Can you be an introverted CEO?

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The world’s stereotypical definition of a successful CEO is perhaps half Jack Welsh (polished, organized) and half Richard Branson (brash, outspoken, charismatic).  CEOs are supposed to be outdoor cats – comfortable representing their peers in the wild, spending large numbers of hours selling the company and the stock.  Essentially, it’s a people job, right?  So how do you operate as a CEO if you are an introvert?

I’m squarely an introvert by any definition.  But I’m not uncomfortable around people and I work hard to be an effective communicator.  Remember, the definition of an introvert is not someone who is shy or nervous around people. It is a person who is energized by being alone and whose energy can be drained by being around others.  How can one be a leader of people and be an introvert at the same time?

Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that help me:

  • Work on your public speaking:  Fortunately my parents had me do a bunch of debate and extemporaneous speaking contests when I was young. It helps enormously as CEO – to have the confidence to get up in front of a large crowd and discuss any subject without enormous preparation.  Like any learned skill, public speaking can be learned with practice and it matters as a CEO.  Its worth joining Toastmasters or forcing yourself into uncomfortable public-speaking situations to gain practice.
  • Surround yourself with enough extroverts at work: The demands on your time to participate in events, speak to people or sell will always outpace the amount of time in a day. And because you often don’t derive energy from those activities – you need people who do. I have the benefit of an executive team with enough extroverts to represent the company effectively. This provides a level of balance to my life that helps enormously.
  • Reserve enough “think time:” I’ve found, especially for an introvert that derives energy from thinking, that if you overschedule yourself – it not only means that you may not be using your time wisely, but that you are not giving yourself enough time to recharge and gain energy. I’ve tried hard to give myself enough unscheduled time to problem-solve, think, read or write.  (My philosophy on time management)
  • Learn the “cold start:” Among the hardest things for an introvert to tackle is the cold start. It’s actually a lot easier to present in front of a room of 5,000 people than to walk up to 10 people and start shooting the breeze. The cold start (i.e. what do you say first) can be among the most challenging things for an introvert. To try to improve in this area – I pushed myself in 2008 to do some cold-calling on behalf of the Obama presidential campaign. It forced me to get on the phone and start a conversation with someone I did not know in Nevada (and ultimately try to get him or her to stay on the phone with me and vote for Obama).  My cold starts (and my selling skills) improved enormously.
  • Spend a lot of one-to-one time and be approachable: Because you are unlikely to be the person who hangs out a ton with folks after work, it’s important that you reach people in other ways. One-to-one time, with the right set of folks, is a valuable way to do that and far easier for an introvert.  Often, I don’t do it in scheduled ways – but will rather have multiple, short, frequent conversations with folks on the team. It keeps me in touch with them and them in touch with me, and it’s super easy as an introvert to pull off.  Doing everything possible to approachable matters too – joining social events, sitting in an open floor plan or being responsive to email from anyone anytime.

The good news is, as an introvert you’ll bring a lot of good things to the table as CEO that compensate for the skills you may not have.  You’ll often be a pretty good listener.  You’ll often be able to use your think time to create impactful results for your company and your team. You’ll reach other introverts more effectively because you’ll understand that not everyone naturally speaks up. You’ll make sure you’re balanced as a CEO, spending an appropriate amount of time as an inside cat to make sure your house is in order before you start prowling outside.

Can you be a successful introverted CEO?  Absolutely, just ask Larry Page or Bill Gates, both noted introverts.  In fact, four in 10 CEOs are introverts. And that’s not an accident.

Image from Jacksonville zoo meetup by fdbryant3 licensed under CC by 2.0

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