When you think about a strong leader, what personality traits come to mind? Is this person gregarious and opinionated? Someone who craves the spotlight, and is maybe even a little domineering? A lot of our leaders are like this, and sometimes it pans out — other times, not so much. But what about us introverted leaders? Is there room for them in today's business world? If I'm any example, the answer is yes.
The making of an introverted marketer
Early on, I knew I wanted to be involved in exciting adventures, without necessarily being front and center. Real life had taught me this: I was in a band, but being on stage made me cringe. So, I decided to study to become a recording engineer. Ultimately this career path didn't work out, and I found myself in tech during the first dot-com boom. I partnered up with an entrepreneur who was far more sales-y and outgoing than me — a total extrovert who ran the show while I got to do marketing and operations behind the scenes.
Fast forward to today: I'm the chief customer officer at Quip, a Salesforce company. I oversee marketing, business operations and customer success — three groups you'd be hard pressed to find fewer introverts in. And while I have a lot of responsibility and am looked to daily for guidance and leadership, I can't hide who I am. My team knows I'm more comfortable riffing on ideas in small groups than in huge meetings. I experience anxiety leading up to big presentations, and try to limit myself to the ones that truly matter. And it's rare to see me eating lunch anywhere other than at my desk. Alone.
Why I do it
Marketers — while sometimes creative and eccentric — don't have to be in front of customers or investors. We can let our work do the talking for us: a masterful campaign, a clever tagline or a viral video. Marketing is the perfect blend of analytical and creative thinking. You need to be able to context-switch between ROI and metrics, over to your brand's emotional appeal and unique voice. And if you're successful at both, you can still touch millions of people without leaving your keyboard. Marketing, contrary to what a lot of people might think, is actually a great spot for an introvert.
And here's where the leadership part comes in: empathy. I've worked with tons of other introverted people — data analysts, writers, designers, engineers and more. These folks are always key players in the marketing organization, and empathy for their challenges is a critical component of leadership. Often, aggressively extroverted leaders will win the hearts and minds of others like them, but can alienate the introverts on their team. As an introvert, it can be hard to feel like you're understood and valued if there isn't someone else at the top you can look up to.
Introverts also pair well with tech founders, who have a knack for being a quirky bunch. While the best ones can “turn on” and morph into evangelists, they tend to be just as comfortable — if not more so — at their desks. So when introverted marketing leaders like myself come along and can empathize with the way they work, and take care of business while they geek out, it's a great pairing.
What I've learned
One take on leadership, albeit a reductive one, is that it requires the willingness to stand up in front of the whole company, point forward and shout “Go forth! Follow me to glory!” So introverts on the path to leadership need to learn to temporarily overcome the distaste for that kind of thing. Leaders need to be ready and willing to directly engage with their entire company, as well as customers, investors and partners. I've learned how to turn those things on when needed, even though it's not my nature.
Ambitious introverts will also need to find ways to gently disprove some common misconceptions about themselves. Just because we don't raise our hands to give the keynote doesn't mean we lack confidence. Just because we're not eager for small talk doesn't mean we're unfriendly. But it's a leader's job to support the team first and foremost. So I've had to find ways to be engaging, bold and disruptive. I've also learned to actively schedule time to practice those outgoing behaviors, along with time to recharge afterwards.
My advice for ambitious introverts
Step one – Decide whether you default to introversion or extroversion; it requires a level of self-awareness that is imperative.
Step two – Assuming you are introverted, embrace it. Schedule blocks of time on your calendar that are just for you to recharge independently. Tell your direct reports you're introverted and ask them to fill gaps. It's not a weakness, it's your personality. Find a place that will support you being your true self, then give back in spades.
Step three – Practice breaking out of your default once a week or month. Stand in front of your team. Pretend you're a stand-up comedian (many of whom are introverts as well). Don't be afraid to “try on” a different persona — play with it.
Step four – Leverage collaboration tools that allow you to live in front of your keyboard, and mix that with one-on-one and other small-format meetings to stay connected.
There is a place at the top for the less outgoing among us. Introversion and leadership are not mutually exclusive — you just need to build some skills along the way (which you should be willing to do anyway).
This article originally appeared on the Forbes Communication Council