Last Updated Oct 12, 2011 6:14 PM EDT
The high-tech industry is full of successful executives and managers at all levels that don't fit the conventional mold of the bold, outgoing leader. They're introverts. Their time has come. And not just in the tech industry, either.
I'm far from alone in this hypothesis. The fascinating thing about it is that most introverts in management positions have the mistaken impression that it's an impediment to their career growth and success. In reality, it isn't.
According to a TheLadders.com survey of over 1,500 senior managers, two thirds felt introversion hurt their chances for continuing to climb the corporate ladder. Well, according to a Wall Street Journal article, several professors, a mountain of anecdotal evidence, and my own analysis, their concerns are all in their heads.
Why It's Time For Introverted Managers to Shine
1. The Anecdotal Evidence Is Overwhelming
The article points to a number of successful introverted entrepreneurs and CEOs, including Google's Larry Page, Campbell Soup's Douglas Conant, and Ian Cook of Colgate-Palmolive, but I can add plenty to that list. For every extraverted Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Larry Ellison, I can name an introverted Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Charles Schwab.
Believe it or not, most of the successful CEOs and entrepreneurs I've worked with over the past 30 years have been introverts, and not just a little, either. One CEO confided that he was so painfully shy as a youth that he would nearly pass out from fear if he had to speak up in class. And yet, the man had the courage to continually confront his fear, challenge himself, and break out of his comfort zone. And he's still doing it, even though he could have retired a wealthy man long ago.
2. Technology Is the Catalyst
According to the article, Adam M. Grant, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, points out that "introverts can be better bosses," especially in a dynamic and unpredictable environment. Amid the uncertainty created by the increased pace of innovation and globalization, he adds, it's probably better "to be an introverted leader now than at any previous time on record."
I concur for the same reasons and more. Technology itself has made it less important to be physically present and stand up in front of a room and speak - something that introverts find the most challenging. The Internet, email, virtual meetings, social networking, and distributed work environments, have fundamentally changed the way leaders communicate with their employees, customers, and stakeholders.
Moreover, the high-tech industry is heavily populated with relatively introverted technologists-turned entrepreneurs and CEOs. And those folks don't necessarily just sit on their laurels and ride out their one lone success. Once they conquer their introvert demons, that confidence helps them to continue stepping out of their comfort zone. Many become serial entrepreneurs or spread their wings and take over leadership roles at other companies.
3. Innovators and Good Listeners
Ian Cook of Colgate-Palmolive attributes much of his success to listening and body language skills, "I listen intently," he says. "I am extremely attentive to language and body cues." It makes sense. I've noticed that introverted executives have an enhanced ability to concentrate and focus. If they choose to turn that skill outward, that would indeed give them an advantage in terms of reading people, a powerful tool for interviewing, negotiating, motivating, and leading.
By nature, introverted leaders seem to be willing and able to spend long hours focusing on relatively complex and detailed plans and strategies that are necessary for businesses success in our modern global economy. They can also digest enormous amounts of information and boil it down to find innovative solutions to difficult problems. We all know the importance of innovation in business today.
4. Achieving the Best of Both Worlds
Introverted CEOs I've worked with are well aware of their shortcomings and oftentimes find an extroverted second-in-command to complement their deficiencies. For example, the CEO might focus internally on strategy and products while his partner plays the more outward-facing role of marketing, sales, and communications. I actually played the latter role in a number of companies.
Frankly, I think TheLadders.com survey bodes well for introverted managers because it demonstrates that they're keenly aware of their issues and willing to confront them and compensate. And that's consistent with my experience. Everyone has issues, and extraverts certainly do not have a monopoly on willingness to work hard to address them.
As long as you're genuinely willing to own up to your weaknesses, face your fears, and challenge yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone from time to time, I'm not aware of any attributes that will keep you from achieving great things. That certainly includes being introverted.
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