “It made everything easier because people understood what I was like.”

Conant didn’t hide away in his office when big decisions were needed, but his revelation meant people understood why he was reserved and they worked with his personality rather than dismiss it — or him.

It was a smart move, according to Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together. Unless colleagues realise they have an introvert leader, there’s the risk they might wrongly see them as distant, aloof and self-regarding.

High-flyer Doug Conant is a self-identified introvert. (Credit: ConantLeadership)

High-flyer Doug Conant is a self-identified introvert. (Credit: ConantLeadership)

“Because their faces might not really be showing much, and they might not talk as much as others, people can believe introverts are often angry, or bored,” Kahnweiler explained. “Introverted women have a particularly tough time because they’re expected to be the ‘friendly outgoing leader,’ even if that’s not the way they feel.”

What makes an introvert?

Psychologist Carl Jung first identified introvert and extrovert personality types back in 1921. He defined extroverts as people that find energy in the external world, while introverts find it within.

We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.

His work was adapted by mother/daughter psychologist team Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in 1942. This test, which uses a questionnaire to define personality type on a Jung-inspired spectrum, is still widely used by businesses today.

Jung believed that we alternate between introvert and extrovert behaviours. So, while we might chat with friends round the water cooler we also shut ourselves off to finish a project.

However, despite this flexibility the latest neuro-scientific research suggests that our tendency towards introversion or extroversion is hard-wired at birth.

In Quiet, Cain reports on a study by scientist Dr Carl Schwartz that “highly-reactive” babies — those more sensitive to external stimuli — tend to turn into more introverted adults, while those that react less are more outgoing as they grow up.

So, although introverts can learn to be more extroverted, and vice versa, it seems we can’t change our core personality.

“We are elastic and can stretch ourselves,” she wrote, “but only so much.”

Modern technology eases the way

The assumption that quiet types make poor leaders is changing, as more high-flyers admit to being introverts. 

Extroverts need to see you speaking in order to be inspired.

High-profile leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are well-known introverts and even American Republican-party presidential candidate Jeb Bush confessed he was “kinda introverted” in a recent interview with cable news channel CNN.

The technologies that Gates and Zuckerberg and promote have helped create has made it easier for introvert leaders to communicate effectively. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and various messaging apps have made it easier to interact directly without the face-to-face element that many introverts often find uncomfortable.

Kathryn Hall, the UK-based CEO of business consultancy, Business of Introverts, said that she “wouldn’t be running a business if the internet didn’t exist now.” 

“Connecting with clients on social media or sending them an email seems much more doable for introverts [like herself],” she said. “Just being able to do a bit more from behind the computer screen gives introverted people a lot more scope to connect in a considered way, and be heard, that doesn’t seem too scary.”

A dose of extroversion

But when you’re running a company or a team, technology can’t replace face-to-face contact altogether, Conant said.

“If you want to be a leader, you’ve just got to get out there and be with people,” he said. “Extroverts need to see you speaking in order to be inspired.”

This is the real challenge introvert leaders face everyday: how do you connect with extroverts while staying true to your authentic self? Conant is a big fan of finding an excuse to put yourself in situations that stretch your personality, but aren’t overwhelming.

For example, in his last role he wore a pedometer as an excuse to walk around the office. It was good low-impact way to meet people, without the pressure of a formal meeting.

Finding ways to build in the reflection period that introverts thrive on is also smart. When organising brainstorming meetings, allowing thinking time between the meeting and collectively making the decision makes sense, Kahnweiler said.

As for public speaking, well, even many extroverts find that tough. A good public speaking course can help, while Conant also recommends making sure you’re ultra-familiar with the material and have something to focus on, like slides or notes, to anchor you in the moment so you don’t lose track.

Julien Prest, French-born creator of introvert business blog Un Monde Pour Les Introvertis, previously led a team of 20 people. To get around his introversion and present himself more strongly as a leader, he said he played to certain strengths.

“I worked to reduce the number of big meetings I was in and have far more one-on-one talks, which I felt more comfortable with as an introvert,” he said. “I knew that I was not the best at big meetings — but people appreciated me for other skills, which I think are part of being an introvert, such as my ability to listen and understand other people’s problems.”

When he had to lead or attend a big meeting or make a presentation, Prest made sure he had plenty of rejuvenating quiet time to give him energy.  It’s almost like a form of mindfulness meditation, which introverts are naturally attuned to. It’s a method Conant uses, as well.

“I always woke up early in the morning and had some quiet time before I would see my children for breakfast,” Conant said.

“Then, when I was CEO I had a two hour drive to work and would take those two hours to get ready for my day in the quiet of the car. It was like putting on my battle armour for the day — and when I did that it felt like I could face anything.”

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