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Career coach: tips for introverts who aspire to leadership positions

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, February 28, 2011; 23

Most people know whether they are extroverted or introverted from their own experiences or from the results of a personality test. Extroverts often feel energized by situations that let them work and socialize with others and be actively involved in the world. Introverts typically feel energized when they can work alone or spend leisure time alone and have plenty of time to reflect on what they are doing. They focus their energy on concepts, ideas and internal experiences. They may need quiet time to reenergize.

One commonly used tool, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, estimates that about half the U.S. population consists of introverts and about four in 10 top executives are introverts. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steven Spielberg, Andrea Jung, Charles Schwab and Brenda Barnes come to mind. In Jennifer Kahnweiler's book, "The Introverted Leader," she notes that introverted individuals are excellent leaders for a number of reasons, including:

-- They think about things and then share their thoughts. They are often great listeners who use what they have heard to make a comment, which can move the group forward.

-- They appear calm and prepared. During stressful times, it is critical to have a leader who displays calm confidence.

-- They are usually comfortable with writing down their thoughts and can effectively share these via e-mail and online social networking tools.

-- They seek depth over breadth and really try to dig deep into issues and ideas before moving on to new ones.

Despite large numbers of introverts at the top of organizations and their strengths, there still seems to be a bias in favor of people who are extroverted. Introverts may be described by others as lacking social skills, being withdrawn, loners, unfriendly or shy. What can introverts do to dispel these misconceptions and ensure that others do notice their contributions? In her book, "Self-Promotion for Introverts," Nancy Ancowitz explains that it is important for introverts to increase their visibility at work to get credit for their ideas and be given the opportunities for higher-level positions (if that's what they want).

Based on her ideas and other advice that I have often given to introverts aspiring to leadership positions, here are some tips:

Accomplishments: Keep a file of your accomplishments throughout the year. Throw in letters from clients or colleagues, performance feedback and awards. At least once or twice a year take the time to organize these data so that you can mention them when you have an important meeting with a superior.

Practice stating your accomplishments in front of a trusted coach or mentor to get feedback.

Attendance and participation at meetings:

-- Make sure you are periodically on the agenda at meetings. Don't feel you have to make as many comments as extroverts. Offer one or two key points. Prepare for the meetings and the points you will raise.

-- After meetings and within a day or two, send out follow-up emails to note your points and contributions and to acknowledge those raised by others.

Networking:

Networking can be very stressful or overwhelming for introverts, despite the fact that it can be important for their careers. Pick events where you might know a few people or will feel welcome.

-- Once you are there, take a few deep breaths to calm down. Remind yourself that everyone is not watching you. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, which can make you feel more anxious.

Come up with a reasonable plan or specific goals for each networking event you attend and be realistic. Perhaps you decide you will meet two new people or share your business card with three individuals. I once coached a very strong introverted executive who said he really wanted to attend a specific networking event. He signed up for it, arrived, then left within minutes. Later, when we talked about the event, he said he just froze and was overwhelmed with thinking he had to meet everyone. Once he left he was upset at himself and demoralized. We talked about how he needed to set a specific goal for the event, which is what he did the next time.

Ask questions of the other person and listen. These are natural skills of introverts. Make sure to also share a few things about yourself, maybe your hobbies or interests. People relate better to individuals who share something about themselves. They also remember those people better.

Make sure you recharge:

-- Be careful not to overschedule yourself with activities and people.

-- Use down time to rest. Maybe this occurs on your commute or nights or weekends.

-- Allow time to prepare for meetings, speeches, etc. Don't let others "steal" your reflection time.

Practicing these behaviors makes them easier. Some things will feel awkward at first, but then you feel more comfortable and confident. A very introverted executive I once coached deliberately pushed himself to be the leader of a new professional group he joined. He told me he did this to practice his skills in an environment where nobody knew he was introverted. When I met with the members of the group, they bragged about his outstanding interpersonal skills and called him "a natural-born leader." Remember, so much of it is about practice and preparation.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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