A World That Can%27t Stop Talking

Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, Lou Gerstner, Brenda Barnes – what do these CEOs have in common? According to Harvard Business School Professor Quinn Mills, an expert on leadership behaviors, their personality profiles classify them as introverts. Quiet CEOs may not be obvious – they can be quite comfortable on stage or socializing with colleagues and friends. The introvert test is that they don’t get their energy from other people. They leave the party early and recharge by retreating to their offices or studies, spending their favorite time reading or thinking.

I haven’t been able to put down the hot new book Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Author Susan Cain makes a compelling case for the power of the introverted leader. A masterful storyteller, Cain also convincingly shares example after example of how brilliant people can be overlooked and over-talked by extroverts. In American business, where we value the gregarious individual, this has consequences. She chronicles the history of how we came to favor the outgoing personality, and what companies must do to avoid always capitulating to the leader or team that is quicker to put forth an idea and able to argue until they win the debate.

Cain also cites the work of Gregory Berns, a Harvard Business professor and expert on leadership traits. Berns explains the consequences for companies that rely too heavily on presentation skills to weed out good ideas. He shares examples of companies that try to solve it – like a software company which set up an online idea exchange so good ideas wouldn’t be squashed by the conversational dynamics of the typical extrovert-oriented brainstorming session.

It may seem odd to read a blog that praises the introverted leader, written by the CEO of a communication strategy firm. First, I must tell you that by Cain’s definition, I am clearly an introvert. Perhaps that’s why our courses on executive presence have always focused on substance first, style second. While companies call us to help their leaders develop greater executive presence, we have always believed our job is to help the smart, but not necessarily outgoing leader become more influential by giving voice to substantive ideas and making their case.

Yes, leaders who are introverts must learn to be effective on a big stage, or in boardroom. It’s just the reality of succeeding in our extrovert culture. They also have to express clear and compelling ideas in their written communications. That isn’t what they teach you in engineering school, or finance school, or the laboratory.

There is so much to learn on this topic. Check out Quiet, whether you suspect you are an introvert, or know without a doubt you have Extrovert stamped on your forehead with a capital E. It will provoke your thinking about why we need to make sure the I’s and the E’s in our organizations learn to talk, and listen, to each other.