Leadership & Productivity

Do extroverts make better leaders? Quiet founders sound off against the entrepreneur stereotype

20 min read

07 January 2019

Editorial Director

The profile of the typical entrepreneur is different from what we see in the media. We talk to some self-confessed introverts on growing their business against all odds (and entrepreneur stereotypes).

Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky. Closer to home, Revolut’s Nikolay Storonsky, Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Deliveroo’s Will Shu. These are the global poster boys for modern entrepreneurship.

What they have in common, apart from building billion dollar businesses that have changed the world forever, is their youthful, media-savvy exuberance. They’re also all upper-class wunderkind males that have arguably created a schema for what it means to be an investment-backed business owner today.

But the real portrait of an entrepreneur is very different. Not everyone who starts their own business even identifies as an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur stereotype is holding many business owners back precisely because not everyone is a born visionary, tech guru or most importantly, a natural extrovert.

For female founders, the Silicon Valley savant stereotype actually harms their access to growth finance and closes many doors that should be thrown open.

In fact, a 2018 MIT study found that the average age of startup founders is around 42, and the average age of entrepreneurs who founded high-growth companies is 45.

The research also found that 20-something founders have the lowest chance of starting a company with a successful exit. When addressing the needs of the UK’s millions of entrepreneurs, we can’t afford to overlook diversity of thought, background and management style.

Business leaders tend towards extroversion

According to The Myers-Briggs test, the world’s population is split down the middle in terms of those who prefer extroversion and introversion. Recently, the personality test company ran a survey of a global sample of over 200,000 people in employment, which reveals that only 40% of executives, top executives, and senior managers lean towards introversion. This is not always the case and does vary country by country. For example, in the UK, only 30% of executives prefer introversion, which is significantly lower than 40% of executives in the United States and 38% of executives in India.

People are far more complex than simply introverts and extroverts. In fact, Introversion and extroversion are more verbs than nouns. Every person outwardly displays extroversion and introversion in some part of their personality.

Heikki Väänänen is CEO and co-founder at HappyOrNot, the technology behind ‘smiley’ feedback system found in airports and retail outlets around the world. For Väänänen, introversion is a key business trait that can be overlooked in favour of flash and pomp.

“Introverted leaders ask more questions, and so hear and understand more, while extroverted leaders hear or learn almost nothing,” he says.

“As a CEO I believe you should follow a 75:25 ratio, by which you listen 75% of the time and speak 25%. During the first two years of people’s lives they are 100% introverts, and maybe that is the reason why babies learn so much as they only focus on listening and learning, rather than talking.”

For introverts it is easier to understand what is happening around them, and people also find you more approachable to discuss issues and express their views; the importance of this cannot be overstated.

The more you listen, the more you learn about customer behaviour, how your company’s current offering fits into that, how improvements can be made, he explains. “That being said, a leadership team made up of just introverts would not work, as there is a need for diversity and the right balance.”

According to personality type dynamics theory which looks at how parts of personality type work together, the most developed part of an introvert’s personality is introverted. The part of an introvert’s personality that’s extroverted is a less developed part of their personality. Essentially, an introvert’s personality superpower isn’t what’s obviously seen by others.

Is one trait better than the other?

Mandy St John Davey, property expert and mentor who is the current national vice-chair of the national organisation Women In Property argues that neither trait is an automatic marker for success.

“I don’t actually believe that extroverts or Introverts make the best leaders as you need a mix of skills from both personality types to be successful,” she tells Real Business. “If I was to argue a case, as an introvert, I would say introverts are better listeners and are more likely to reflect and are fairly sympathetic leaders. They are not likely to interrupt and dominate conversations but that does not mean they are not persuasive and strong characters. They have hidden depths.”

These hidden depths and rational voice of reason can be crucial when seeing many businesses to success. With business survival rates at a steady 40% over a five-year period, a balance of personality types in the management team may be the way to go.

Travel brand Party Hard Travel recently announced triple-digit growth for the third year running, and have launched a massive recruitment drive for 2019. Barry Moore, co-founder of Party Hard Travel is a self-professed introvert but believes his personality complements his extroverted co-founder’s own razzle-dazzle.

“I believe that extroverts find it easier become business leaders initially because they can step into a leadership role with a lot more confidence or are able to put on a better act that they’re more confident,” he says.

However, once you take the confidence aspect out of it, both types of leaders have got just as many positives as negatives. Extroverts can also end up being overconfident, he warns, which can play against them just as much as an introvert business leader might find the initial leadership aspect challenging.

“In terms of how we deal with the stereotypes, myself and Nathan (Cable-co-founder of Party Hard Travel) are in a good position as he is the extrovert and I’m the introvert.”

“We challenge the stereotype that only extroverts are suitable to work in the party travel industry by recruiting people based on our values and brand personality rather than the loudest person in the room.”

“We play to our own strengths so we fully understand both sides of the coin. Nathan is good at getting people pumped up to achieve a target (regularly running around the office shouting “10X”), whereas I’m good at putting the systems in place in the background to help everyone achieve the targets and helping people to understand them.”

What do introverted entrepreneurs do if they’re running the show alone? How do they counter the assumption that only boisterous entrepreneurs can build businesses that last?

Gina Battye runs a successful LGBT+ consultancy and training company. Understandably, diversity of all kind resonates strongly with her. “Better? Louder, more confident, follow their ego – maybe. But not better,” she says of extroverted entrepreneurs. “I speak on international stages to large groups and write articles that reach millions of people around the world. Introverts know their strengths and play to them to create successful businesses. Better? No. Different strategies and tactics to achieve the same result.”

