Three Introverted CEOs and What You Can Learn From Them

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1. Douglas Conant, the much-celebrated and beloved former CEO of Campbell Soup. In addition to famously turning around his company, Conant is well-known for his quietly humane touch. Like many introverts, he’s interested in building alliances one person at a time. For example, during his tenure at Campbell, he wrote over THIRTY THOUSAND handwritten letters to thank employees for a job well done.

In his insightful new book, TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, Conant offers this advice for winning hearts and minds:

“…simply take the next unplanned interaction as an opportunity to help. Maybe you can ask the right question to help someone get a little clearer, or maybe you can reinforce the importance of a project to help a team become a little more committed. Now think about what would happen if you were to be helpful to others three times a day for the next week. How would that feel? What if you were to do it again next week, and the week after that? Twenty TouchPoints a week in which you made a difference would add up to more than a thousand such TouchPoints in a year…”

(Conant also discusses his shyness and introversion in this Harvard Business Review blogpost.)

2. John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla. As a self-aware introvert, Lilly realized that he needed to pay attention to how he came across to employees. Sometimes he would walk along, happily lost in thought, only to find that he’d inadvertently insulted people. Here’s Lilly, from a Q and A in Fast Company:

“…I started noticing my interactions in the hallway. I’m an engineer by background and a bit of an introvert naturally. When I walk between meetings, I think about things. A lot of times I’ll be looking down my phone or looking down at the floor while I think things through. It’s sort of a natural engineer behavior, but it’s pretty off-putting if your CEO walks by you and doesn’t look up and notice you. And so I forced myself to do things that aren’t natural for me.”

3.  William McKnight, president and chairman of 3M during the 1930s and 1940s:  In Drive, his fascinating book on motivation, Daniel Pink describes McKnight as “a fellow who was as unassuming in his manner as he was visionary in his thinking. McKnight believed in a simple, and at the time, subversive, credo: ‘Hire good people, and leave them alone.’”

McKnight put this into practice by allowing 3M’s technical staff to spend up to 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. And it paid off — one scientist dreamed up Post-it notes during his “free” time. What’s more, writes Pink, “most of the inventions that the company relies on even today emerged from those periods of…experimental doodling.” (emphasis mine)

Question for you: Do you find any of these three leaders useful as role models? What introverted leaders do you know and admire?


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24 Comments

  1. Tom Rhoads on 28.07.2011 at 08:52 (Reply)

    My favorite introvert CEOs are David and Jan Blittersdorf who run a company here in Vermont called NRG. David is an engineer who started NRG and was the original CEO and president and Jan took over as CEO and president about six years ago. They have great benefits and have won numerous state and national business awards.

    1. Susan Cain on 28.07.2011 at 09:07 (Reply)

      Thx, Tom. I would love to know more about them, in particular (a) how do you know they’re introverts — do they talk about it? and (b) do their policies or styles reflect their personalities?

      1. Tom Rhoads on 28.07.2011 at 10:50 (Reply)

        Hi Susan. I’ll respond quickly.

        (a) They both identify as introverts, although Dave seems to be more introverted. They have a cute story about how they met at UVM because Jan worked up the courage to sit next to Dave at an assembly. David claim he never spoke to anyone in high school, so if it was up to him they probably never would have met.

        (b) They are an engineering firm that is very concerned with the environment. They reward employees who use solar and wind in their homes and who own cars like the Prius with annual cash payments. People who work there find it rewarding because they are treated well and they believe in what they are doing.

  2. Danielle on 28.07.2011 at 09:47 (Reply)

    John Lily deep in thought, staring at his shoes.

    I too do the same thing. I was once told by a young HR counsellor that I am disconnected from people because she caught me staring at my feet deep in thought in the elevator (I was on my way to the office supply desk to pick stuff up and was reviewing the contents of my desk in my head to make certain I wouldn’t forget anything).

    Personally, I don’t see why I should have to explain my every move or thought every minute of the day to a HR counsellor and why I should be forced to automatically chit chat with someone I’ve seen more than once during the same day, title or no title. If I see someone 100 times a day, does this mean I have to say hello to that person 100 times a day?

    People, I’d love your thoughts on this one.

    1. Matthew on 29.07.2011 at 14:09 (Reply)

      100 hellos a day is too many. 25 is the cutoff. :-)

      I’m troubled by the variety of insults that amount to “you’re introverted.” I guess all insults are troubling. In the case of the “you’re disconnected from people,” one could answer “well, I’m talking to you now, so I feel connected.”

