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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Executive Education

For years, I thought introverts couldn’t be effective leaders. Then, I proved myself wrong.

I’ll be the first to admit that I, for many years, bought into the idea that influential leaders had to ooze confidence in groups — their good ideas and easygoing nature always on full display. In other words, I thought good leaders had to be outgoing, expressive extroverts.

That’s probably because most of the leaders I’d been exposed to up to that point fit the extrovert mold. After all, introverts account for just 25% to 30% of C-suite executives. But as a founder, CEO, and introvert myself, I’ve learned that introverts can be just as effective leaders. In fact, research from Harvard Business Review shows that introverts may actually be better suited to taking the wheel when things go sideways.

Introverts’ prefrontal cortexes, a section of the brain that’s associated with decision-making, tend to have larger, thicker gray matter, which researchers theorized is why we favor weighing options carefully before making decisions (while extroverts tend to go with their first idea). Introverts’ quiet, measured leadership can give people a sense of stability, comfort, and inspiration — something many of us need during this time of great uncertainty.

I don’t mean to say that extroverts need predictability to lead — look no further than Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill to see the power of extroversion amid adversity — but I do think we have to stop subscribing to the idea that only extroverts can be charismatic, competent leaders.

As an introvert, I’ve faced several challenges in my career that required me to both get out of my comfort zone and lean on my strengths. Here are three ways I either leveraged or overcame my natural introversion in order to succeed.

  1. Unearth your personal convictions
    Raising capital can be hard enough — being an introvert can make it that much harder. Early on, I struggled to get investors to buy into the mission and direction of my company. One investor even told me he didn’t find me inspirational or polished enough to lead a successful startup. That kind of brutal honesty stung, but it was valuable for me to hear. (After all, the ability to inspire and motivate others is one of the proven traits of a great leader.)

    But I didn’t change my entire personality to fit his image. Instead, I dug deeper to unearth my personal convictions. I surrounded myself with positivity: books, podcasts, mentors, and trustworthy confidants. By creating a series of safe places, I could work to better myself as a leader, move past my anxiety, and effectively communicate my ideas. I learned not just how to trust my gut — but also how to take advice from confidants who could help me weigh difficult executive decisions.

    My current investors have even mentioned that their impression of me has changed over time. They now appreciate my authenticity and humility. If you have confidence enough to build a business from the ground up, you should have enough courage to bring your opinions to every investor meeting.

  2. Reframe your views on confrontation
    In business, there’s no getting around some level of conflict. The key to dealing with it lies in how you approach the situation. Instead of seeing conflict as a negative, use it as a tool to solicit feedback and gather better information for your next decision. This makes the whole disagreement more productive: In fact, research suggests that this kind of collaboration during conflict can boost creativity and solidify important relationships.

    Personally, I struggle to set expectations or push back when dealing with strong personalities — who, inadvertently or not, tend to overpower me. As the CEO of my company, I often have to handle crucial conversations with board members, many of whom possess commanding dispositions. It’s very natural for them to push for more, even on the heels of 130% growth.

    For a long time, I was too timid to push back and tell them that, yes, I did have a plan. I was uncomfortable talking about my wins or putting myself in the spotlight. But perception is just as important as reality, and this was the exact moment when I needed to prove myself.

    This is an area where I’ve grown a lot (or, rather, been forced to grow) with the help of mentors, who’ve helped me understand the power I hold. I’ve learned, for instance, not to take things personally in business. Sometimes, you simply have to set aside confrontation and let your hard work speak for itself.

    Navigating conflict is really about problem-solving, which often requires a delicate balance of remaining firm in your beliefs and being open to others’ ideas. Next time you encounter conflict, reframe the situation in your mind. Guide the conversation toward a mutual agreement and avoid placing unnecessary blame.

  3. Stop trying to sell yourself, and start trying to sell your good ideas
    I used to loath public speaking. But as the leader of my company, I knew it was vital for me to be visible. So I began working with a communication skills coach to change my perception of it. Our time together helped me get out of my own head and be fully present when speaking in front of others. Oddly enough, this made me less nervous.

    I also came to accept that the goal of public speaking isn’t to get people to like me — it’s to get my point across effectively. I won’t pretend that I light up the room every time I walk in; it’s just not in my nature. So it was a relief when I discovered that I didn’t have to win everyone over to deliver a valuable, relevant presentation.

    In fact, if I focused too much on myself, there’s a good chance the audience would miss my message entirely. In order for my audience to retain the right information, I needed to make an emotional connection, which is key to encoding and eventually retrieving the information. People will recall an emotionally-charged message for days, if not weeks, to come. They may even leave your presentation feeling inspired enough to act on your insights or advice.

    Remember that presentations should involve creative storytelling, so build a strong emotional connection by sharing real-life examples and stories audiences can relate to. If you lead or end the presentation with an illustrative metaphor or mental image, for instance, it’s likely to stick in your audience’s mind for much longer.

As you work toward your career goals, never forget to ask for help. Lean on your confidants, mentors, and coaches. Find the balance needed to bring your true, authentic self to the table. And by all means, get out of your own way. Introverts have a different form of confidence — and you need to remember that.


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Dhiraj Sharma
Dhiraj Sharma is a serial entrepreneur and technology enthusiast whose passion is promoting purpose in the workplace. Dhiraj is founder and CEO of Simpplr, an employee communications app marketed as today’s modern employee intranet. Dhiraj Sharma is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. He can be found on LinkedIn.