How to be an introverted leaderFeatured

“If you don’t speak up in the next 10 minutes, I’m going to call on you and ask for your opinion.” I received this text message from my CEO (and boss) during an executive offsite. We were 20 minutes into the kickoff, and the executive team was discussing what they were afraid of and excited about in the coming six to 12 months. The people who enjoyed voicing their opinions in these types of discussions had already covered everything that I was both nervous about and looking forward to (multiple times, in fact), and I value efficiency over talking just to talk, so I stayed quiet. This was in line with the recurring feedback I kept getting from my CEO--speak up more, contribute more to discussions and conversations, have an opinion. But I kept thinking, there must be another way for me to demonstrate leadership. I’m an introvert. I think to speak; most of our executive team spoke to think. So how do you lead effectively without the dynamic, charismatic, unafraid-to-speak-in-front-of-groups qualities that most executives possess? How do you inspire trust and confidence as an introvert?First, a brief look at the difference between introverts and extroverts: introverts work better alone, extroverts work better in groups. Introverts think to speak, extroverts speak to think. Introverts love deep 1:1 conversations, extroverts like to have brief interactions with a lot of people. Introverts prefer writing, extroverts prefer talking. When we think about famous CEOs and executives, we think about people who are comfortable walking into a room and owning it, we think about charisma, charm, confidence; people who can sell a vision to investors, business partners, public markets. We think about people who are social butterflies, who are completely magnetic in a room full of others. We don’t think of introverts. Interestingly, valuing extroversion as a leadership trait is relatively new--it began in the early 1900s. One of my favorite books on this topic, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, notes: “America shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality--and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover. In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. Every American was to become a performing self.” However, there is a lot of research that shows that the best leaders are, in fact, introverts. The best leaders have been described as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated.” As Jim Collins, a famous management theorist, once said, “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run.”Okay, so the evidence shows that introverts are effective leaders. But how do they stand up to the extroverted leaders that dominate successful companies today? I’ll share some tips, but in general you should ask yourself: how can I maximize my introvert qualities; not how can I learn to be more extroverted? Here are some things that have worked for me: Lean in to your natural desire to have meaningful 1:1 conversations . One of the most helpful things my coach ever said to me was, “there is no trust without voice.” Meaning--how can your fellow executives, teammates, and employees trust you if they don’t ever hear your decision-making rationale that highlights how you use your judgment? The fallacy is that you need to be talking all the time, or only in group meetings. You don’t. But you do need to build trust and you do need to learn how to walk people through your thought processes. I’ve found that 1:1 conversations are the best forums for me to do this. A format that continues to work for me in 1:1s with team members is: 1. What do I need them to know?, 2. What do they need me to know?, 3. Are there things they’d like to workshop together?, 4. Feedback (both positive and critical). Ask for structure and be prepared . One of my least favorite weekly meetings for a while at one of my previous employers was the weekly leadership meeting. When I joined, it was unstructured, which led to the people with the loudest voices sucking the oxygen out of the room and dominating the conversation with things that mattered most to them. I often sat there thinking, this diatribe is useful for at most three people in this room, why are we all an audience for this? I may have an opinion on the topic but it doesn’t really matter because I’m not an informed stakeholder. So, we created structure. It went through months of iteration before it got to the most productive state, but we finally got there. And as an introvert, I felt so much better knowing exactly what I’d be asked to share to the team. I made sure I was a “subject matter expert” on all of my updates so that I’d have answers to tough questions. BS-ing something on the spot is not a strength of mine, so having all of the information I needed prior to the meeting was hugely important. Relatedly, carve out specific time for prep . In my current role as COO, I have to give the revenue and business operations updates in our weekly team All Hands. This isn’t something I take lightly--employees look to leaders to know how to feel, and the way you deliver messages to the team is hugely important. Because I’m not a natural talker in group meetings, I have 30 minutes blocked on my calendar before every All Hands to prepare. If I’m delivering really important updates, like quarterly revenue reports or annual goals, I will literally write word for word what I would want to say out loud if I could do it perfectly. Writing it down is extremely helpful, not only to be able to articulate what I want to say ahead of time, but I am part of a remote team and do videoconferencing, so I can actually read what I wrote while I’m talking. And, bonus, I’ve basically already written the recap email that I was probably going to send after the meeting. Use written communication to your advantage . Most introverts prefer to write vs. talk; however, you’ve likely noticed that written communication is a lost art form. Most people aren’t naturally great at it or they don’t prioritize it. They do still recognize good written communication when they see it though, and I can’t tell you how many times people have complimented, or even included in a performance review, my written communication skills. Now recognizing that this is both a unique talent and something that’s valuable to most organizations, I find as many opportunities as I can to engage in written communication. I send meeting prep emails, I send