Introverts at the Top

When CEO Tim Miller needed a $10 million dollar infusion for his young software development company.

When CEO Tim Miller needed a $10 million dollar infusion for his young software development company, Rally Software Development Corp., he went to a group of potential investors and nailed his pitch — or so he thought. He didn’t get the money, the investors later told him, because his presentation was “all steak and no sizzle.” Miller later admitted to The Wall Street Journal that “I didn’t create the excitement that they were used to seeing.” Miller requested and received another crack at it, but this time he brought along some reinforcements: the company’s head salesman and its charismatic founder. The company got its $10 million.

Miller is a self-described introvert in a business world that worships extroverts. Characteristic extrovert behaviors such as talkativeness, assertiveness and over-the-top enthusiasm are associated with bold, charismatic leadership, while introverts are widely deemed not to be leadership material.

This perspective is reinforced in American culture at large, according to author Susan Cain: “As a society, we prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable and even smarter than slow ones. This does us all a grave disservice.”

Subscribing to that view, a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal argued that when one measures actual performance rather than observers’ perceptions of efficacy, introverts prove to be more effective than extroverts at leading the kind of actively engaged employees that most companies value. The study, led by Adam Grant, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, offered evidence showing that introverts are more thoughtful, empathetic and better able to see other points of view. They are good listeners and prefer to use one-on-one persuasion to build commitment to ideas. They are also more likely to be self-critical and more realistic in their self-assessments. These are all desirable characteristics, the study concluded, for those proposing to lead 21st century organizations: “As organizational life becomes more dynamic and unpredictable, it has become increasingly difficult for leaders to succeed by merely developing and presenting their visions top-down to employees. Leaders who are introverted will be more receptive to bottom-up behaviors.”

Introversion — as defined by The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions — is simply the tendency to draw energy from directing oneself inward toward concepts and ideas rather than outward toward people and objects, as an extrovert does. In fact, studies that measure cerebral blood flow show that introverts generally have more activity in areas of the brain associated with problem solving and planning, while extroverts show more activity in regions that interpret incoming sensory data.

Although most of us display at least some introverted characteristics, born introverts constitute by various estimates somewhere between 15 and 50 percent of the population. Studies show that introverted children are more evaluative of their surroundings, more cautious and conscientious, take in information more completely, make more connections with that information, work more accurately and concentrate better. Their inward bent causes them to gravitate toward what psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” the dogged, individual pursuit of mastering a task, which is a key predictor of high achievement.

Despite their many leadership advantages, however, introverts can find themselves at odds with some aspects of leading. Although introversion is not the same thing as shyness, and does not necessarily imply social reticence, the outer-directedness that leadership often requires is not the introvert’s preferred mode. Laurie Helgoe, author of “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength,” explained it this way: “As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player and to make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source.”

Douglas Conant, the recently retired president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, described that phenomenon in an April 2011 Harvard Business Review blog: “As CEO of a company with more than 18,000 employees, I’ve found myself particularly challenged because so much of my work requires me to be ‘out there’ in front of others. After I’ve been in a social situation — including a long day at work — I need quiet time to be alone with my thoughts and recharge.” Conant went on to say that he has found it helpful to be frank with his colleagues about his nature and preferences.

Other self-admitted introverted leaders describe similar hurdles and coping strategies. For instance, Dennis Muzza, a senior project manager at Infosys, was often quiet in groups, but found that colleagues interpreted his active, thoughtful silence as aloofness or having poor communication skills. Now he simply emphasizes other forms of communication: “I find I can get my ideas across much more easily in writing than getting them heard in a meeting. My direct reports have also found that I am a lot more approachable via e-mail or instant messaging and have gotten used to communicating with me that way.”

There is a lesson in Cook’s unapologetic perspective. Although a welter of management literature and executive development dogma still peddles the notion that introverted qualities are flaws in need of correction, it may be those very qualities that provide the best basis from which to enable emergent solutions. In fact, Grant’s report went so far as to suggest it is the extroverted among us who may need to change a bit: “In settings and situations where proactive suggestions are important, leaders who naturally tend to be assertive may wish to adopt a more reserved, quiet style.” 

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