How to Lead Effectively as an Introvert
When you think about how leaders are represented in popular culture, you’ll realise that they’re most often big personalities who command attention. But introverts are just as capable of being stellar leaders, argues Arzumy MD, CTO of Fave. As an introvert himself, he knows about the challenges that come up when your responsibilities feel at odds with your personality. He shares his tips on not letting your introversion get in your way of being a successful leader.
Gain Actionable Insights To:
- How to manage your energy on days when you have several meetings scheduled
- Why accepting your own abilities is half the battle won
- Leveraging on your strengths as an introvert to be a better leader
About our Thinkfluencer
With over 13 years of experience, Arzumy has led engineering teams in a wide range of industries from 020, Fitness, Fintech, and e-Commerce to Digital Media and Mobile Communication. He is currently the CTO at Fave, where he is responsible for building an excellent engineering team, company culture, winning products, and business strategy across Southeast Asia, at scale. Arzumy led the technical migration of Groupon Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore into a single platform under Fave Group. He was part of the founding team members of two successful exits: SAYS.com to Catcha Group and GroupsMore to Groupon. Arzumy believes in building a sustainable startup ecosystem supported by an active community. He speaks at various tech events in Southeast Asia and runs a weekly mentoring and knowledge sharing sessions with local startups. He also hosted the KL CTO Summit to help CTOs and Technical Leaders with their challenges. He is currently running the Re-Engineering Malaysia Movement to grow engineering talent in Malaysia.
Into the Mind of an Introvert
There’s a perception that leaders are typically outspoken, out there, with an alpha personality. This image is certainly perpetuated by the media, but ground realities are different. Introverts are equally capable of being great leaders.
As an introvert, I know a thing or two about the unique challenges of being in a leadership role. I am very comfortable being outspoken in a small group. Yet as the group gets larger, I tend to retreat into my head. When I started out, the imposter syndrome hit me hard. I knew I had the skills, and this was reflected to me by my colleagues as well.
Yet I felt deeply challenged. I felt that there were people better suited for the job. It took me time to realise that being able to speak about a topic and actually understanding it are two very different things. As an introvert, I tended to think carefully about a subject before speaking. With time, I grew more confident as a leader, and it became a much easier space to navigate.
Creating an environment where introverts can flourish isn’t difficult. It’s simply a case of structuring a space where everyone is encouraged to share and speak up.
If you’re promoting an introvert to lead, give them opportunities to talk. When you give everyone the chance to share their thoughts, you’re promoting a culture that supports introverts. It shows that the organisation doesn’t assume that people who are loud are better or add more value. When you open up the space for an introvert to speak, you’re making the environment less intimidating for them anymore.
You can also give them a chance to be the last person in the group to share. As an introvert, use this as an opportunity to make everyone in your team feel heard. Let everyone share their points of view, and wrap it up by reiterating their thoughts and adding your analysis as well. This way, everyone feels valued, and you are viewed as a silent leader who doesn’t just impose their own ideas on the rest of the team.
Another way to develop your leadership is to leverage on your strengths. Introverts usually work better in one-on-one settings. So if you’re leading a group of 20, you might find you’re a little out of your depth. Work on building one-to-one connections with each member of your team, and use this as a foundation to manage them. During these one-to-one meetings, focus on building rapport and influencing them, but use bigger meetings for general updates.
Preparation is another tool you can leverage to your advantage. Before your meetings, write down the key points you want to highlight or discuss. This will get your thoughts out of your head and on paper, which will help you phrase it better during the meeting. When you write things down, you’ll find that you’re able to contribute to meetings more effectively.
Sometimes, you might feel as though you don’t need to say anything. If everything is going well, and there’s nothing particularly compelling to add, an introvert will usually prefer to stay silent. Be wary of this habit, as it may sometimes backfire on you as a leader. If you’re consistently silent in meetings, your team may see you as a weak leader. They’ll run loose as a result, and won’t feel like you’re capable of leading them. If you have nothing to say, you could even just summarise the points made during a meeting and list down action items.
Most introverts are great listeners. Often, the most successful salespeople are introverts, because they tend to listen intently to their clients’ challenges instead of just getting their pitches out. As an introvert leader, you should continue to listen to understand, but at the end of the day, know that you’ll have to make decisions. Democracy is important, but make sure you’re asserting yourself when necessary.
Be the last voice in a meeting. People may not remember everything that happens during a meeting, but the last points made often stick. If people are too loud and you’re close to the end of the meeting, a simple tip is to put your hand up as if asking people to calm down (and not as though you’re asking a question). When the voices die down, proceed with your summary and action lists.
As an introvert, being around people all the time can quickly drain me of my energy. On the flipside, I’m energised by meaningful, valuable conversations.
The open office concept, for example, may not be the most conducive environment for an introvert to flourish. To be more effective, create chunks of time during the day where you isolate yourself in a quiet room. This way, you’ll be able to focus on important tasks without feeling drained.
For example, I lock down 9.00am to 11.00am every morning as my time to do deep work. That’s usually my window of peak productivity, and during this time I don’t check my phone. As much as possible, I schedule meetings only after 11.00am. This way, I know that even if I have to spend the rest of the day interacting with people, I’ll have completed my most vital tasks at optimum energy levels.