thorough recap emails, I can master internal communications regarding big announcements (good or bad), if I want to advocate for something (resources, a decision I feel strongly about, a team member), I’ll send an email before I schedule a meeting to discuss it. Anytime I need to persuade someone, I do it via email. I also ask that my team do the same--if they need me to make a decision about something, I need to have the information in writing. Part of me wanted to implement the Jeff Bezos memo policy across the last company I worked for but I never ended up doing it. Maybe it’ll happen with this one! Design your meetings and your workspace to be ideal for your introversion . There’s actually a lot of emerging research that shows that the open office plan is counterproductive in many ways. If you’ve been in a mid-size or large tech company office recently, you’ve probably seen the awkwardly large solo phone/work booths dotted around the office. That’s because most people, and especially introverts, do their best work alone. There is also so much evidence that shows that brainstorms, group working sessions, etc. are actually detrimental to business outcomes. If you can, don’t hold brainstorms for your team. And if you don’t have the power to make that decision, talk to your manager and ask if you can try a different format for the brainstorm--one that requires people to submit ideas ahead of time, or that begins with a readout of work prepared in advance by each person. And if you’re a stakeholder in office design, try to carve out more spaces for people to do individual work. If you don’t have the ability to impact your office design, either find a quiet place (I used to always work on random couches tucked in remote corners of the office) or use headphones or some other way of signaling that you don’t want to be interrupted. You can also just have an honest conversation with your team about how you like to work.No personality type is hands down better at leadership than another. However, if you’re an introvert in today’s business culture, it’s easy to feel drowned out by the louder, more gregarious, and perhaps more charming extroverts. As someone who felt constant pressure to take on qualities I simply didn’t have, I spent a lot of time working with a coach and doing my own research on what makes a great leader, and trying to determine if those extroverted qualities were crucial to my future success. I’m happy to say that they’re not. What is crucial to good leadership is sound judgment and decision making, excellent communication skills, ability to build trust within teams and across the organization, and a constant understanding of what you know and what you don’t know. Luckily, those are skills anyone can develop. Amy is the COO at Haus, a direct to consumer aperitifs company. As COO, she oversees marketing, HR, finance, and business operations. Prior to joining Haus, she held a number of different roles at Glossier, including Head of Communications, Chief of Staff to the CEO, and Head of Talent. She has spent the past 10 years launching and scaling consumer tech startups and is on a mission to prove that treating employees and customers with kindness and compassion is a winning business strategy. She lives in Los Angeles with her mini Aussie, Lucy, and spends as much time on the beach or in the mountains as possible!Instagram: @asnooks
Thank you for sharing this! You touched on this briefly but I also wonder how the new shift to working from home for many companies has changed the commonly held narrative of extroverts tending to be "more effective" leaders. And ultimately, the general remote culture and the role it'll play in shaping leadership styles.
That's a great question! I've been thinking about this, too. Would be a good topic to write about in a few months :)
So interesting Teresa. As an introvert (INFJ) Founder & CEO of a pre-revenue startup, I am finding this time working from home oddly invigorating. Much more meaningful communication with scheduled time with each team member, and even when on a team call, there is just much more focus and care in the conversations. Plus, I get to work the way I love to work -- going off to a corner (now even more comfortable at home), taking time to understand and weight things out on my own without talking heads asking me what I think with only minutes to spare as @amysnook post started out. I am more effective, my co-founders get more out of me, and I am 100% happier working this way. Of course I hate what brought us home, but now that I'm here, I'm thriving like a potted plant in the window.
This makes me so happy to hear. I definitely resonate with the "going off to a corner" part as my working style, putting on headphones and lounging on a couch seems to be my most productive (albeit not ergonomical) environment.As for video calling, for both personal and professional, I've noticed a clear deliberate pause when people are being talked over (to let the other person speak) instead of continuing to charge forward with a story or point. I've had introverted colleagues reflect upon how this make them feel more comfortable and feel more of "equals" when in discussions together.
I really love this. As an ambivert, I do speak to think, but I dislike being put on the spot, BSing, or having regular unstructured time as you mention. I've found having a thought partner is extremely important, especially around larger projects, which has a side benefit of producing better outcomes (two brains are better than one). Thank you for sharing your approaches - also, LOVE Haus!
Aw, thanks for the kind words about Haus! Glad you like it! And great point on having a thought partner. How do you structure your work with the thought partner?
It can vary, as it's not necessarily a single person in an org. It might be a team that reports to me, or someone I am working cross-functionally with, a manager or other stakeholder. But the time itself is about brainstorming, sharing solutions and talking through potential outcomes or approaches. As much as anything, it's getting a few people in a room/online to talk vs. email/document because that's how I've been able to best achieve results.
Completely agree with you! Working in consulting, there’s a constant need to share opinions and attend meetings. Being an introvert I always anticipate alone time to recharge. Like you mentioned having 1-on-1 meetings and writing down pointers for my meeting has helped me immensely.
