It’s a world of extroverts nowadays — this paradigm may be subtle, but it’s extraordinarily pervasive. From interviews to networking to open floor plans, nearly everything in the business and corporate worlds are tailored towards social interaction and self-presentation. And as anyone who’s naturally more reserved would know, the constant demand for us to be communicative or ‘sociable’ can feel anything from daunting to plain exhausting.
That doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel and find a dark corner of our offices to huddle in, though. Interestingly, many of the biggest and boldest leaders we know today identify as introverted. I’m talking about the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, all of whom have been “overlooked or misjudged” at one point or another because of their quietness — and all of whom are today acknowledged as world-class innovators and luminaries.
Closer to home, some successful names who’ve publicly spoken about their introversion include our Minister for Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam, former host and co-founder of Twister hair salon Michelle Chia, and Program Manager of Singapore-based startup accelerator Kai Huang.
I’m an introvert myself, and while I’m obviously far from successful right now, I’m definitely not planning to let introversion be a stumbling block to achievement — in my own way, and on my own terms. Many have pointed out that setting up a binary between introverts and extroverts is flawed — instead, a fluid spectrum of personality types that we fluctuate upon might be more accurate.
Whatever our personalities, we all have to step out of our comfort zones once in a while. So it’s possible for those of us who identify as introverts to compensate for certain weaknesses by leveraging on our strengths, while still keeping this as our calling cards in the dynamic, social startup world:
Some may say that learning to act extroverted — thus becoming a pseudo-extrovert, so to speak — is necessary or even more fulfilling, but I’m a firm believer that that’s not the case. As I’ve pointed out above, there’re no shortage of leading lights to illuminate the path — while introverts may be at a certain disadvantage, all we have to do is work harder to create an environment which works for us. Here’re some strategies to succeed in your startup workplace that won’t make the introvert in you cringe.
1. Make Preparation A Habit
If you’re an introvert — especially if, like me, you don’t handle public interaction well — you’re likely a neurotic about preparation. Not being a natural in social settings means that we might have to put in more effort to match up to our more charismatic counterparts. Your life will be easier if you practise for those things that really matter — elevator pitches, office presentations, and self-introductions, just to name a few — as far as possible. Sometimes, it may not be about the words themselves, so much as the expression, body language and frame of mind.
And this preparation and practice more than pays off. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that by close-reading and running through whatever it is you need to prepare for — say your slides or your VC pitch — you create familiarity with the intricacies of your work. By spending more time than usual scrutinising your ideas, you’re more likely to catch problems and get to work fixing them before the actual event. It’s a good habit that might set you up for success.
2. Take Your Interactions Online
Just the word ‘networking’ alone makes most introverts break out in a cold sweat: while networking is often hailed as the way to secure opportunities and connections in business, it’s a technique that’s clearly weighted towards the extroverted. In your startup journey, you’ll definitely need to reach out to more than a few mentors, clients and investors, but it’s possible to reduce the necessity of real-time, face-to-face (read: exhausting) networking with a bit of strategy.
Low-interaction networking via channels like email and social media can be serious lifesavers, now that cold emails and Skype interviews are par for the course. In particular, self-expression through writing usually works better for introverts — someone once told me that I was more attractive in text than in person (ouch) — and there’s no reason not to leverage on it. The fact is that through confirmation bias, people see in you what they expect to see, so by relying on your (hopefully) eloquent prose over your stone-faced stare to make first impressions, you lessen the risk of being unfavorably pigeonholed as cold or shy.
3. Divide Up Your Social Time
Even if you’re forced to interact in real life, you can still stack the deck in your advantage by breaking up your requisite networking into bite-sized pieces. Here’s an interesting strategy shared by marketing strategist and professional speaker Dorie Clark:
“A friend of mine used to work at a large research hospital… She made a simple commitment: each week, she’d ask a person from a different office or department to lunch. Often, she’d meet them initially at company meetings or through project work; if the suggestion to have lunch together didn’t arise naturally, she’d tell them about her project, and they were almost always intrigued enough to join her.”
(Source: Harvard Business Review)
Networking at high-octane, packed events can feel like you’re being swept along in a whirlwind, so if you excel at one-to-one interactions — as many introverts do — you can achieve the same benefits at your own pace with just a little more effort. Whether it’s your co-founders, clients or potential investors, a one-on-one strategy won’t just get you connections — it can help you build deeper relationships with the people who matter. In a world where everyone can get connected via LinkedIn and Facebook, a personal touch might make all the difference.
And if you are stuck at one of those tornado-like events, the toilets can often be the eye of the storm. When you arrive at a gathering, just take stock of possible
escape routes quiet places where you can recharge — personally, I find that toilets are always a good choice. Whether you need to read a page of your favourite book, enjoy the relief of being alone or just rant silently at the world, these periodic breaks are for you to do what it takes to get your energy levels back up.
4. Find An Extrovert BFF
As Bill Gates said, if you’re an introvert building a startup around an idea, you had “better hire some extroverts“. Admitting that some of us just weren’t born to be sociable isn’t necessarily a defeatist attitude to take. None of us can be Jacks of all trades anyway, so by finding an extroverted co-founder or employee that can do jobs like publicity for you, you free your energy and time to work on something you actually like — it’s ‘divide and conquer’ at its finest.
One famous example is the partnership between Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg — while Facebook’s co-founder and CEO focuses on its tech aspects, his Chief Operating Officer navigates the company’s way through business expansion, communications and relationship building. It means that often the only person you need to truly communicate with to get your message or idea out is that one person (or team). Doesn’t that sound like heaven?