The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength

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50% of the U.S. population aged 40 and older test out to be introverts, as do 40% of top executives. Kahnweiler's The Introverted Leader is the first book to offer this staggeringly large audience the tools to effectively deal with a common disposition. It offers many ways for people to turn their shyness into leadership strengths and advantages.

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Chapter 1: Four Key Challenges

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“It’s not easy being green,” sang Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show. Substitute “introverted” for “green.” Although you may have buzzed along pretty smoothly in your role as individual contributor, once you decide to move your career forward, or after your organization taps you for more responsibility, life can become more complex if you are withdrawn.

Let’s look at key challenges that can result from being an introverted professional.

Understanding what challenges can occur in your life as an introvert at work helps you realize what behaviors to change. We tend to make adjustments when the pain of doing things the same old way is great enough. When we encounter roadblocks while driving, we are forced to find alternative routes. Similarly, these workplace barriers can be enlightening. A number of my introverted coaching clients have had light bulbs go off when we have discussed the following four common challenges. Giving a name to what they’ve experienced often gives them an impetus to change. Let’s look at the four major categories of challenges introverted leaders encounter at work. They are (1) stress, (2) perception gaps, (3) career derailers, and (4) invisibility.

 

Chapter 2: Unlocking Success: The 4 P’s Process

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There is no magic to managing introversion, but there are tangible steps you can take to address challenges and turn them into opportunities. The 4 P’s Process is an easy-to-remember road map to improve your performance. Preparation, presence, push, and practice address the four challenges of stress, perception gap, derailed careers, and invisibility. These steps include many tools to move you forward as an introverted leader. If you are a manager of introverts, you can use the 4 P’s as a coaching tool. The 4 P’s will also be useful if you are a team member who wants to better communicate with your introverted colleagues.

Use the 4 P’s Process as a barometer to track your progress and to reflect on both successful and noneffective interactions. It can also help you to plan what you might do differently in the next upcoming scenario.

The 4 P’s Process includes four components: preparation, presence, push, and practice (see Figure 2). Preparation is the first step in the cycle. Even if you enter a leadership scenario as an introvert, preparation will give you the confidence to handle any spontaneous situation. Presence, the second step, is how you are positioned in the present. It is the step that shows people you are engaged. The third step in the process is push. This is the step in which you push yourself out of your comfort zone. Pushing through your fear, after you have prepared and learned ways of being present, is the way to develop and solidify your skills. The fourth step is practice. It is taking advantage of every opportunity to practice new behaviors. It is what great champions continue to do on a daily basis. After you have mastered a skill or a tool, the 4 P’s process starts all over again. There is always a new scenario to be addressed. Let me give you some more examples of how my clients and interviewees have used these steps.

 

Chapter 3: Strengths and Soft Spots

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Sean was pleased with his promotion from team lead to manager, and the first few weeks went smoothly. There were lots of pats on the back and a nice raise, but nothing much else changed. He was still in there as a team member, pushing up against deadlines, scrambling to meet customer needs, etc. One day his boss came down to see him with concerns about deliverables that were missing. He then gave Sean a quick coaching lesson about the expectations of his new role. Sean, he said, needed to move from being a hands-on player to a leader—to get out there motivating his folks and inspiring high performance. His focus needed to shift from the task he was performing to the people he was leading.

Over several months, Sean learned to get “out of the sandbox” with his team, and he had more time to respond to his team’s and management’s needs. He maintained his quiet demeanor but adapted his style to meet the new challenge he faced. It was a learning process for Sean, and he ended up excelling as a leader, grateful to the boss who pushed him to take charge.

 

Chapter 4: Public Speaking

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The year was 2000. It was time to give the annual report to the board, and Suzanne, the vice president of finance, was sweating buckets. The rolls of nausea began before she moved up to the podium. With clammy hands and short breaths, she went through her PowerPoint slides, breathing a sigh of relief when the 20 minutes were up. Fast forward to 2007. A new company and a new board waited. As the A.V. team adjusted her mike, Suzanne came from behind the lectern and watched calmly with a slight smile as the audience members filed in. The paralysis of years ago had disappeared. Under protest, Suzanne had enrolled in a Toastmasters group at her company (push) and attended it consistently for 3 years. She took these learned skills and confidence into her work, seized every opportunity to speak in public (practice), and overcame what could have become a huge career derailer.

