Coach’s Challenge for 11-3-13 “Introverts As Leaders”

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about introverts and their ability to lead and manage others.

Our culture fosters a misconception that people who are introverted by nature do not make good leaders or even know how to manage others. This idea comes from years of conditioning by extroverted leaders who naturally know how to actively persuade and direct others. Take Bill Clinton, for example; he’s a classic extroverted leader. Whether you agree with his politics or not, you can’t argue that he does have a talent for being able to influence large numbers of people through highly persuasive public speaking and politics. Although some people found his behaviors to be questionable while he was in office, there was no doubt that he could lead people to get what he wanted and generally brought both parties together to reach agreements.

There are many good examples of extroverted politicians and leaders, but highly introverted people are usually not in that same category. Introverts are usually more analytical than verbal. They tend to avoid risk and conflict. They don’t tend to be natural cheer leaders or aggressive sales people. We might describe them as “nerds,” and we rarely think of them as people who can lead the charge, rally the troops or inspire the team.

This is an inaccurate perception, however. In fact, I work with many introverted leaders. They bring their special talents and thoughtfulness to the team with just as much ability to influence and inspire, but they do it differently than their extroverted team mates. They often wait until the rest of the team has argued about an issue before they offer their solutions. Their enthusiasm and passion about a product, process or service offering might show up in the way they share innovative ideas or their ability to help others figure out how to get things done. They inspire trust through sincerity and authenticity rather than by impress others. And they often make others feel comfortable enough to openly share new ideas as well as adhere to processes to get things done.

While the extroverts cheer the team on, the introverts deliver the goods. An introverted leader will influence the overall team and company results by helping the cheerleaders figure out how to deliver a solution. In this way, an introverted leader or manager is a great example for the other introverts on the team.

I have one client who told me, “I often don’t say anything in meetings. I’ll have a thought, but then the analytical part of me talks me out of saying it because it doesn’t add enough value to the meeting.” When his boss gave him feedback that he needed to speak up more, he couldn’t think of anything very useful to say. This often happens to introverts. They have extensive internal filtering systems and will lose an opportunity in the moment to share because they’ve filtered out the idea or are not fast enough in their response. Of course, it’s also aggravating for them to sit through lengthy meetings where the extraverts seem to talk just to hear themselves speak.

Dwight Merriman, chairman and co-founder of Mongo DB and DoubleClick, is a self-proclaimed introvert. He thinks it’s a myth that most CEOs are extroverts. In a recent New York Times interview, he spoke about his leadership style as an introvert.

“I think my style is pretty plainspoken and non-hype — and to be transparent. Some people might be sincere, but you don’t feel that air of transparency because they’re too busy selling and everything is pitched with an extra 10 percent.”

When asked about public speaking, which is often an introvert’s greatest fear, he said, “I think 95 percent of the time you can get past [your fear of public speaking] with sheer brute force. I remember public-speaking class in college. I really didn’t want to do it. But today, when I give talks to 1,000 people, I’m not nervous at all. I think you get used to it. You just have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.”

In referring to ways he thinks he can improve, Merriman said, “I don’t give people enough positive feedback and praise. That’s an example of how I’m not a natural-born awesome manager. Even though I might be thinking it, I’ll just fail to vocalize it. You get busy and distracted with meetings and running from here to there, and it’s hard to stay mindful of things like that.”

Because he is a naturally shy person, Merriman says he is much more comfortable with one-on-one short conversations and prefers using e-mail for minor communications. When it comes to giving more difficult feedback, however, he always uses face-to-face meetings where the awareness of body language is important.

In their book “Strengths-Based Leadership,” Tom Rath and Barry Conchie profile Brad Anderson, the CEO of Best Buy, and outline his five top strengths. Anderson is a great example of a highly introverted leader who identified his strengths and built a company around them. He spent much of his childhood in libraries, loving the process of studying what made things work and generating lots of ideas. When he started Best Buy, he wanted to create a company of people who knew more about the products they sold than their competition. This idea of expertise was his value proposition, and he built the company’s culture around it. As it turned out, much of Best Buy’s success has been because it has the most knowledgeable sales people in the industry. It’s a great example of how an introverted leader used his strengths to build a profitable business, rather than trying to act like an extrovert.

Rath and Conchie describe Anderson this way: “As much as Anderson’s look and demeanor may not fit the conventional CEO mold, his actions and personality wander even farther off the beaten path. Yet, over the past 25 years, Anderson took an unknown regional electronics store and helped make it into the largest consumer electronics retailer in America. The amazing story of his career’s trajectory is only overshadowed by the organization’s performance during his tenure.”

They described him looking and acting more like a history professor than a CEO. And yet, they also wrote that his sincerity and level of warmth make him one of the most approachable people they’d ever met and that the employees of Best Buy love him for that. In fact, it inspires them to be that way with their customers.

If you’re an introvert by nature, think of ways this week that you can maximize your more quiet and thoughtful ways. Perhaps you notice that you bring a level of calmness into a meeting that makes others relax and feel more like participating. Maybe your analytical disposition allows you to study a problem for a long time and come up with good solutions for the team. Don’t be afraid to share those ideas, even after all the extroverts have expressed their thoughts. Consider taking a public speaking class so that you can learn to speak more comfortably in front of groups. Your approach will be different than someone who naturally does well in front of a crowd, but that won’t make you less effective. It will just be a difference in style.

What strengths do you bring to the table and how can you showcase them best? That’s the real question. No one expects any of us to be great at all things, and each of us needs to find the areas where we add the most value. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all lead and managed others in the same way. Build your management and leadership styles around your strengths as Anderson did at Best Buy. Not only will you be happier doing it in your own signature style, but others will see your authenticity. Studies have shown that people feel more encouraged following a leader who they see as being true to themselves rather than trying to act like someone they’re not. And that’s as true for introverts as it is for extroverts.

When Rath and Conchie asked Anderson how he was able to provide leadership for more than 150,000 Best Buy employees, Anderson described the critical role of his self-awareness and authenticity. While he may not be a natural at working a room or chatting up a store full of front-line employees, he has developed a unique way of connecting with Best Buy employees, customers and shareholders. He simply asks great questions.

You can lead others in a number of more introverted ways. Find your particular style — what really works best for you — and try that out with your employees this week. You may not influence the team like Bill Clinton would, but if you can be true to yourself, people will want to follow your authenticity and unique strengths.

Have a good week!
*Note: For more information on this subject, there’s a wonderful new book entitled “Quiet”, by Susan Cain that I highly recommend.

Kathleen

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