“He holds aloof from external happenings, does not join in, has a distinct dislike of society as soon as he finds himself among too many people. In a large gathering he feels lonely and lost. The more crowded it is, the greater becomes his resistance. He is not in the least ‘with it,’ and has no love of enthusiastic get-togethers. He is not a good mixer. What he does, he does in his own way?”
Carl Jung wrote these words nearly a century ago in his book, Psychological Types. And yet, every true introvert who reads them now may think Jung has been following him around and surreptitiously studying him his entire life.
We all know full-on introverts when we see them (and often, seeing is all we have to go on because hearing them is a rarity). They’re the ones who leave the party first, if they show up at all. They’re the co-worker who would rather read a book than meet for lunch. Wheeling and dealing and self-promotion make them nauseous, as does being in the spotlight for too long. They dislike small talk, despise inauthenticity, can be slow to trust, and are prone to pessimism.
On the surface anyway, such characteristics would not seem to lend themselves to success in business, or in the most common launching pad for a career in business: business school. Extroverted students network with professors, each other, and any and every business professional that crosses their path, greasing the rails toward a job offer or business venture when they graduate. They’re jumping into class discussions and reveling in group work and presentations. Is this any place for a retiring introvert?
The answer: “Absolutely yes.” At least, that is the opinion of Deborah Dorsett, vice president and executive consultant at personality assessment company Personalysis. Dorsett helps business professionals find where they land on the spectrum of personality types, and she’s worked with introverts who have climbed their way to the highest echelons of the corporate world. According to her, what introverted students need to do is approach b-school with the proper motivation.
Tap Into Your Strengths
“True introverts can (succeed in business school) if they find there is a reward for them within their own rewards system,” she said. “Most likely, if a person is a true-at-heart introvert, the reward will be ‘I know these behaviors are the best for me being successful. I may not feel natural or comfortable, I may feel fake and artificial, but I know that these socialized, interactive behaviors are the best way for me to be successful in my career.’”
In other words, to thrive in business school, introverts need to tap into their strengths, of which introspection and strategic thinking are key parts. They have to approach the problem of making it in the social environment of business school with their usual, patented quiet reflection.
“It becomes a conscious skill acquisition, to learn how to shake hands, protocols for introducing oneself, protocols for doing public speaking, for appropriate behavior in teams, knowing how to turn on the ‘extroverted and outgoing’ in social situations,” said Dorsett. “It can be done.”
Dorsett has no qualms about introverts’ potential to do well in b-school because she understands what introverts have known about themselves all along: they’ve been underestimated. The problem persisted because of its very nature — introverts knew extroverts were selling them short, but they were too polite and too self-possessed to see a need to correct the misconception. It’s only because a few high profile intros have recently broken the ranks and taken the mic that the world has come to recognize the strength of solitariness.
Cain Paving the Way
One introvert in particular has done much to pull back the curtain on those whose still waters belie the depth of their character. With Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, former Wall Street lawyer but introvert-at-heart Susan Cain alerted the world to the value being overlooked and under-exploited by our exaggerated prioritizing of the outgoing. “I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas,” she writes. “It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? We put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”
It’s these areas — strategic and deep, critical thinking, creativity and innovation, thinking outside the box — where introverts shine. In fact, these are exactly the kinds of qualities that drive successful businesses. It’s no wonder then that some of the most celebrated businesspeople of recent times — Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Charles Schwab — have been intros. They are perhaps the best proof that nothing business school requires can trump a determined introvert.
While Cain’s praise of introverts is valid and overdue, it doesn’t do much to help the introverts of today’s business schools, where good presenting and good people skills are still rewarded with good internships and good jobs. So what practical things should a student who, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy, do to thrive in b-school?
Begin with Baby Steps
Dr. Chloe Carmichael is a clinical psychologist who has taught at both Long Island University and City University of New York. She said introverted students can network online or focus on their written communication skills, but a “more promising situation” would be to dedicate themselves to growing their social side, and beginning with baby steps.
“I’d suggest you find situations where you can interact with people and work your way up,” she said. “For example, if the idea of going to a business networking meeting and working the room terrifies you, and just doesn’t seem possible, start much smaller. Start small talks with three people you don’t necessarily know during the day — whether it’s a cashier at the supermarket, or the receptionist at a place where you work — it’s doing something.”
Both Carmichael and Dorsett recommended joining a Toastmasters group. If you don’t want to pay the $72 a year, Carmichael suggested taking “any public speaking opportunity you can find,” like speaking at a local high school about the importance of finishing school or staying off drugs. Actually, if you look around, you’ll see public speaking opportunities all over the place: at parties, at your local homeowners association meeting, at your place of worship, and more. As an introvert, though, you’ll want to make sure these speeches are well-planned and not spur-of-the-moment.
Good planning is generally the key for introverts to excel in any social arena, whether it is a presentation, an interview, a pitch meeting, or a party. Dorsett went so far as to float the idea intros should rehearse “spontaneous” lines, like, “Oh, hi, nice to meet you. Where are you from?” The more practice introverts have, and the more data they have to go on, the more confident they’ll be to speak when the time calls for it.
Students might consider meeting with their professors early on in the semester and telling them honestly that although they might not be the first to speak up in class, they are every bit as concerned with learning all they can and building their business acumen. This shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to blend in in class but an opportunity for students to show instructors the depth of their commitment and to help them learn their name in a low-pressure, one-on-one environment. The fact that it’s also a roundabout way of networking is just icing on the cake.
A Friend’s Helping Hand
Both experts are also firm believers in the impact a good role model can have. “If you have a friend who’s really good at being out there with people, say to that person, ‘I really want to get what you have,’” said Carmichael. “And if you go to a networking event, act as a shadow, ask for some tips, and ask that friend to introduce you to people.”
For MBAs or business school graduates who can afford it, Dorsett takes it even one step further. “Find yourself an extroverted best friend publicist,” she said. “Every introvert in business needs a publicist. I can’t tell you how many introverts I meet who do the work but don’t get the acknowledgment because they’re very hesitant to boast about themselves. I advise them all the time to find a publicist to promote them.”
For those introverts who’ve come through business school and are looking for their first foothold on the corporate ladder, Dorsett said that it again comes back to playing to their own strengths.
“Most introverts are going to feel more comfortable with their first job after getting their business degree being one where they can develop deep content expertise,” she said. “Find a subject area that requires a depth of knowledge, because for introverts, knowledge is power.” After enough time, intros will reach a place where they’re ready to help other people develop their expertise; in other words, to manage and lead.
Introverts make for some of the best creators, inventors, and originators there are. They can and are succeeding as business school students, entrepreneurs, and business leaders in every single sector of industry. The ones at the CEO level typically say no one would even know they are introverts at heart, because they’ve learned how to thrive in a world of spotlights. They haven’t done it by denying who they are; on the contrary, they’ve used their calm demeanors, their measured decision-making, and their passion for deep relationships to get where they are. They just want to be alone when the meeting’s over.