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The chief executive officer of a major Canadian multinational came to our MBA CEO Insights class and told us that, as an introverted leader, he had to put on his “game face” whenever he left his floor.
If you want to be the CEO of a big company, he implied, you need to act like an extrovert at times. But after studying introverts in the C-suite, I have come to the conclusion that extroverts, like myself, must put on our “game face” and act like an introvert at times, in order to be effective leaders.
One of my current research projects on leadership involves interviewing the CEOs of bigger firms about introverts in their C-suite and asking them about the considerable strengths introverts bring to the table. I follow up by interviewing introverted executives about their career paths, how they got to the top, and how they best contribute to the senior team. This research has got me to thinking: How do I apply this personally?
In a recent session with 80-plus managers at Canadian global aerospace and transportation giant Bombardier Inc., I presented my research on introverts to participants, who then spent time in groups of three discussing how introverts would like to be more effectively managed.
Based on some of the conversations I heard in the classroom, I decided to give them a new assignment, one I had not done before. Namely, how should introverts more effectively manage extroverts? It lead to lively conversations and an intriguing report back session.
The literature on the topic has almost exclusively focused on how extroverts manage introverts – an important topic, but one that assumes that leaders are extroverts. However, what academic research confirms – and my research confirms these earlier findings – is that somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of C-suite executives are more on the introverted side. In this research, I am looking at big firms, all with a minimum of 10,000 employees.
Given that a considerable percentage of executives are introverts, it makes sense to flip the question of how should extroverts better manage introverts, to how should introverts better manage extroverts? For if an introverted CEO must behave like an extrovert to be an effective leader, then might the opposite be true? That an extroverted leader must “channel” their inner introvert in order to be an effective leader? In retrospect, this seems obvious.
Introverts typically appear to be better listeners, they wait for others to express their ideas before they jump in with theirs, they don’t need to be at the centre of every conversation, and when they present ideas they tend come out more fully formed and well thought out.
Two ways that I have tried to be more like an introverted leader is by listening more closely and backing off more often to allow people who work for me to be the centre of things. Listening closely seems to be a theme that keeps arising in my research in the past few years.
MBA candidate Margaret Snell and I are collaborating on a book about millennials, and the first chapter, on how to better work with millennials, is about how we should we spend more time listening to them. Young people are taught that their views are as important, or almost as important as those of their elders. They believe this and bring that idea with them to work, hence we simply must listen more to them. So, as an extrovert, this is challenging, but increasingly what is required by today’s economy.
As you progress in your career, you must learn to turn the spotlight from yourself and beam it on the people who work for you. This is part of going from being a star performer to being a manager; from me to we.
Karl Moore (@profkjmoore) is an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. Sienna Zampino, a research assistant of Prof. Moore’s, will be a freshman at McGill in the fall.