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Mix, speak up, get out front. Or get used to being overlooked
My boss recently told me that I am very competent and have a clear vision for my team, but in order to get promoted, I need to show a stronger personality. As a naturally introverted person, what should I do? — Anonymous, Atlanta
First of all, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we would like to express our gratitude to you for sending in a question we've always wanted to answer, giving us (and our readers) a respite from thinking about the economy's recent upheaval. Amen to that.
And now, back to business and a question of our own. How do you feel about the prospect of putting on a perky face and a big voice and trying to chit-chat and "ho-ho-ho" your way into your team's heart?
Panicked? Depressed? A bit of both?
Or do you simply feel worried, knowing how much people generally dislike phonies? If so, we're with you. Competence and vision are all well and good—and congratulations on having those qualities—but the inescapable fact is that authenticity matters, too. And if you take your boss's recent advice, you'll no doubt be sacrificing in that department.
Except—and this is a big exception —you have no choice. Because your boss is trying to help you, and he's right. Over time, many introverts stagnate in large organizations. They can work hard and deliver to expectations or beyond, but they rarely get their due.
Note that we're talking about big companies. Almost anyone with a great idea can soar at a startup, and small companies often give more latitude, as long as the results are there. But in a big, bureaucratic enterprise, atmospheric conditions just give extroverts a marked advantage.
The reasons are myriad. Big companies are constantly looking for people to move across divisions or around the world, and extroverts, by rights or not, appear more prepared for such opportunities. With their charisma and superior verbal skills, they're thought to be more "out front," able to communicate powerfully and motivate their people, especially during tough times. Extroverts also tend to forge relationships with more ease, another boon in complex hierarchies. And finally, extroverts tend to outshine introverts because early on, their outsize personalities earn them chances to make presentations to higher-ups, always a good way to accelerate the career-changing process of getting out of the pile.
Indeed, big companies are so tilted towards extroverts that introverts within them often experience a dynamic not unlike the one faced by many women and minorities. They have to constantly overdeliver just to stay even.
There are, of course, exceptions. Everyone knows of a reserved, shy, or awkward individual who has risen through the ranks to run something big. But in every such case we can think of, the introvert has something special going on, such as a brilliant, anticipatory mind for technology and its trends, uncommon insights into emerging markets, or a unique ability to critique deals. These "savant" introverts become so indispensable to their companies that they advance—their value virtually demands it. Indeed, that's why many introverts who end up in senior management are often the brains of their organizations, while someone else runs operations.
Now, it could very well be that you are one of those rare introverts whose special competency will carry the day while you keep acting naturally. If that's not the case, we're back where we started. But if you want to take charge of your career, you've already got both your marching orders and some sound mentoring advice. So get out there, mix, speak more often, and connect with both your team and others, deploying all the energy and personality you can muster.
Will your people notice and recoil? Possibly. Our suggestion, though, is to go right ahead and explain what you're doing, which is simply bringing more of your "inner self" to the office so you can all work together more effectively. You might even ask for their help and feedback. Ultimately, any and all candor you can bring to your public transformation will hold you in good stead.
And you may find that being more outgoing is a reward in itself.