Can introverted executives lead with executive presence?

The introverted executive

I work with C-level leaders to help them become more effective leaders by speaking with executive presence. We work on the inner game and the outer game. The inner game is all about the person and is essential to expand the awareness of self confidence of an executive before they then work on polishing their performance in the outer game. Today we will look at the inner game and especially focus on introverted executives.

I mainly work with executives from technical disciplines like finance and engineering and meet many senior leaders who tend to be introverted. One way to spot an introvert is in a crowded room, like at a networking function. The extroverts will be the centre of attention with a group of people around them being kept rapt in the conversation. Introverts tend to be off to the side, perhaps in one-on-one conversation. While there is not right or wrong here, being an introvert can get in the way of becoming an effective executive.

I have been called in to work with executives that were avoiding speaking in public, like at conferences or even at internal events. This limits the executives ultimate career potential in the long term, but in the short to medium term can impact the business. People look to leaders for direction. When a leader shuns public communication this makes his job harder. Successful CEOs like Doug Conant, former CEO of Campell Soup used to spend one hour a day writing handwritten cards to his employees which is an excellent way to connect on a personal level. That requires a real commitment which I don’t seen many people making on a consistent basis. At it’s worse, a void of communication is filled with rumour, uncertainty and indecision as people are not clear on the company’s strategy.

Here are three things to consider for introverted executives:

1. People judge you on what they see

Many senior executives believe that the quality of their technical ability, great ideas or strategic thinking compensates for their unwillingness to go and engage with people. Certainly they are assets, but for senior executives their main job is communication. Without communicating they are not fulfilling their primary purpose.

Doug Conant in an interview with Harvard Business Review said, “People are not mind readers. They don’t know what you are thinking as a leader, they hunger to know. They hunger to know you. And they are going to judge you from what they see, unless you tell them differently.”

This desire to know the CEO means that when you speak, people are paying more attention to the words you use and the way you speak, than when the finance director is presenting. That’s because people want to know, understand and believe in their leaders.

Introverted executives often send the wrong signals. Conant gave this example:

And when I was in a meeting, I might be off to the side and look very unapproachable and what people didn’t realise was, was that I was very shy and was nervous talking to people.”

People cannot read your mind so if they see you being unapproachable, they assume you are unapproachable. If they see your presentation and you are not being articulate and clear on the company direction. They assume you don’t know the direction.

All executives can benefit from becoming more self aware of how they are communicating with the people around them. Spend the next week, becoming very focused on the words you use every time you are in public with people from your business. Watch what you say just before and after the meeting, ask yourself, “Will what I am about to say help clarify the situation.” don’t speak unless the answer is “yes”.

2. Self awareness leads to self expression

Becoming more self-aware is an important first step. Many executives hit a ceiling in their careers when their technical abilities can no longer compensate for their lack of presence and effective communication.

Introverted executives needs to face the situation head-on. Conant took the brave step in his time at Campell Soups:

I’m just going to tell them I am an introvert. If you see me standing off to the side, don’t say ‘there’s Doug he’s being aloof again’, say ‘there’s Doug he’s being shy and I am going to bring him into the conversation’.”

If you feel you need support in getting ready with your presenting or managing company meetings or delivering at public conference, reach out to your line manager or HR director. Ask them for help. The impact can be immediate and positive, as it was for Conant:

And as soon as I did that it was such a freeing feeling. The power of declaring yourself and telling people what was really going on. They were more than willing to engage with me in a different way.”

When you face up to the reality of a situation and tell people, two things are apparent. Firstly, you are now clarifying why you sometimes act the way you do. Once you have told people, they will immediately “get it”. Secondly, you connect with yourself in a way that builds your authenticity – another key competence in executive presence. There is nothing more powerful, more engaging and more convincing than an authentic speaker.

3. It’s never too late to change

In my practice, I work with senior executives who can range from their late 30s to late 50s. Sometimes I am faced with an executive who asks “Can I really change?” The answer is simple, you can change if you decide you can. Conant realised this after he had faced his introversion:

Then I kicked myself that it took me until I was 49 years old to realise I could say that. I was so self conscious and nervous about it. It’s been incredibly freeing. The more I acknowledge that I am an introvert, the less of an introvert I have been. “

I have consistently found that when people face their problems head-on and work on improving them, great things happen. Shy executives have discovered that they can give engaging presentations to hundreds of people, and enjoy it. The people around them notice and their leadership is viewed in a new, positive light.


Whether you are introverted or not, these three lessons will serve you on the road to becoming a more influential executive:

  1. People judge you on what they see

  2. Self awareness leads to self expression

  3. It’s never too late to change

This blog was inspired by listening to an interview with Doug Conant, former CEO of Campell Soup and Nabisco on Harvard Business Review. You can listen to the interview here. The section on being an introverted leader starts around 9 minutes in.

About the Author

Warwick J Fahy

“I work with senior executives working for multinationals in Greater China who lack the executive presence to effectively influence key stakeholders. While these executives are very smart, very knowledgeable and highly capable, a key piece missing. Their executive communication skills need polishing. I help executives build a strong foundation in executive communication so that they are able to better think, speak and act like a leader to set and implement strategy. Recently, we helped a CEO turn his communication style from being nervous and uninspiring into a more engaging, confident and purposeful executive.”  Learn more about who I help here.

Find out whether your executive team is performing to the best of their potential with Warwick’s article “10 Warning Signs Your Leaders Lack Executive Presence”. Email me and I’ll send you a PDF version.

Warwick is the author of “The One Minute Presenter: 8 steps to successful business presentations in a short attention span world”. Warwick is author of the forthcoming book ‘Speak with Executive Presence in China’

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©2011 Warwick John Fahy

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