The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Do you need to be loud to be a good leader? We ask some shy CEOs how they thrived in the shadows

Introverted-Leadership-editedPhoto by Micky Wiswedel


Entrepreneur James Ransome has one Facebook friend. Yes, one. But last year his company, The Spicery, turned over £1.4million in sales, up nearly 40 per cent on 2013. So what does his number of Facebook friends have to do with his revenue stream? Nothing, in theory – but there’s a common belief that louder, more outgoing extroverts get ahead in business. James, by his own admission, is no such thing.

“I would describe my characteristics as quiet and calm,” he says. “I only ever wanted to make the product the star. From the start, I didn’t ever try to position myself as the focal point of the business.”

But rather than seeing his shyness as a hurdle, James believes it enables his brand to prosper and his company culture to thrive.

“Strangely, I never had any doubt that I would succeed, despite all the available evidence,” he says. “I didn’t suffer from a lack of confidence in that way. But from the start I decided not to position myself as the focal point of the business, which is why I didn’t name the company after myself or seek personality-focused publicity.”

This reluctance to step into the spotlight wasn’t because he couldn’t overcome his shyness, but because he has chosen not to.

“I have seen that those types of CEOs can actually be a problem for a company as nothing can happen without them,” explains James. “Whereas I like to see others take the initiative. I don’t feel the need to dominate it in the way that a loud extrovert might.”

When it comes to personality types, James is the ying to the yang of big-business founders like Nick Woodman of GoPro who’s been affectionately dubbed the ‘mad billionaire’ for his adrenaline junkie antics, which he captures on video.

In recent years, a number of high-profile CEOs have ‘outed’ themselves as introverts. Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist of Apple, known widely as the ‘Godfather of Silicon Valley’, surprised his 1.46 million Twitter followers by confessing in a tweet, “You may find this hard to believe, but I am an introvert. I have a role to play but I am fundamentally a loner.”

Meanwhile, Ben Silbermann, founder and CEO of Pinterest, has admitted he’s also a bit of an introvert and struggles to share victories with his employees. “It’s not like I’m jumping around the table throwing things,” he says. “I’m not the kind of person by nature who celebrates everything.” On top of this, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer once said she suffered from such shyness that she struggled to stay at parties for longer than 15 minutes.

Often in the start-up scene, shyness is written as a characteristic that needs to be overcome, with advice on how introverts can fake an extroverted personality. But is shyness really a flaw that needs to be fought or is it a strength that can add to a brand’s chances of succeeding?

Many of us have been in a meeting where one person has dominated the conversation, or attended an event that has been overshadowed by a single attendee. In contrast, introverts are also generally better listeners who are more focused on achieving a goal than gaining attention. A study from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale found shy people were even better at interpreting facial expressions. Introverts also often favour alone time, which can be an advantage because it gives them opportunity to focus on their goals and growth without distractions.

“If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert,” says Bill Gates, who famously retreats to a reclusive cabin twice a year for a ‘Think Week’ where nobody is allowed to disturb him.

It could also be argued that introverted personalities are less likely to rub people up the wrong way. Although self-promotion is crucial in building a company’s profile, going too over-the-top and pushing your brand down people’s throats can earn founders a bad reputation – and this is something intro-preneurs are particularly aware of.

So, how did James hit a happy medium when it came to drawing the right amount of attention in the right way? He may have only one Facebook friend but The Spicery has 75,000 customers globally and the secret, he says, is distinguishing between himself and his brand.

“I still like to be on top of everything we do,” James says. “But… I still don’t have much – or any – personal presence on social media, but I’ve become a huge fan of it for the company, as I see the benefits. I’m much happier being behind the company presence than trying to create my own.”

Rather than hoping success will make him bolder, James has actively embraced his shyness.

“As time went on, I became more and more introverted,” he says. “I really value time alone away from the business where I can get my thoughts in order. I know that’s a direct contrast to many CEOs who need to be the centre of activity. But I suspect that shy people can often be more determined and focus on difficult long-term goals rather than needing continuous validation and assurance from those around them.”

So next time you find yourself the quietest one in the room, don’t rush to fill the awkward silence – it could be the key to your success!

Polka Dot Bride

So much of this post resonates with me. I built my business around my introverted nature (hence why my picture is a cartoon head and I go by Ms Polka Dot) and have run it for eight years while looking after that trait.


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