Design Leadership for Introverts

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How introverted designers and design leaders can operate successfully in a world where the extrovert ideal is desired.

Introduction

In Susan Cain’s 2012 Ted Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” she said that we live in a world where the extrovert ideal is desired. As a leader in design, this certainly feels true for me.

When people paint a picture of what a leader looks like, it often looks like this: A leader commands the center of attention. A leader is outgoing, talkative, and dominant. A leader is able to deliver charismatic speeches, rallying large audiences at a drop of a hat. A leader is the ultimate salesman; people hang onto their every word, waiting for their next one with bated breath.

A leader is, in essence, an extrovert. I’m not saying this is a BAD way to lead. I’m saying this is not the ONLY way to lead, and certainly not all the time.

Which begs the question: If we can accept that the world desires extroverts, how can we as introverted designers and design leaders operate successfully within it?

For years, I’ve grappled with my introversion and my desire to lead and thought the solution was an obvious one: Be more extroverted. Yet, every time I tried, it always felt unnatural; I was forcing myself to be someone I was not.

Little did I realize that all this time, the little workarounds, my ways of working I’ve used to achieve the desired outcome my way, were techniques that harnessed my introverted gifts. I was using my introverted ways as a superpower.

In this article, I’ll be sharing my techniques that have allowed me to operate successfully as an introverted designer and design leader while remaining my true authentic self.  

I’ll be sharing them around four areas and activities where I believe we do most of our designing and leading. They are meetings, team selection, social media, and networking.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite workplace activity: meetings.

Meetings

50-60% of your meetings should be 1:1s

By far, my favorite type of meeting is a 1:1. As an introvert, you only have to focus on one person, not a group of people competing for attention. It’s really a conversation between two people: one person speaks, the other one listens (at least most of the time).

More importantly, it is away from the public eye. People are more open to being wrong when no one else is looking. They are also more open to tell you what they really think when nobody else is listening. If you have an alternate view, people are more willing to listen and consider it.

In my opinion, 50-60% of your meetings should be 1:1s.

Also, when it comes to 1:1s, context changes behavior. If you have a difficult subject to discuss with another person, for example, when they are having personal problems at home, changing where you have your meeting can change the person’s behavior and the outcome of the meeting.

You don’t have to be stuck in a meeting room to have a meeting. You can take a walk, sit on a sofa for a change, have a meeting over lunch or coffee. It’s an opportunity for you to engage on a personal level, away from the prying eyes of others, and away from business and behaviors as usual.

Changing where you have your 1:1s can change behaviors and outcomes.

Put yourself on the agenda

If you are going into a meeting and you have something to say but are concerned you may not have the chance to say it, put yourself on the agenda.

It can be your agenda, it can be someone else’s agenda. It does not matter. Put yourself on the agenda. That way, your turn will come as the meeting proceeds.

Tell others beforehand to pull you in

In meetings, you might notice that some people are better at “hogging the microphone” than others; they hold people’s attention. This comes naturally to them, but it may not come as naturally to you.

In contexts like this, tell these individuals beforehand to pull you in.

It might sound something like this:

Hey Joe. Sometimes, in meetings, I may appear quieter than usual. I may have a look on my face that says I want to say something, but I am not saying it. If you see me like that, don’t be afraid to say “Tim, what do you think?”

I’m not afraid of being put in a spot. If I have something to say, I will say it. If I don’t, we can move on.

It’s just that I don’t find it as easy getting the attention of others. Or I might be lost in my thoughts when I should be reacting and responding.

If you can pull me in, that would be great.

Be the moderator

If you find yourself in a workshop, offer to be the moderator. Facilitation is a superpower because, as a moderator, you control time, the agenda, the flow of conversation, and you have direct influence on the outcome of the session.

To facilitate well, you have to:

  • LISTEN more than speak
  • READ the body language of participants
  • OBSERVE the energy in the room
  • DIRECT the conversation toward others (rather than yourself)
  • PULL other introverts in and use the moderator’s power-to-pause people who “hog the microphone”

These traits are all strengths that come naturally to introverts.

Influence high stakes meetings

A high stakes meeting is one where an ultimate decision has to be made; it’s a go or no-go decision. It usually involves a lot of people. Your boss is there. Your boss’s boss might be too.

There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this one meeting, and usually it’s with people with strong opinions and loud voices. So as an introverted design leader, what do you do?

