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Leading as an Introvert

Personal growth
Leadership

17 December, 2020

Arzumy MD, CTO at Fave, discusses the phenomenon of introverted engineers and how they can rise up to leadership roles.

Problem

At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that most engineers lean toward being introverts. We, engineers, prefer talking to a computer than other people. I was not bothered by that as long as there were only a couple of us on the team as we knew each other well and worked together for a while. However, as the team grew I found myself in a new role. As a CTO I had to talk more often to people outside my team and moreover, often publicly in town hall meetings or Q&A sessions.
 

So, there I was, standing in front of a large group of critical-minded engineers (if you would allow for another generalization) doing the talking. I would be feeling exceedingly uncomfortable because that was not me. Also, as an introvert, if I would feel that I am outside of my domain of competence -- such as talking about the business strategy -- I would be very reserved and reluctant to speak. The meetings would frequently end without me saying anything.
 

Actions taken

I understood that my strength lies in building individual relationships so I focused on one-on-ones to establish a trusting relationship with my reports while at the same time I was able to improve my communication skills. As an introvert, I was a good listener because obviously since we talk less we listen more. For the first two years, I was leveraging on one-on-ones to lead the team. At that time, I was reluctant to take any questions from the “crowd” because I felt I was not quick on my feet and witty and would wait for one-on-ones to address those questions.
 

I also learned how to channel my energy. Whether I was in a large meeting or one-on-one I was feeling that the interaction with other people was draining my energy. To overcome that I would insert some buffer time between meetings that I would spend alone chilling.
 

At the same time, our CEO was well aware of the problem introverted engineers were facing and he made sure that everyone was heard. Before a meeting would end, he would ask people who didn’t speak up to share their opinion. This was crucially important to me because I was always hesitant to speak up at the meetings. I believed that by the time I would process my thoughts, people would already move on. However, he would block ten minutes for a discussion so that everyone could bring anything regardless if it is “outdated” or not.
 

That helped me build my confidence as I realized that people would listen to me because I was also able to collect my thoughts and articulate my arguments better when I was not rushing to do my talking part. Based on that experience, the way I groom other leaders is to secure some time for them to be able to express their opinion. Also, here in Asia, we are not culturally reserved, I had to empower them and create the space for them to speak up.
 

Eventually, that became my preoccupation -- how to empower and create a safe environment for introverted engineers to grow into their roles.
 

Lessons learned

  • Awkward conversations will be awkward until they are not anymore. That means that you should continue with these conversations, and practice until they simply cease to be awkward. Simply, nothing beats practice.
  • As an introvert, your main strength is your thinking. We think before we speak. Be aware of the advantage that gives us. We should be confident when we speak up because we thought things through. Maybe we don’t talk all the time but when we do, it has a significant weight.
  • As a leader who wants to create a safe environment, you should always bear in mind that everyone can have something to say. Regardless of how quiet or timid they are, they may have something to say. You as a leader should acknowledge that and provide them with the encouragement and opportunity to speak up.

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