Warren Buffet said that public speaking can be our greatest asset or our worst liability.1 Do you experience what Suzanne felt in her earlier days, or are you able to find your voice and give presentations with ease and confidence? Perhaps you are somewhere in between. We have all heard the statistics about people fearing public speaking more than death. Even the act of getting up and introducing themselves makes introverts in my classes anxious. Their voices and hands shake the first few times they are asked to report out to the group. However, as Warren Buffet said, presenting your ideas coherently in all kinds of situations moves your career forward. Being introverted does not mean you can’t also be a phenomenal speaker. Just like an actor goes into character, you can perform brilliantly in your role. As a leader in your organization or profession, you need to educate, inform, and persuade people. You also need to challenge individuals to talk to you and each other. Setting the stage may require laying out a business case or problem to be solved, presenting your ideas, or summarizing results for management. All of these require you to deliver a command performance.

 

Chapter 5: Managing and Leading

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As a consultant on-site for a few days I could feel the tension. The “suits” were making a visit to the plant, and people seemed on edge. They had heard rumors of corporate changes and, in particular, a shift reduction, meaning fewer overtime opportunities. I watched the vice president of manufacturing walk into the break room. He earnestly approached each individual. I could hear him asking questions, and his attentive body language showed me he was tuned into the answers they were giving. I heard him ask one young worker, “How’s your mama?” The man told him about the progress his mother had made since her illness the previous year. These kinds of conversations continued as he made his way around the room.

In the formal update later that day in the cafeteria he gave a sincere picture of the state of the company, and then opened it up to questions. He neither talked down to the group nor appeared to gloss over the challenges ahead. In addition he addressed the overtime issues directly by listening to their concerns and stating his commitment to keep the group informed. When he walked back to his waiting car, I asked several of the workers their impressions and the general consensus was that he “was cool.”

 

Chapter 6: Heading Up Projects

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Danielle, an experienced and reserved civil engineer, received a call from her manager asking her to check on the progress of a job across town. As one of the few females in the company, she had learned to step out of her shell, and she usually received respect from the guys. They joked together, talked shop, and generally seemed at ease. Danielle pulled up to the construction site in her pickup truck and asked Bob, the foreman, to come grab a cup of coffee with her. As they rode down the highway, he told her about problems with a subcontractor who had not lived up to their on-time commitment for supplies. Together Danielle and Bob formulated a plan to make the supplier accountable. When she dropped Bob off at his work station 30 minutes later they were both committed to see the plan work.

Maybe it wasn’t in a pickup truck, but have you ever had a productive work conversation in an informal setting? If so, you probably found that it made it easier for you and the other person to open up. In a relaxed atmosphere you can ask questions and get input without being threatening. Finding out about what is going on from those you are leading or influencing is essential so that you can engage in productive solutions and move on. The heart of project management is being able to influence people who often don’t report to you and to get results. Managing your perception as a strong leader often takes a willingness to meet people on their turf and step out of the confines of your world.

 

Chapter 7: Managing Up

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Jim, the new director of marketing, had barely unpacked the boxes in his office when one by one they marched in. Each of his six direct reports had a list of must-have budget requests. Dianne was the one exception. Instead, she sat and observed the parade of her colleagues. She debated following their lead, but waited and watched as Jim settled into his role. As the weeks went by, Jim didn’t request a meeting and, unfortunately, neither did Dianne. It was no surprise that when the budget decisions were made she received less than her peers. Her direct reports were disappointed in the decision but not as much as Dianne. When she finally met with Jim it was too late; the money was already allocated.

Although in some cases this wait-and-see approach is the right strategy, in this situation, Dianne’s tentative behavior had detrimental consequences for her and her staff. Not only did they not get needed allocations, but they perceived Dianne as a weak leader. Have you, like Dianne, ever kept silent and lost a critical opportunity? Learning to manage up helps you deal with this challenge. Let’s look at what steps Diane could take the next time she is faced with this situation.

