Introverts can be quiet and solitary by nature, so a pervading myth is that they are poorly suited to leadership roles. Indeed, research by The Sutton Trust and BBC found that extroverts are 25% more likely than introverts to be high earners.
That’s a shocking statistic when recent findings from a University of San Diego study show that companies headed by extrovert CEOs have lower valuations than those led by introverts.
And you don’t need to look far to see that many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs are introverts. Consider business superstars like Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Warren Buffet.
For people looking to follow in their footsteps, introversion can still feel like a barrier to entry. Starting a business requires networking, people management and public speaking, something that each of these individuals has overcome.
But before we look at some strategies, let’s start with a definition. The Oxford Dictionary describes an introvert as ‘a shy reticent person’ or ‘a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings’.
Many people would land on a similar definition, but an important point many miss is how introverts draw energy. Unlike extroverts, who feel energised by people, introverts recharge their energy by spending time alone—and that can lead people to believe they are cold, unfriendly or aloof.
So how do some of the world’s most successful introverts manage their personalities in a world geared towards extroverts, and what can introverted business founders learn from them?
First, we have Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo and a confessed introvert.
After leaving the search engine in 2017, Mayer founded Lumi Labs with former colleague Enrique Munoz Torres, which focuses on AI and consumer media. With more than $600 million in the bank, her introverted personality has served her well. Mayer says she manages her introversion using coping strategies. In an interview with Vogue, she says she often wants to run away from situations, particularly networking events. But rather than succumb to a thought, she gives herself an hour, and if she still wants to go home after that time, that’s OK.
Carol Linden, author of The Job Seekers Guide for Extraverts and Introverts, agrees and says introverts looking to network should focus on their goal: to make a couple of meaningful connections. With that mission accomplished, like Mayer, allow yourself to go home. “If you overstay, you’re going to get burnt out, and you’ll be less motivated to go to networking events in the future,” she says.
Many introverts find the 4 Ps Model useful for networking. The four steps are preparation, presence, push and practice. Preparation will be obvious to introverts. Presence, however, is important because it encourages introverts to engage with the moment, rather than daydream about things that might go wrong. Push and practice are about pushing beyond your comfort zone and practicing until it becomes natural.
The extrovert expectation
We’ve already discussed that many tech entrepreneurs are introverted by nature — and that’s certainly true of Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest. Silbermann graduated from Yale with a degree in political science, before moving on to Google to work in advertising. It wasn’t long before he started creating his own applications.
Silbermann had this to say in The Times about being an introverted entrepreneur: “It’s funny, a lot of people start technology companies because they’re a little bit introverted. When they do really well, they get pushed into this extroverted world. The experience is pretty weird.”
The 37-year-old says it’s important to play to your strengths rather than act like someone else. Introverts should identify their strengths by completing a personality test. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a classic in the corporate world and includes analysis of one’s proclivity towards introversion or extroversion. Myers-Briggs has found that 50% of people are the introverted side of the scale.
Once you have a better understanding of your personality, consider conducting a SWOT Analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) on yourself. This will help identify areas and situations where you might need workarounds or coping mechanisms.
Double down on your strengths
Equally important is recognising when to delegate. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, took a step back to focus on the technical side of Facebook, leaving his more extroverted COO Sheryl Sandberg to front the business and build relationships.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates agrees: “If you’re clever, you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert… being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself hard to think out on the edge of that area. Then, if you come up with something . . . you’d better learn what extroverts do, you’d better hire some extroverts and tap into both sets of skills.”
The start-up reality
Founding a business is a very challenging experience and having an introverted nature can add to the stress. Communicating with investors, customers, peers and potential employees can take introverts far beyond their comfort zone.
The good news is that while the corporate world may have traditionally favoured more outgoing leaders, the hard facts show that introverts are actually better at running businesses.
The CEO Genome Project that studied 17,000 C-suite executives and CEOs reinforces this message that introverts should not question their ability to lead. Indeed, it concluded that introverts were more likely than extroverts to succeed and surpass investors’ expectations.
So take confidence from the data and remember, the time for introverts is now.
Leading as an introvert: 6 essential techniques
- Understand yourself. Everyone is different so get to know your own preferences, strengths and weaknesses. DiSC behavioural profiles can be a useful way to do this, though there are lots of alternatives.
- Understand the people you work with. Pitch your communication so that it fits with the needs of the people you lead. Great attention to detail may be an aspect of your introversion but sometimes leaders need to keep messages simple and bold.
- Challenge yourself but don’t torture yourself. Everyone finds themselves in business situations that take them out of their comfort zone. Try and take small steps to build up your experience and confidence in areas you find difficult but don’t expect too much or become self-critical.
- Be honest. Pretending to be someone you are not will only end badly.
- Delegate. An effective leader uses the skills of their colleagues to grow the business. Work out where your time is best spent.
- Expect to succeed. The data shows that introverts make successful leaders, as do the many examples of global entrepreneurs who have gone before you.