I’ve been to a few of these high stakes meetings and I think there’s a secret to them; and the secret is this:

People who attend these meetings have most likely made up their minds already before the meeting itself.

Think about the audience for a second: High-stakes meetings usually involve senior executives. Senior executives usually have more experience.

Senior executives also tend to have more things to focus on and less time to make decisions. Also, the reality is very few single decisions would truly break a company. It’s usually a series of poor decisions that will break a company.

Therefore, senior executives would lean onto their prior experience to help them make decisions quickly. Once these decisions are solidified in their minds, in my experience, it’s very hard to change them. That’s because revisiting decisions take even more of their time and energy.

Rather than change their minds, some executives would look only for evidence that proves their decision was right. Worse, some executives would look only for evidence that proves another person’s decision was wrong.

It takes a very enlightened leader to change their minds when presented with new information that suggests their decision was wrong.

So as an introverted design leader, the tactic is to influence the outcome before the meeting, not during.

Have 1:1s hours, days, weeks or even months before the meeting—how far in advance depends on how high the stakes are. The goal is to influence the thinking of senior executives before they make up their minds.

You get to explain your position, your rationale, all the pre-work and research that led to your conclusion.

You can also ask what they think. In a 1:1, people are more open to being wrong or admit to not having all the information. A monologue then turns into a conversation, and a conversation is more likely to arrive at an aligned conclusion.

Think of influencing high stakes meetings like steering a container ship. A container ship takes 20 minutes to come to a full stop. So, if you want to change the course of a container ship, you have to start steering early. Really early.

Team selection

Hire social butterflies

As an introverted design leader, you are going to need some team members who are social butterflies.

Work, after all, is a team sport, with teammates in product, engineering, operations, finance, etc. Having social butterflies on your team will help you build bridges, connections, and relationships across teams, across the company, and across our industry. These connections will help extend the circles of influence and impact we designers have on the work that we do.

It does not mean that every team member has to be an extrovert or social butterfly who thrives on social interaction. It also does not absolve you, the design leader, from the need to socialize and build relationships.

But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if this trait came very naturally to a few members on your team, people you can lean on when you’ve maxed out on social iterations.

Choosing an introvert or extrovert as a manager

In 2011, Wharton’s Professor Adam Grant and his co-authors published a paper titled Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage. They wanted to answer this question: Do teams always operate more effectively under extroverted leadership?  

Their research concluded the following:

  • If your team is made up of proactive members, an introverted leader can get better results.
  • If your team is made up of passive members, an extroverted leader can get better results.

Proactive team members tend to bring constructive ideas on how to improve things, how to make things better. Extroverted leaders tend to be assertive, dominant, and have clear lines of authority and direction.

So, when you pair an extroverted leader with a proactive team, extroverted leaders can feel threatened, as if their top-down vision and authority is being questioned. They may be less receptive to proactive ideas and may lead proactive team members to become less proactive.

On the other hand, introverted leaders tend to be more receptive to bottom-up constructive ideas and be more willing to listen if a better idea emerges. This may lead proactive team members to become even more proactive.  

When choosing a manager, consider the members that make up the team and whether an introverted or extroverted leader would help you get the best results from your people.

Social media

Amplify your message using social media

In my opinion, social media is a gift from the introvert gods.

Before, in order to be heard, public speaking was one of the best ways for us to broadcast our thoughts and views. But introverts do not respond as well to public speaking as extroverts do.

With social media, all of a sudden we introverts can reach people across continents, across time zones, all on our own terms, from behind the safety of a screen.

It’s not just about having something special or unique to say that has never been said before. It’s about participating in a global conversation that pushes our craft and our own learning forward.

If you want to argue with Jared Spool about why everyone is NOT a designer, just tweet him. If you want Krystal Higgin‘s advice on your onboarding journey, tweet her. If you want to speak to Andy Budd about the state of design and UX in London, Slack him.

All of a sudden, all of the people that you respect and want to talk to are right there at your fingertips. It doesn’t matter if we have not met before. We are all connected by our sense of community and care for our craft. We can skip the small talk and start as if we were old friends in the middle of a conversation.

If you are an introvert like me, a handful of deep meaningful conversations mean so much more than plenty of shallow forgettable ones.

Also, if these conversations happen in public channels, these conversations then represent your view of the world for others to see. It represents your thought leadership. You are what you write, share, and tweet. Your conversations on social media represent who you are. What you say and how you say it become your personal brand.