This is really terrific -- thank you for writing and sharing this post. I'm a big fan of Susan Cain as well. I'm curious as to how you found the right coach to draw out your strengths?
Nice! Did you read the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"? Would love to hear your favorite part(s), if so! As for my coach, I actually got lucky--I was paired with her through a coaching collective that we worked with at Glossier. If I were looking for a coach now, I'd just think about how I best take feedback--I need someone to be direct, non judgmental, a little assertive/willing to tell me when I'm wrong, but ultimately I need them to be compassionate. I'd do my best to hone in on those traits when doing an intro call, but of course, it can be hard to ascertain all of that with just a first phone call/meeting!
Thank you for this, Amy. I really love this and thank you for reminding me that I'm normal
:))) Glad you enjoyed reading it!
Thank you for sharing, Amy! SO insightful.
This is so reassuring. I'm constantly trying to fit in this mold that I want for myself but because I'm also constantly learning more about my own straits, I find it a constant battle learning how to adapt. I've recently discovered that written communication does give me more structure, allowing me to be more prepared before meetings. I lack the fluent skill of "going with the flow" or "winging it". I also get the feedback that I don't speak up or share my opinions either. I'm going to take a look at the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" that you recommend :) Thank you for sharing!
Awesome! Would love to hear what you think of the book!
Love this - thank you for sharing! I identify with the desire for structure in meetings. I like to know what I need to be prepared to talk about. Meanwhile my partner is a "speak to think" person who's comfortable with unstructured meetings. We're meeting somewhere in the middle. When I used to work in a corporate office, I channeled a more extroverted version of myself on a daily basis, because it felt expected. Nothing more draining.
Thank you so much Amy for sharing! I have definitely received the feedback of "you are not speaking as much as you should in meetings" in the past, but it is exactly as you said, I prefer not to talk when I don't have anything new to add to the conversation, just for the sake of speaking. How have you managed receiving that feedback? There are definitely other ways to shine but what do you do when you are being explicitly asked to speak up?
Great question. First, I tried explaining to the CEO that I don't do my best work when I'm put on the spot in meetings, I'm much better when I have time to process information and think about things. Then, that's where the structure comes into place--I would go into important executive meetings with at least 2-3 things that I knew I wanted to bring to the team so they could see I was participating. And finally, similar to what Nicole mentioned in the comments, I'll ask questions that I hope will bring the group closer to the right answer (if I don't feel that I have the answer myself). Hopefully that helps!
Amy, first of all - thank you. I am literally working through this process with my coach and I was in a conversation with one of my team leads earlier this week, explaining why I was quiet in our last product sync...feeling like I needed to explain, and feeling the struggle of being a female leader and also an introvert...and you just illuminated incredible validation on my experiences, and my own tactical ways of hacking through solutions/survival. My gratitude abounds.Second of all - HAUS is incredible! We actually made a large order and gifted them at Christmas to team members, advisers, and investors. The story of HAUS is inspiring and disruptive. Whatever we can do to continue to support the mission, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly. [email protected]If possible, we would love to bring our investors/advisers out for an off-site. I'm not sure if this is possible, but let me know what you think.
Thank you so much for the kind words! Really glad you like Haus :) We'd definitely be open to hosting your investors/advisors once things start to open up a bit more!
Thank you so much for this! I am entering the phase of my career where I will manage more people and I needed this.
Thanks for this. So often when you are an introvert, you get drowned out by others as you rightly said. I strongly believe leadership is what you make it, you really don't have to fit the mould as long as you know what you are doing, you know your strength and weaknesses and you can work with them to achieve your goals. There is nothing wrong with being different and unique, as long as you can get the job done.
Thanks for sharing Amy! I've enjoyed Haus ever since the first flavor came to the market. Great to see that the company is run by a great COO like you!
Thank YOU for this!♥️
Thank you for putting this topic out there and also for dropping a few books that I have to pick up!
@lauraglu - Your comment took the words from my mouth. I also am an ambivert. I perform better with the ability to prepare (or at least refresh) before a meeting. I do not like to give misinformation, so taking this time is crucial for me to communicate the facts appropriately. I have informally linked with a thought partner in my current position. Large group brainstorming has been ineffective for our team in the past, but taking individual feedback and giving myself time to process it is highly beneficial. Thank you @amysnook for giving those of us who lead with written communication the confidence boost to value our own approach as much as we value louder approaches.
The book Quiet changed the way I saw myself completely. I no longer felt I had to "fit" into the extroverted box to be successful. I'm someone who can lead a project, give a presentation or class to a big crowd without panic, but while rewarding it does exhaust me in a way that other activities don't. If you leave me alone at a networking event or even a non-work party I'll often find myself struggling to get through. However having a small group and doing deep work and 1-1's is something I absolutely get excited about. Thank you for this post!