Hear Me ... Whisper: How to Thrive As an Introverted CEO

Check out these networking survival skills from an executive who hates -- hates -- to mingle
Hear Me ... Whisper: How to Thrive As an Introverted CEO
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7 min read
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If you ever spot me at a networking event, and I’m standing by myself, please come up and say hello. Odds are that you will see me standing there alone. You see, I’m an introvert, and I hate work socials for precisely for that reason.

Related: 12 Low-Cost Business Ideas for Introverts

But networking events are a necessary evil. They provide leaders visibility, interest, proof to employees that their executives are actively engaged and, of course, the chance to make world-changing contacts. So, that's why I'll be at that next event, networking and (usually) hating it.

In sum, I’m here to write that it’s OK to be an introverted CEO. In fact, it’s probably better for many companies if their CEO is an introvert. Many of the most visible, successful CEOs have labelled themselves as introverts, and this group has included the likes ofBill Gates, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak and Warren Buffett. So, "introvert" is hardly the kiss of death.

Research backs this up: Companies with introverted CEOs routinely outperform those of extroverted leaders, according to a study conducted by Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Yet when it comes to executive placements, the odds favor extroverts. A 2006 survey by the Harvard Business Review revealed that being an introvert was viewed as a barrier to leadership by 65 percent of senior corporate executives polled. And, in the same vein, 2017 Sutton Trust survey indicated that extroverts are 25 percent more likely to have higher-earning jobs.

But before you give up on us withdrawn types, consider the following introvert advantages:

We’re excellent listeners.

It makes sense that I’m often asked how an introverted CEO can be successful when the job fundamentally involves a great deal of external communication. The truth is, introverts extract energy from solitude and introspection, feeding on internal thoughts instead of seeking external stimulation.

Related: How, Even As an Introvert, I Still Learned to Close Sales

Specifically: Introverts “typically dislike noise, interruptions, and big group settings. They instead tend to prefer quiet solitude, time to think before speaking (or acting), and building relationships and trust one-on-one,” Harvard Business School behavioral scientist Francesca Gino explained in 2015.

As an introvert, I can confirm that all that's true. We tend to be very good listeners, so we don’t usually take over meetings. That’s a very good quality of a leader, because there’s a natural tendency within organizations to just do what leaders say. Plus, when introverted leaders do talk, what they say tends to mean more.

In fact, a 2008 study found that people who lean more toward introversion process information more slowly than extroverts do. But slow can be a good thing: Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, wrote that introverts actually process new information in a more thoughtful manner than extroverts, meaning that they develop stronger synaptic bonds with new information and have a deeper understanding.

Which leads to a key point: I can learn an awful lot by listening; the reason is that it’s really hard to learn when I’m talking a lot. Indeed, as Google career coach Jenny Blake said in this video, one advantage that many introverts have is that they thrive on deep, one-on-one conversations.

Our strong, quiet power can be powerful.

Susan Cain, whose 2012 TED talk The Power of Introverts became legendary in some circles, including my own (yes, introverts have social circles!), again eloquently addressed the subject in her popular book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

To be sure, being an introvert is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s something to take pride in. Just take a look at this list of nearly two dozen famous introverts in history (my favorite quote here: Dr. Seuss "was afraid of meeting the kids who read his books for fear they would be disappointed at how quiet he was."). More great quotes about introverted leaders:

  • Former Campbell Soup Company CEO Doug Conant, now the head of leadership think tank ConantLedership: “Take the next interaction as an opportunity to help. Ask the right question or help a team become more committed. Now think about what would happen if you did that three times a week or a thousand times a year.”
  • Mahatma Gandhi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
  • LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren: “Changing the status quo," said Holmgren, "is reason enough for me to get up and speak or to spend an evening at a dinner party.”

Holmgren’s line provides inspiration for me whenever I have to attend a networking event. After years of forcing myself to attend these gatherings, I’ve developed several time-tested tips that reduce the agony of professional networking. Here are six of them:

Accept networking as a necessary evil. Networking always starts out as a chore, but so do going to the gym and doing laundry. Both are worth the effort and hassle, and when you’re done, you can say you’ve accomplished something.

Research who will be in the room. I feel a lot better armed when I go into an event with intelligence and potential discussion topics. I have  the sense that I’m meeting with friendlies instead of total unknowns. This makes the room a lot less intimidating.

Bring a “crutch” (i.e., colleagues or friends) to soften your entry. I’m more grounded in the company of a known entity, which in turn gives me the energy to expand to meet new people -- which is what I’m ultimately there to do.

Ask contacts for introductions. A warm handshake from a friend who knows what I’m interested in opens the door to far more interesting conversations -- and business opportunities.

Arm yourself with conversation starters. Yes, introverts hate small talk (I can’t believe anybody actually likes it, to be honest). But conversation-starters aren’t all that hard. One piece of advice I try to follow is to get people to talk about themselves. I also like asking what people are passionate about, as that means I don’t have to talk much. Compliments can work too, but stay away from comments about personal appearance, as they can be easily misconstrued.

Hang out by the bar or the food. It’s a natural place to strike up conversation, with the obvious bonus of easy access to food, drinks -- and, in many cases, the exit. 

In networking situations, I’m often impressed by the nature of attendees who, in contrast to me, are extroverted: I watch them glide effortlessly through small groups and instantly engage in conversations. Still, you know what? I wouldn’t trade my nature for theirs.

Related: How to Find an Introvert-Friendly Work Culture

In fact, I'd like to tell you why that is, in person. All you have to do is come up and say hi at our next mutual networking event. Trust me: I'll have plenty to say.

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