Use private channels for conversations best to have in private

Some conversations are better to have in private.

You might need advice on a delicate work situation with your boss. You might be looking for a new job (but want to keep it quiet) or have a difficult team member you are struggling to manage. These are not conversations to have in public.  

To this end, I can think of two Slack groups that are created by design leaders for design leaders:

Both groups are curated and invite only, bound by codes of conduct, and only open to leaders who work in design around the world. These Slack groups provide a safe haven for design leaders to have open honest conversations, knowing that the people listening are their peers and equals.

If you are not yet part of these groups, I encourage you to join.

Networking

Networking is one of those activities that somehow uniquely combines all the things that we introverts do not enjoy. It mostly happens like this.

You arrive in a room full of strangers. You grab a slice of pizza and a drink and stand awkwardly on the side, quietly scanning the room for people to make eye contact with you. The group over there is deep in conversation and you don’t see a way in.

You see individuals just like you, scattered around the perimeter, but you dread having to make small talk. Again. So you just stand there, with your pizza and drink in hand.

Clearly, networking does not come naturally to me, but I recognized it was important for me as a leader to extend my network. Why? Because the way I framed it in my mind is that the goal of networking is resourcefulness. It is to grow the pool of people I know who I can help and who can help me. It’s something I need to do to become a better leader.

Here are a few techniques.

Do your pre-work about attendees you’d like to meet

Some events like meetups and conferences will have a list of attendees. Scan through the list and pick out people you think are interesting. Stalk them online and reach out to them on Twitter or LinkedIn.

You could say “Hey, you’re attending the event too? Would love to catch up.”

That way, when you do meet in person at the event, it feels less awkward because you are no longer strangers. You’ve already introduced yourselves online.

Pretend it’s user research!

Another technique is to change your frame. It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick.

What if, when you are networking, you pretended it’s user research?

Regardless if you are an introvert or extrovert, most of us have met a customer and done some form of 1:1 with a person using our product. By changing your frame and pretending it’s user research, a room full of strangers suddenly turns into a room full of opportunities to learn about people.

Through this lens, small talk questions come naturally:

Who are they?

What do they do?

Why are they here?

What’s their situation?

What do they want to get out of this event?

Maybe I can help them?

Maybe they can help me?

Just remember not to ask questions all of the time. It would feel like a interrogation rather than a conversation.

Have a measurable output

When networking, have some measurable output for your networking activity. It might be exchanging business cards, adding the person on LinkedIn, exchanging contact details, or following the person on Twitter.  

Remember: The goal of networking is to become more resourceful by growing the pool of people you know. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to reach the person again when you need them.

Have an exit script

Sometimes conversations come to a natural end. We’ve run out of things to talk about, and that’s totally OK. Rather than awkward silences, have an exit script so you can leave and start up another conversation with someone else.

Practice, practice, practice your exit script. Repeat it until it comes naturally. It could sound something like this:

Hey John. It was very nice to meet you. I’m gonna circulate and meet a few other people if that’s OK. Do you have a card or can I add you on LinkedIn or Twitter? I’ll make sure I send you that article we spoke about.

Who says networking has to be a group activity?

Reach out to people you’d like to meet and arrange for a catch up over coffee or lunch to talk shop. 1:1s are great to for getting to know someone better.

Conclusion

I’d like to bring our attention back to Susan Cain’s talk and the extrovert ideal. The world may continue to favor extroverts as leaders, but I hope I’ve convinced you that we introverts have our place as effective leaders as well.

This article was never intended to be introverts vs extroverts; we all have a role to play. I hope that the techniques I’ve shared can be put to good use by introverts and extroverts alike.

Introversion is not a flaw.

Introversion is not a disability.

It is a superpower.

And I hope you’ll let your superpower shine.

Tim Yeo

Tim Yeo

Tim Yeo Design leader. Speaker. Bookbinder. Known for saying complex things simply. Formerly fintechs @OFX @Prospa, startup co-founder
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5 thoughts on “Design Leadership for Introverts”

  1. I often think I am not leader material as I am not outgoing and shouty. This has changed my mind and given me some ideas to work with. Thank you

  2. Thank you for taking time to collect these thoughts, Tim. Your superpower is showing in your careful presentation–both encouraging and instructive.

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