 

Chapter 8: The Meeting Game

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Carlos, an account executive, dialed in for the weekly conference call. As the initial chit chat transpired, he convinced himself that this time it would be different. With many extroverted callers in his nationwide group, he often found it difficult to get the boss to listen to his ideas. This time he was determined to get heard. The high-energy group started in and raced through the agenda. When asked to give his report Carlos did fine, but after the back-and-forth dialogue began on the new marketing plan, he found himself overanalyzing his potential answers. By the time he was ready to speak up, the group had moved on to the closing business, and Carlos had missed his chance to share his expertise on the Western region. More importantly, he also lost the chance to be seen as a player by his boss and co-workers. Carlos’s goal of participation was on target. So was his thoughtful analysis. Where he failed was in execution, in stepping out there and having the confidence to let his ideas be heard.

 

Chapter 9: Building Relationships

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It was time for the annual customer retreat at a nice resort in Hawaii. John, a new IT account executive, quickly retrieved his suitcase from the baggage carousel and headed to the taxi line. Then he noticed that most of his group was waiting for their golf clubs to arrive. Because he had played only a few times, John figured that his golf handicap was too high to play with this group of mostly experienced golfers. His plan was to go for a run and a nap while the others were hitting the back nine that afternoon.

He followed his agenda, and was feeling pretty relaxed when he walked into the next morning’s new product rollout meeting. However, John quickly realized that he was missing out on some of the jokes from the previous day’s outing. It was also apparent that some customer concerns about the product features had come up in golf course discussions and were being referenced in a number of the comments. He felt like he was playing catch-up, at the start. Unfortunately, John had not realize that the unwritten rules of his company included some involvement in “offline” activities such as golf. He would have some catching up to do.

 

Chapter 10: Wins from Using the 4 P’s Process

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Raj stared down at the phone receiver. He knew he had to pick it up. Now that his consulting firm had imposed a sales quota for each financial consultant, he had to make the next call. He decided to call Michelle, a former client, to touch base and uncover her current business needs. As he pressed the numbers on his handset, he reviewed the questions he had prepared and his desired outcome for the conversation: an appointment. Raj visualized a successful call by closing his eyes for 2 minutes and pictured a calm, focused exchange between them. As the phone rang, he took a deep breath and stood up (a method he had learned in sales training to improve his voice quality). Michelle picked up. After 10 minutes of give and take, he summarized the challenges she had described, and they set a time to meet the following week. Raj felt energized and optimistic about future business opportunities with Michelle and her company, and that afternoon he even found himself whistling in his cube.

Like Raj, have you found that even a small amount of preparation can boost your confidence and reduce your anxiety? Of course, we all can procrastinate tasks that don’t come naturally to us, but Raj pushed himself to engage. By reflecting on your purpose, your conversations can become much more productive. Raj also attended a class in sales training, which helped him with his presence. Even a small amount of preparation for the call allowed him to manage his stress and be present with Michelle. He didn’t worry about what he was going to say next, but could listen to her and engage in a fruitful conversation that yielded his desired result: an appointment. Preparation was key. Taking notes also made it possible to refer back to them later when he needed them. Sid Milstein, the introverted senior executive, said that by preparing questions you are learning more than those who wing it, and you are creating a positive impression.

 

Chapter 11: What’s Next? Moving Toward Success

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The scene was the CIO retirement party. A simple wine and cheese reception, including a few tributes and a gift presentation, was planned to honor a well-liked man who had given more than 20 years of service. Zach, a junior network administrator, entered the party smiling. He was pleased to have a chance to pay homage to the man who mentored him. Calling people by name, he found his way over to the CIO, met his family, and congratulated him. Zach then moved through the buffet line and around the room, introducing people to each other. He told an amusing anecdote to the group. After an hour at the party, he felt satisfied because he had honored this man he respected, had reconnected with people, and had met some new ones. As he walked out of the party, the division vice president pulled Zach aside. The VP encouraged him to apply for a new position several levels above his current one.

In observing these events, few people would guess that Zach was actually very introverted. Indeed, there was a time not too long before that party that Zach hyperventilated at the thought of attending a business reception. Fortunately, he had applied the 4 P’s Process to this situation and came out a winner. What did he do?

 

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