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The Power of Introverts in Business
Alen Mayer, aka Chief Sales Introvert and CEO of North American Sales Training Corp., is a trusted coach and mentor to introverted business people. He helps leaders enlarge their circles by involving introverts more and tap into their team members’ individual strengths to increase their results. We recently checked in with Alen to get his take on why introverts can make great leaders. Here’s what he had to say:
What is your leadership philosophy?
The true gift of a great leader is the ability to learn from, engage and form a cohesive team from people on “different sides of the aisle” – we’re not talking Republicans vs. Democrats here, of course, but the vastly different styles and perceptions of introverts and extroverts. Our culture is biased toward extraversion, and so is our leadership. It is time to strip down layers of extroverted thinking and enlarge the circle to include introverts and their quiet power. Your team should become a circle that welcomes people who might not be the loudest or most assertive but bring quiet power to the team. If you don’t include introverts in the circle, you cheat yourself and your team of their assets – introverts don’t hold extroverts back: they complement their limitations.
What have been the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned during your career?
I learned to tell extroverts that I am an introvert, that I don’t always speak and that my extended silence doesn’t mean I am judging or that I am upset. I learned how to let people know that I prefer taking time to think. My mentor taught me to stay true to who I am and to build on top my strengths as an introvert.
How did you become so passionate about helping introverted business people?
Business culture today is so in love with extroverts. Everything is geared toward the go-getter, the team player, the networker, the entrepreneur and the leader. It’s about power, getting ahead, cutthroat competition, deals and leverage. On the surface, this sounds like an automatic recipe for success for the extrovert, and disaster for the introvert. Most business education and self-help books are written from the extrovert’s point of view, and this is what we are all familiar with as “the way to do business.”
In the eyes of extroverts, introverts are the loners, the outcasts, the socially awkward geeks … certainly not leaders or success stories! Viewed as lacking the “necessary” skills of business success, introverts are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting hired for sales or “people oriented” positions (like sales) and are often overshadowed in the workplace by their extroverted colleagues. I want to help give voice to the voiceless.
What do you think are the most common misconceptions about introverts in business?
- Myth: Introverts are shy and insecure.
Truth: Introverts aren’t afraid of social interaction – they just need a really good reason to interact.
- Myth: Introverts are too quiet; they never talk. It’s true that introverts rarely speak up without being prompted, in a group situation.
Truth: As Gandhi said, “Speak only if it improves the silence.”
- Myth: Introverts can’t make quick, bold decisions.
Truth: Introverts are actually often quite fearless (they are very self-reliant, independent people) – but they are analytical and carefully think through their options before making a decision.
- Myth: Introverts are a small minority. Between 25-40 percent of the population is considered introverted. Introversion is equally common among men and women.
Truth: Many introverts have learned how to cope in an extrovert’s world by taking on extroverted tendencies. There are probably more “closet introverts” out there than people realize!
What qualities of introverts make them strong leaders?
The first major strength involves composure. Often mistaken for being too reserved or shy, many introverts instead sit back to give themselves a better vantage point. They are able to then avoid getting emotionally entangled in the discussion and see all the players engaged as well as their various interests and directions. The more knowledge a person has obviously, the more he can strategize and manage the sale at an advantage.
Introverts also have a keen ability to observe and draw conclusions from watching other people and how they behave. Customers and competitors often communicate quite a bit of information in how they behave without using words. Introverts can use their observations skills to effectively pick up on these signals and use the edge to anticipate what a customer or team member is probably thinking. Since knowledge gives the advantage in an unknown situation, “reading” people becomes a valuable tool introverted leaders are already good at using.
Many introverted leaders are passionate about the work and projects they are assigned to. This type of “love” of work goes far beyond just a pay check and completing tasks. It makes a person feel fulfilled doing what he or she likes to do in a career and job. Passion often also carries people through difficult times because they want to continue operating in the same environment and line of work. Persistence is another common trait introverts can draw upon from themselves. Similar to passion, persistence involves sticking with a project or task often when it may be difficult or require additional resources to make happen.
What are the biggest challenges introverts face in leadership roles?
- Quick decision-making. Sometimes, there’s just no time to analyze and you don’t always have all the information you need. Extroverts may thrive in this environment, but introverts don’t. But does that mean that extroverts always make the right decisions on the fly? No! Rupert Murdoch said, that of the 20 or so important decisions made by leaders on any given day, probably half are wrong.
- Motivating and inspiring your team. You’re focused, dedicated and masterful at problem solving. However, if your team is made up of extroverts, they will need a tangible carrot. The inner satisfaction you get from your work does not motivate extroverts. They need verbal praise and recognition! You may also need to work on giving feedback and constructive criticism.
How do you coach these business people on overcoming these challenges?
You will have to become comfortable making decisions with incomplete information and avoid “analysis paralysis.” If you know that your decision is based on information that is incomplete and your action plan is formulated around that, then you give yourself permission to rework the plan as things progress. Keep in mind the Law of Diminishing Intent: the longer you procrastinate, the greater the odds that you will never do it.
Above all, execute your decision to the best of your abilities. Even if your decision is based on incomplete information, do the best you can in that particular course of action and your results will be better than halfhearted execution of a good plan. You have to be able to grasp the full meaning of what someone is telling you so you can become aware of both problems and potential. Introverts are good listeners anyway, but may shy away from a great place to listen in without participating: sitting in on departmental meetings, just as an observer. Your staff will appreciate your involvement because they want you to know what’s going on. And, if you make it clear that you are there ONLY to observe and learn, you won’t feel put on the spot to offer guidance or any input. As you become more involved in the broader aspects of your organization, you will form new relationships and you will have a personal connection to every department. People appreciate the personal connection with their leader. It makes them feel valued and important, and they will be more likely to share honest opinions about problems than if they were afraid to approach you.
What tend to be the most common barriers between introverts and extroverts working together?
Extroverts love to say that introverts simply don’t participate; they are not good team players. “Come brainstorm with us! Be part of the team! I know you have ideas to share! Come on. Really, you’d rather send a memo? Seriously?” Participation, to the extrovert, means “group activity.” Introverts do not thrive when asked to participate in board meetings, brainstorming sessions, networking functions, large social events and loud parties. It’s not that they have nothing to contribute. Far from it! Extroverts perceive non-participation as anti-team and laziness; an introvert prefers to work alone and then share what they have accomplished, rather than co-creating in a group. They are dedicated to the team’s success, but not in the same way that extroverts are.
One thing is for sure about introverts: they are NOT people-pleasers and you won’t find them saying yes when they mean no. And if they zone out in a group situation, it’s because they are trying to re-energize (or, the conversation is boring!). Extroverts love to say that introverts never show initiative. Introverts have plenty of initiative. They just don’t feel the need to talk about or show their initiative, especially until they have finished what they are working on. They let their results speak for themselves. They are internally motivated and quietly go about the business of fixing a problem (rather than talking about fixing it). They don’t seek attention or kudos for being the problem-solver. If they “don’t show initiative” it’s because they don’t feel the need to draw attention to their achievements for the sake of getting praise or approval and they do not feel the need to compete with extroverts for the spotlight.
What advice do you find yourself repeating to clients over and over?
Introverts can make great advisors, and they have saved companies. But nothing will prevent them from contributing more than standard, extroverted leadership. If you lead a team of extroverts and introverts, don’t try to make it into a team of extroverts. Instead, focus on creating a partnership between introverts and extroverts. One is not better than the other; they are both valuable parts of your team. When combined, each can be transformed by the other. Enlarge the circle by learning from people with opposing talents. Your company will benefit from both. That is the true meaning of enlarging the circle.