As a young man, he found it tough to get people to believe in his ideas and took coaching classes to get over his fear of communicating, especially in groups. But he was a gifted entrepreneur and turned a profit on everything he touched.
Despite his painfully introverted nature, this young man went on to become the world’s most successful investor, and routinely features on the ‘world’s richest’ lists.
If you haven’t guessed already, we are referring to Warren Buffett, an inspiration for every introvert who wonders whether he or she can make it in the world of business and high finance.
Buffett is not the only high-profile individual you would never have described as an introvert. Featuring in Time magazine’s list of Great Introverts And Extroverts of Our Time (Jan 26, 2012) are Microsoft’s Bill Gates, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Here’s the point we are making: it is an erroneous belief that only extroverts are successful individuals. The fact is, extroverts and introverts can be equally successful, as the list above proves; their contrasting personality styles simply make for different approaches to success.
Classically, the extrovert is a gregarious risk-taker who gladly expresses their opinions and loves to jump right into a discussion. While not all of them are charismatic and born leaders, all of them love company and thrive in a group. The extrovert is a people-person, chatty and a good communicator. They are assertive, proactive and usually act before they think.
The introvert, on the other hand, is reserved and prefers their own company. They are comfortable with one-on-one communication and may even mentally freeze when in a group. They take time to think through their ideas before expressing them, and recharge when on their own. They do their best creative thinking when alone.
It is easy to see why an introvert may wince at the thought of applying to business school, an environment clearly tilted in favour of group learning. Here, team work, group discussions, networking, group brainstorming, joining study groups and campus clubs are the route to getting that coveted degree. Why, Harvard Business School’s much vaunted case-study teaching method calls for class discussion and group participation to achieve good grades.
And why business school alone? Speaking up for oneself and standing out from the crowd are very basic survival tools, both socially and in the world of business. After all, this is the age of collaboration, one would assume that only individuals with the ability to work well in groups make it to the top.
Well, we have some great news for the introvert who wonders whether he or she can make it through business school and beyond.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes a powerful case for introverts. According to her, as many as one-third to half of Americans are introverts.
Cain, a self-professed introvert, believes that personality impacts our lives as deeply as gender and race do, and that one’s place on the introvert-extrovert continuum is a core aspect of one’s personality.
In fact, she goes so far as to say that introverts are treated as ‘second-class citizens’ and society needs to recognise that they contribute just as much as extroverts do, only in a different way.
Cain draws attention to the fact that society exalts the extrovert and teamwork to the exclusion of all else. Why, even ‘talkers’ are considered ‘smarter’ and employers place a premium on ‘soft skills’ and ‘people skills’, don’t they? Group learning in school and open-plan offices, designed to be interactive, all rail against the ‘quiet thinker’.
Yet, Cain reveals, being a charismatic, extroverted team leader or manager does not inspire better performance from co-workers or subordinates.
She says that introverted leaders are often more successful because they allow the ideas of their co-workers and teams to flourish without instinctively feeling the need to put their own stamp on the conversation.
While extroverted leaders feel the need to ‘do all the talking’, which can thwart the creativity of the group and hold back ideas, an introverted leader is much more democratic.
“Problem-solving will need more and more team work and collaboration but we do need to give introverts the freedom to be themselves, which is how they do their best work,” says Cain, an ardent advocate for balance and inclusion of different work styles.
Cain is not the only one carrying the torch for introverts. Lisa Petrilli, author of An Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership, too believes that different personalities excel in different ways in any business program, given the right opportunity.
“Introverts are very capable and very good at not only leading where they can excel, but working with teams and through teams and creating relationships, because they are really good at creating relationships one-on-one. So introverts can absolutely excel in the business world; they just approach it differently,” she remarks.
Petrilli busts some myths about introverts.
Fraser Johnson, a professor at University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School, has a very valuable piece of advice for introverts who, despite reading this piece, still doubt their place on a business school roster.
He points out that’s an MBA program is all about pushing one’s boundaries and getting out of one’s comfort zone. It is as much about learning new skills as it is about getting the degree. “It’s a low-risk way to be able to improve your capabilities in the area of communication,” says Johnson.