Also, be mindful about how you schedule your day. It’s all about balancing your “draining” commitments with time to be in a relaxing environment. Space your meetings to give yourself 20-30 minutes to regroup and re-energise in between appointments. You could either sit alone, or engage in a chat with one or two people with whom you feel comfortable. Find an activity that helps you feel energised, and be intentional about doing that after a meeting. That way, you’ll be able to gain energy to bring your best to the next meeting.
A meetup is a classic example of a scenario that could be very draining on an introvert. As a leader, you do need to be out there and networking. However, you might find that the large group setting and small talk can quickly take a toll on you. In such a situation, focus on having a meaningful conversation with one or two people instead of feeling pressured to meeting lots of people.
To start with, you could list down things that you genuinely want to know about someone you’re meeting for the first time. Avoid making an exact list of questions, otherwise the other person might feel like they’re being interviewed instead of being engaged in a conversation! Just think about what you’d be interested in knowing. This could include why they’re at the event, what drives them, what they care about, or what you can learn from them.
I often start by looking for someone who is standing alone or looking lost. I’ll then walk up to them and introduce myself, before asking what brought them to this event. Then, I’ll follow up with some of the questions we covered earlier and let the conversation flow. They key is to listen and respond to what they’re saying. Avoid losing track of what they’re saying simply because you’re planning your next question.
At networking events, you might also worry about managing your boundaries. You want to be approachable, but at the same time, you need to set boundaries that keep you functioning at your best. Most introverts aren’t comfortable with people coming up to them for a chat, especially when they don’t feel ready. This also depends largely on the type of setting and the topics of discussion.
If someone comes up to you for a chat you aren’t ready for, you could introduce them to someone else who is suited to their interests, or just another person at the event. Assess the conversation quickly. If you’re not ready or able to deepen the discussion, simply connect the person to someone else. This actually will work out better for everyone involved.
To manage your energy sustainably, you should find a way to compartmentalise your week in a way that makes sense for you. For me, I allocate my weekdays for social commitments such as events and charity work. My weekends are dedicated to family and downtime. On weekends, I don’t check email or WhatsApp, instead choosing to focus on activities that relax me. Most creative people need this downtime to be able to add value to their work.
I also schedule time to think without any outcomes. Every Saturday morning, I take around 30 minutes to an hour to sit alone and ponder. This time to let my mind wander often helps me collate my thoughts and prepare for the week ahead. You should allocate time for whatever helps you feel reconnected with yourself. Meditation is also a powerful way to find inner balance. The time you take for yourself over the weekend will help you manage your energy over the rest of the week.
Leaders struggle when they don’t believe in their own authority. Only when you believe that you are capable of making decisions will you fully grow into your role as a leader. Asserting your authority can become difficult if you’re managing your friends, especially in a close startup environment. But be clear that you have the authority, and embrace the role you’ve been given.
It all begins with acceptance and self-awareness. Accept that you’re no less effective as a leader just because you’re an introvert. Accept that you don’t have to be loud to command the room. Accept that you don’t have to be the smartest person, or that you might be the last one to speak. You were chosen for the leadership position for a reason, and you have the skills you need to succeed.
If you struggle with accepting your leadership abilities, you will find it difficult to adopt the tactics you need to grow and succeed. You were selected for the leadership role for a reason. It could be because you’re smart, people respect you, or you’re the most senior in the team. Whatever be the reason, the expectation of a leader is the same: to make good judgements.
Good judgement is a combination of experience, contextual awareness, information, and skills. If any of these are lacking, find the people who can complement where you lack. With this, you should trust that you are capable of making sound judgements with the company’s best interests at heart, you can the voices that discourage you. Your only job is to make the most well-informed decision.
One key mistake that introverted leaders make is not talking to the team. Most introverts believe that they’re not good at socialising, and find it quite awkward to initiate conversations with the team. However, you should make a conscious effort to overcome this discomfort. The benefits of talking to your team, getting to know them, and bonding over shared experiences greatly outweigh the potential discomfort you think you’ll feel by socialising with them.
You should also be careful about not letting louder people overshadow conversations. As an introvert, you might find it easier to let the louder members on your team take control and steer the situation. However, this will only undermine your leadership. You don’t have to be loud, but speak up and make yourself heard.
Here’s a quick checklist of how you can contribute effectively in a room full of extroverts:
- Pull everyone back if the conversation is derailed to other directions
- Speak last
- Put your hand out to get attention
- Summarise all ideas
- Rephrase others’ ideas in your own words
As a result of their tendency to live in their heads, introverts also tend to overthink things. As a result, you might find yourself second-guessing the decisions you’ve made. When you stop overthinking and accept your own authority, you’ll find it easier to be firm when you need to.
Lastly, don’t put off making decisions. You might do this because you don’t believe in your own authority and would prefer to have consensus in the team. However, realise that your team actually wants to be managed. If you let your team have disproportionate freedom to make decisions, you will find that things won’t get done. Discuss with your team, but eventually take the responsibility of making decisions.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Come Prepared
Write down a list of points or topics you want to highlight before you go into meetings. This will help get things out of your head, and put you in the right frame of mind to contribute effectively.
- Master Energy Management
Schedule your work days to reflect the healthy balance you need. Schedule one-to-one chats over big meetings where possible. If you have a task that’s particularly draining, schedule some time to be alone or doing an activity that relaxes you afterwards.
- Play to Your Strengths
Be present – this is the strength of an introvert, capitalise on this; the understanding you have of others. Don’t compare yourself to extroverts and try to beat them at their own game. Instead, listen actively and be present.
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