    2. Phil Holmes on 30.07.2011 at 09:46 (Reply)

      My thoughts are mixed. On the one hand, I’ve been on the receiving end of subtle and direct coaching designed to make me behave in a more extraverted fashion. I did not like it, and was often frustrated by the fact that while introverts are often coached to speak up, extraverts are rarely coached to shut up; beyond that, I am becoming increasingly vexed by the fact that extraverts (who are more numerous and in any event, of course, more likely to make their presence known) are very good at creating a certain environment, acting like that environment is natural and inevitable (and not simply one that they have created), and then condemning introverts for not behaving appropriately there.

      On the other hand, I also know that regardless of one’s preferences, sometimes situations in business must be dealt with using one’s non-preferred behaviors. Sometimes an introvert is going to HAVE to speak up, speak out, and engage fully and on an equal basis with extraverted colleagues. So, whenever I coach anyone, I do my best to focus on actual behaviors and actual impacts in actual situations. Not, “you need to speak up more,” but, “in that meeting just now, I feel that your comments could have turned the tide at a critical moment, and you did not speak; and now that moment has passed and we therefore have a lot more work to do. How could you have handled that differently?”

  3. Melissa on 28.07.2011 at 16:44 (Reply)

    Thanks for this inspiring post!

    1. Susan Cain on 28.07.2011 at 18:40 (Reply)

      You’re welcome!

  4. Greg Markway on 28.07.2011 at 18:08 (Reply)

    Thanks for posting this. I am a lifelong introvert. This was never a problem for me as a psychologist, but 3 years ago I moved to a senior manager/leadership role in a large organization. I recently completed a wonderful training program that emphasized how introverts may have strengths in strategic thinking and forming collaborative relationships. That training was very empowering for me, and, ironically, I now speak up more forcefully when I need to be heard. Many years ago, I heard an axiom about family therapy: “The person you need to listen most closely to is the person who is not talking.” Our culture/society needs to recognize that the person who is not talking often has the most important things to say.

  5. Susan Cain on 28.07.2011 at 18:42 (Reply)

    Greg, this is really interesting. Would you be up for sharing more information about the training program? Was it run by your organization or by an outside consultant? I ask partly because I plan to do a lot of speaking to corporate audiences and am always looking for examples of organizations that successfully harness the strengths of their introverted employees.

    1. Greg Markway on 28.07.2011 at 18:57 (Reply)

      Susan, I immediately thought of my training when I read of your interest in corporate training. I’d be happy to share in detail. I will write up a summary and send to you.

      1. Susan Cain on 28.07.2011 at 19:35 (Reply)

        That is really kind, thank you.

  6. David C. on 30.07.2011 at 06:58 (Reply)

    I so wish I had this type of information a few years ago. I was fired from a job essentially, because I was reassigned to a different supervisor who just couldn’t understand how I worked. In meetings I said very little, but I listened a lot. After the meeting, when I had time to distill my thoughts, I would write a summary and submit that to my supervisor. It worked great for years when the supervisor, who once told me I was the second quietest person he’d ever met - first place went to his wife, understood how I worked and appreciated someone who could listen. The new one became angry, yes screaming-yelling angry, with me from the start that “I didn’t contribute” in meetings. I did, just not in a way he could understand. It sounds like Mr. Conant works in much the way that I did. If only I could have put this article on my supervisor’s desk and said “I’m like this”. It may not have helped my situation, but it may have helped me realize that there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

    1. Susan Cain on 30.07.2011 at 20:56 (Reply)

      Wow. Sounds like that second supervisor had some issues of his own… I’m sorry you had to deal with that. Were you able to discuss the situation with him, or was he not amenable even to that?

      To your point about “if only I could have put this article on my supervisor’s desk” — in the Harvard Business Review blogpost I linked to above, Conant says that he is up-front with people who work for him, explaining that he’s shy and introverted, not aloof. He says that this simple declaration — if you read his book, you’ll see that he’s big on honest declarations — helped people understand him and also open up to him. I wondered whether it would work as well for someone who’s not already in a position of power. I would love to ask him whether he made that particular declaration all through his career, or only when he reached the top. I guess I think it would work well in other cases too, but only after earning others’ respect if not via title then through contributions/achievements.

      1. David C. on 31.07.2011 at 08:46 (Reply)

        I tried, but it fell on deaf ears. I attempted to do it his way, but crafting my thoughts into words just seemed to go too slowly for him. I suppose he thought highly of those who think on their feet. My best thinking gets done staring into space and that doesn’t look right in meetings, I suppose.

