“Introverted Leaders Often Deliver Better Outcomes than Extroverted Leaders”
Susan Cain wrote the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Her TED talk on the subject has been viewed more than 13 million times. She heard from thousands of people wanting help to bring her ideas on the subject into their workplaces and so she became the co-founder of Quiet Revolution, a so-called mission-based company focused on unlocking the power of introverts. In this interview with Karl Moore, Susan shares her philosophies around the value of introverts in the workplace:
Q: What did you mean when you said your Wall Street career was like time spent in a foreign country?
A: I was really a very unlikely lawyer to begin with in corporate finance in general. I’d been an English major and when I started practicing law I don’t even think I knew the difference between a stock and a bond. I remember going home on the very first week of work and studying this dictionary of Wall Street words and trying to figure out this strange new world that I had entered.
Q: How long did it take before you felt comfortable in that milieu?
A: It didn’t actually take that long. Some of it was just learning the language. I had come in to the position assuming that to be an effective lawyer in general, and in the world of Wall Street in particular, that you had to have a kind of aggressive, cut-throat personal style and I was worried because that’s just not who I am.
I started looking around at a lot of my colleagues and realizing that some of the effective ones were like that, but many of the effective ones were not. And that was very transformative. Because I knew that many people were walking around with a false assumption that there was only one right way to be a lawyer, one right way to be a leader, one right way to be a salesperson, one right way to be any number of things. And that’s not true.
Q: What motivated you to leave a career in law and consulting and become an author?
A: I wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. And when I graduated from college my father sat me down and said: “You’ve got to make a living and writing is a nice thing to dream about when you’re a kid, but it’s not real life.” At first, I resisted that and then I thought: “Oh gosh, he’s right.” I went to law school and enjoyed the work, but the whole time I was doing it I kept feeling this is not quite it.
And then I took a leave of absence. I’d been working 16-hour days for almost a decade and I was feeling kind of burnt out. So, I took time off, thinking I’d travel the world and recharge. But within 24 hours of going on leave I found myself signing up for a writing class, which is something I hadn’t actually thought about for years.
I cancelled my travel plans and dove into this writing class. From the very first night of the class I was certain that I wanted to organize my life around writing. I never thought I could earn a living from it. I thought it would be my big hobby and then I started to think about ways to craft a freelance existence…
Q: How important was it for you to discover your passion and purpose?
A: I think people always look for purpose and passion, but I don’t believe your passion has to be expressed through your primary job. I think as long as you have a healthy outlet in your life for the thing that is your primary passion, I think that’s really the goal.
Q: I worked for a number of years, as you did, to earn your dues, but today millennials seem to want that sense of purpose when they’re in their early 20s. Do you think there’s been a shift from your generation?
A: Yes and I think it’s a healthy thing. Let’s take the example of someone who wants to be a writer, or musician. They may accept that they’re not going to be earning their primary living from that, at least for a very long time. But they, I think, still legitimately want a sense of purpose from whatever work they are doing that’s supporting them. And those millennials are challenging their employers and organizations to instill their work with that sense of purpose – which helps productivity and engagement.
Q: Do you think introverts need to perform as extroverts in their careers?
A: Sure, but I don’t think there’s an extrovert who doesn’t often have to perform in a more introverted way. If you’re an extrovert you have to still sit down for hours at a time and focus on getting out a document, or whatever it happens to be. All of us have to step out of our characters, as the psychologist Brian Little says, and I think that’s a great thing to have the resourcefulness to be able to do that.
I’ve constantly been pushing myself outside my comfort zone and I believe the key to doing that is focusing on the aspect of your work that you really love and care about because then it’s emotionally acceptable to do things that are uncomfortable.
Q: What are the strengths introverts bring to the table?
A: I believe listening skills are something most introverts develop out of necessity, just as a way of deflecting attention away from them. They learn at a very early age to ask questions of other people and listen to the answers. That, of course, is an incredibly powerful skill to have.
There’s also all kinds of interesting research showing that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverted leaders do, and that most incredibly creative people are a mix – extroverted enough that they can go out and advance and exchange ideas with other people, but also introverted enough that they can withstand the solitude the creative process requires.
Q: What are the strengths of extroverts?
A: They communicate easily, so there’s less of a barrier between an idea existing in their head and being able to articulate it and share it with other people. As leaders, extroverts often bring an easy charisma to the table.
Q: Today’s job market is very competitive. What advice do you have for the introverted graduates looking for work?
A: Introverts tend to get really into one or two things in their lives. If you can line up your job with something that you are truly into, you can really take off and fly. In the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, research showed the best CEOs he looked at were all quiet, modest, shy, unassuming people. What explains this? Every single one of these CEOs were there not because they were drawn to leadership for its own sake, they were there because they were really truly dedicated to what they were doing.