Quiet Leadership: How Introverts Can Succeed in the Workplace
For people uncomfortable in the spotlight, the key is to spin value. Self-promotion may never feel easy, but if your work has a positive impact, speak up.
We often think of entrepreneurs as larger-than-life personalities who can dazzle a board room, charm on stage, and give a flawless interview on the fly. But what happens to those of us who don’t naturally enjoy the spotlight? Are we doomed to a life on the sidelines?
- “You should be more vocal.”
- “Not every detail has to be perfect before you present.”
- “It’d be good for you to go to more networking events.”
This is feedback I get weekly. As an introvert, I’m always reluctant to seek the spotlight — but I’ve also learned I have to push my own boundaries if I’m going to achieve my career goals. Feeling similarly overwhelmed? Here are five tips that have helped me feel comfortable and lead authentically as an introvert.
Five tips for introverts in the workplace
1. Realize leadership isn’t natural for some
The hardest part about being an introvert in the workplace is that I beat myself up about it constantly. For years I looked at my gregarious colleagues and thought I was broken, that there was something wrong with me. Why can’t I be that magnetic?
Not willing to give up on my aspirations, one day I chose to double down. I told myself that the standard idea of leadership just doesn’t come naturally to me and that my path is going to be rocky. Simply giving myself permission to be different felt like freedom. So do yourself a favor: don’t compare yourself to others. Give yourself a break.
2. Speak up earlier
Time after time, I’d leave meetings without uttering a word. Was I lost or disinterested? Not at all. I had plenty of great ideas in my head — at least I thought they were great — but no one else would ever know. I spent so long crafting the perfect responses that by the time I’d gathered my thoughts, the conversation had moved on. My colleagues, on the other hand, thought out loud and effortlessly threw ideas into the mix.
Not everyone can process externally. As an introvert, you may have to force yourself to ship a thought out early — and be OK if it’s not perfect. If you try speaking up earlier, you might notice two things: 1) All the things you thought would go wrong actually don’t, and 2) the outcome is better thanks to your active engagement.
3. Over prepare — then over prepare some more
Some people can ace a presentation on the fly, but I’m one who feels tremendous anxiety for weeks beforehand. In the business world, impressions of you often come from presentations alone. A presentation can create access and opportunities in a way conversations can’t. Knowing this, I have to make sure I’m not just prepared when I present, but that I’m over prepared.
Practice with family so you can learn to anticipate reactions. Rehearse with colleagues who’ll give you honest feedback. Video yourself (as terrifying as that sounds). Give your presentations a defined structure — much like those papers you wrote in college — to help you stay organized. This is actually an area where introverts can thrive; while everyone else is winging it, you’re the one coming in with a crisp, compelling narrative.
4. Find mentors and colleagues that push you
For years I sought advice from people who are like me: quiet, introverted, and reserved. But the biggest leap in my career came when I veered out of this comfort zone and found mentors from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Seeking advice from other introverts may feel more comfortable, but if you only look to people who are like you, you’ll just stay where you are. (Those conversations are usually *really* awkward anyway — conversations only work when at least one person talks.) Instead, surround yourself with mentors who’ll push you out of the nest. If you can balance your introvert tendencies with an extrovert’s perspective, both sides will shine. For me, my extroverted wife makes me a better person; my extroverted colleagues make me a better leader.
5. Flip the table on self-promotion
Self-promotion is my enemy; I never want to draw attention to myself. For too long I watched idly as colleagues expertly shared their successes, while I kept mine safely under wraps. But the reality is that self-advocacy is necessary in today’s business world — and it doesn’t have to be painful.
For people uncomfortable in the spotlight, the key is to spin value. Don’t just share that you aced a presentation — share who’s going to benefit from it. Don’t just say you completed a project — share why it adds value for customers. Self-promotion may never feel easy, but if your work has a positive impact on others, it’s worth it to speak up.
Plus, if people know your work adds value, they’ll bring you into more projects — which is huge since introverts love being asked to be involved versus having to sell themselves.
Quiet leadership: Introverts on the rise
We often associate leadership with effervescent personalities, yet many of today’s top leaders are self-proclaimed introverts — Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer, and Mark Zuckerberg, for example.
Companies need all types of leaders. The benefits of diversity are well documented, and companies recognize that a wide range of perspectives is crucial to success. So as you seek to leave a mark, don’t underestimate your own strength. Leadership may never feel natural to you — and that’s OK — but some of our greatest achievers are introverts, and there’s plenty of room for more.
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