  7. Phil Holmes on 30.07.2011 at 09:27 (Reply)

    Wow, a lot going through my head right now, because I am a strong introvert who has worked in corporate HR functions for most of my career (including leadership development). My one general comment is perhaps too light-hearted (and in any event, may be seen as a stretch): it’s interesting to me how Conant has arranged the books on his desk. They constitute a kind of barrier between him and anyone sitting or standing in front of him. If I did not know that he was introverted, and I met him for the first time in his office, those books would be an immediate signal of introversion. Of course, that’s just one “data point” (a term that is popular among my colleagues at the moment). I would look for other corroborating signs, but would still feel confident of my appraisal.

    1. Susan Cain on 30.07.2011 at 20:51 (Reply)

      SUCH a great observation about the row of books! I hadn’t noticed it myself.

  8. Casey on 31.07.2011 at 02:41 (Reply)

    I want to point out that when I read that Conant wrote THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND handwritten letters to his employees at Campbell’s it struck me as a gross exaggeration, so I did some figuring. He was CEO at Campbells for 10 years, so to have written that many letters would mean that he wrote at least 100 letters a day, six days a week, 52 weeks per year for a decade.

    I find that impossible to believe. Even if each so-called letter required only 3 minutes to write it would mean he was spending 5 hours a day writing letters of appreciation, leaving him precious little time to handle his core responsibilities. And if he actually was writing 500 letters a week for this purpose he couldn’t possibly have actually known anything more than a name and job title for many of the people he was writing to, since he would never have had the time to meet and talk with them!

    Do you really believe that the CEO of a large company would spend 25 or more hours every week for ten years writing notes to people about whom he couldn’t possibly have any significant knowledge? At best he might of been signing letters mass-produced by his secretary. He certainly didn’t actually write over
    300,000 letters in 10 years!!

    1. Susan Cain on 31.07.2011 at 23:11 (Reply)

      You’re absolutely right, Casey, good catch. I went back and looked at the source of that figure — it was a blogpost Conant wrote for the Harvard Business Review, called “Secrets of Positive Feedback” — and it was 30,000, not 300,000! Sorry for the typo, which I’ve since fixed.

  9. Danielle on 31.07.2011 at 13:13 (Reply)

    Two things I noticed while watching Dr. Phil’s TV program. During one program, they had a psychologist verify the decorative contents of a number of his management employees’ offices, including his own and that of his wife and the psychologist proceeded to judge each person’s personality based on their office decorations.

    On another program, he was talking about having three types of people on his show. He noticed that his extraverted guests sat in the first three rows, the introverted ones sat in the middle rows and the ones who didn’t want to get noticed by the cameras sat in the back rows as close to the aisles as possible to exit the show faster.

    Is it any wonder why we feel more and more like amebas under a microscope. What ever happened to getting to know someone on a personal level before judging them on how they chose to decorate their office space or where they sit in an audience. I for one never bring personal decorations at the office not because I don’t like them, but because we have less and less office space to work with. It has nothing to do with my personality type. The person who sits in the back row of an audience may have a physical problem that you do not know about causing her/him to sit there to have less problems leaving the place.

    It is possible that Mr. Conant’s manuals reminded him of inspirational life lessons and having them there were not only a reminder of these life lessons to be used daily in his work but also made it easier for him to pick one up and read a favourite passage. Perhaps they were used to inspire him in writing the many letters he wrote.

  10. Laura E. Kelly on 31.07.2011 at 14:48 (Reply)

    I just came across this great speech given by Yale professor and writer William Deresiewicz at West Point (of all places) on the need for leaders to step back, unplug, and ask themselves the important questions once in while. In other words, act more like introverts! I wish more corporate and political leaders could find the time to pay heed.
    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/

    (I found the above article on The Atlantic’s recent list of outstanding long-form journalism from the past year. Some great stuff: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/05/nearly-100-fantastic-pieces-of-journalism/238230/)

    1. Danielle on 31.07.2011 at 18:17 (Reply)

      Laura,

      Thanks for finding the written version of Mr. William Deresiewicz’ West Point speach. I watched him give this very speach on TED and found it to be very inspirational. I’m glad you have given us the link. Now I have it to read whenever I need to lift my spirits or take one of the hard decisions he so aptly talks about.

    2. Susan Cain on 31.07.2011 at 23:13 (Reply)

      Laura, I absolutely love this speech and in fact have recommended it a couple of times for my Friday weekend-reading picks! Thx for sharing it.

      Also, I hadn’t known about the Atlantic list. Keeping it open on my browser so I can dip into it often. A great find - thx.

  11. Brittany on 05.08.2011 at 22:30 (Reply)

    I think Douglas Conant sounds like a good role model, I like how he wrote over 30,000 handwritten thank yous to his employees. If that doesn’t show he cares about them, I don’t know what would.

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