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Newsflash: Not all CEO’s are extroverts

The news is full of splashy headlines about brilliant leaders like Elon Musk, Evan Spiegel and Marissa Mayer taking public risks and changing industries. This post is not about them. It is about Paula*, CEO of a large, complex social services agency in transition. Paula is not loud or disruptive. She is an introvert – thoughtful, deliberate and highly successful.

(*a case study mostly drawn from real life)


The Problem

Paula’s agency just completed a strategic planning process that uncovered sizeable program and cost inefficiencies. This learning understandably made leaders of the senior teams nervous as it became clear that they would be required to cut staff, consolidate functions and create more efficient processes. More simply put, over the next year these team members would be tasked with trimming the fat.


The Risk

Getting senior team leaders to work agnostically and together in service to the higher purpose goals laid out in the strategic plan.

Paula’s plan was to set a clear course and create agreed upon expectations. A challenge for any leader, but a more significant challenge for one who is an introvert. The risk lay in failing to unify the senior team leading to conflict among the leadership and filtering down and creating insecurity at the staff level.

Before we talk about how Paula managed the risk around the organizational shift, let’s back up and list some of the traits often associated with being an introvert.

  • Introspective
  • Self-sufficient
  • Deliberate
  • Conscientious
  • Good listener
  • Assign rather than grab credit
  • Reflective
  • Focused
  • Observant
  • Trustworthy

 (Paula’s dominant traits)

Resource: Susan Cain, Author of NY Times Bestseller

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking does a fine job discussing the traits of introverts and their benefit to business and society
(If purchasing, please buy locally and independent) 
If you don’t have time to read the book, here is a link to Susan Cain’s Quiet TED talk >>

The Solution

Turns out, Paula’s introspective traits were helpful for building trust among senior leadership during the messy time in her organization’s development. Using thoughtful reflection and deliberate action she created an atmosphere of trust and open dialogue.

Here are examples of how Paula applied her dominant traits to ‘The Problem’



Paula took time to step back and assess the personality traits of each senior team member and how each responded/reacted to challenges. Her goal was to generate acceptance for the changes that needed to be made. She created individual communication plans introducing the objectives of the strategic plan that outlined the benefits for each department. She believed that if her senior team believed in the value of the changes for their specific department, there was more likely to be more inclusive conversations and actions at the senior team level. Paula began her process by meeting with each team leader individually.

Resource: This month’s Harvard Business Review article “Pioneers, Drivers, Integrators & Guardians” discusses Business Chemistry, Deloitte’s quantitative process for utilizing team dynamics and the strengths of different personality types to generate higher productivity.  HBR article


Good Listener

One of Paula’s most dominant introvert traits is being a good listener. Her individual meetings with senior staff gave her valuable information about how to introduce and talk about program changes in a ‘whole team’ meeting.

In the meeting, before launching into defining the objectives and her expectations for performance, she began with a minute of silence. This gave each member the chance to reflect on why they were there and focus on what they wanted to accomplish.

Because she had taken the time and listened to individual senior staff, Paula was able to call on key team members to support and/or debate the merits/challenges of each strategic plan objective. She knew which voices needed to be heard and made sure that specific challenges were discussed. Finally, she stepped back and asked for the team to self organize into subgroups around specific objectives. Her role became that of a sounding board giving her the flexibility to guide the subgroups toward productive solutions.

Resource: Business Insider article describing Eileen Fisher’s belief in mindfulness practice for employees Eileen Fisher on Mindfulness



Although still a work in progress, Paula has-for the moment-created an atmosphere of relative calm. Her senior staffers feel that they are an active part of the transition process and that their ideas for improving the organization are being considered. Because they are self-organized, the peer subgroups are invested in coming up with solutions for the challenges they have accepted. Paula, in the role of sounding board, has created an open system for feedback.


The Road Ahead

It will certainly be bumpy. The goals of the strategic plan will be rolled out over the next year. This large organizational shift will be accompanied by staff cuts and senior staff fatigue. As soon as one objective is satisfied, new factors will emerge.

It will be a stressful time.

As an introvert living in a society that celebrates extroverts, Paula often feels stressed out. She understands the need to reduce personal stress and is planning to offer low-cost stress reducing activities for staff (therapy dog visits, pro bono massage, once a week company sponsored breakfast/happy hours, team karaoke contests in the cafeteria, and an anonymous intranet blog where employees can ask questions about the upcoming changes).

Time will reveal what worked and what didn’t. As a lifelong introvert, Paula’s ability to listen, absorb and reflect should serve her well as guiding principles.

Resource: ‘Nine Signs You are Really an Introvert’, Psychology Today, 3/25/14  You might be an Introvert

End Note
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Until next month…