Lorna Stellakis, organisational development director at Q2Q IT, Lancaster believes the best way to counter the extrovert bias is to power through it.  “In short, I ignore the stereotype,” she tells us.

“As a typical introvert, I’m motivated by productivity rather than ambition and solve problems thoroughly as opposed to looking for a quick win. Throughout my career, I’ve always found my team to be more loyal, efficient and successful than those lead by extroverts. I set the standard and work alongside them – instead of standing up and telling them what to do.

“I take the time to foster meaningful relationships, which in turn builds trust. And, trust is the most important ingredient to a successful and sustainable business, because ultimately – people do business with people they have confidence in.”

Counter bias: Understand what motivates introverts

Introverts are famously inspired from their inner world of thoughts and feelings, or quiet reflection. Alison Callan is a global entrepreneur who is also a business coach, mindfulness consultant, and interestingly, a public speaker. She feels her introversion fuels her motivation, if anything, especially as a sole founder.
“If anything drives me to go outside my comfort zone as an introvert, is to get more visible in order to reach the quieter, more empathic and soulful business owners,” she says. Her goal is to unite and explore the concept that stereotypes like this exist to benefit those who are easily influenced.

“Better business leaders are not made through their capabilities to be introverted or extroverted – but by the passion, drive, values and their ability to communicate it, to bring people aboard to indeed ‘lead’!”

Understanding the ways in which introverts contribute unlocking their potential is key for businesses and managers when hiring, especially if the management team is overrun with extroverts.

John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, reveals a clear bias among decision-makers around the world off the back of their recent global wellbeing research. “When companies encourage and reward more extroverted behaviours, they do not always inspire the best performance in introverted employees,” he says. “This can also have effects on their workplace well-being and so it is highly important that organisations work to understand the personalities of different employees, and thus enhance their performance.”

For Party Hard Travel, hiring a diverse group of party reps is crucial for the business, even if they challenge the stereotype in the sector. “They’d probably all tell you that they don’t fit the traditional mould of a party rep- but they made the customer experience all the better as a result of it- and they were so good at their jobs that we kept them on full time at the end of the summer,” Moore says.

Does personality really matter?

In a world where entrepreneurs are modelled after the flamboyance and charisma of the Richard Bransons and Elon Musks of the world, what does this mean for an introverted business owner?

The perception of an entrepreneur as a tech mogul with a unicorn fetish, actually holds back would-be entrepreneurs from seeing entrepreneurship as right for them.

For businesses looking for that juicy venture capital investment, the entrepreneur stereotype can be limiting. Most entrepreneurs believe that the investment decision will mostly depend on what’s actually in their pitch – the business case study, market research, growth numbers, revenue forecast, all usually summarised in a PowerPoint pitch deck. But in actuality, VCs and other investors receive thousands of pitches a day, and in most cases, they review these decks long before the actual pitch. The in-person meeting is all about dissecting the business model and most importantly, gauging the personalities behind the management team.

This is where unconscious bias can harm founders who don’t fit that extroverted stereotype. A founder who asked to remain anonymous spoke to Real Business about her pitching experience for Series A funding.

“I never really self-identified as an entrepreneur until about two years ago. I was at a women in engineering networking event, chatting with some truly inspirational founders. They opened my eyes to the fact that, sure I may not be a loud and brassy personality, but I am an entrepreneur. I have a strong business that has been steadily growing without any growth capital, and I may have something here that could possibly change the world. It was eye-opening,” she said.

“For years, I thought of myself as an engineer with a cool idea, helping businesses solve problems I’ve faced myself. I’m not Richard Branson or Bill Gates. Why would a VC be interested? It’s that kind of self-defeating thinking that was holding me back. But these messages weren’t coming out of nowhere. It’s a white male dominated ecosystem, and I’m never the loudest room in the room.”

As a woman in her fifties with an unassuming and quiet personality, this entrepreneur faced a lot of rejections, usually only after the in-person pitch. “It’s a systemic problem. We need a name-blind or data-only pitching process to really level the playing field, but I know that’s not practical. Maybe just having diverse investors in this space could help entrepreneurs like me who just don’t fit these expectations.”

This entrepreneur is currently closing her first funding round, so watch this space to hear more about her experience when she can go on record with her story.

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice in brainstorming sessions

From an operational perspective, businesses generally model output, especially when it comes to brainstorming sessions, with the extroverted process in mind. The downside of this is people often wrongly assume introverts aren’t as engaged in brainstorming sessions.

When introverts speak up in brainstorming sessions, it’s usually after they have evaluated and eliminated options on their own. This is markedly different to extroverts who are happy to speak as they think and engage in verbal back and forth.

To get the most out of introverts it is very helpful to send out the topic or brainstorm prompt before time. This allows them to go through their own mental processes before joining the group and means they will be confident about their ideas.

Wellbeing for introverted employees

Introverts score lower in workplace wellbeing surveys, according to the results from The Myers-Briggs Company’s three-year study. Those who prefer introversion score an average of 1 point lower on a 10-point scale, or roughly 10% lower in overall well-being than those who prefer extroversion.

Workplaces have the opportunity to find more ways to support their introverted employees’ wellbeing. Higher levels of well being not only benefit the individual but also improve the performance of organisations. The results from the study show most introverts report the following activities to be effective for supporting their wellbeing at work:

  • Undertaking work where they learn something new
  • Undertaking work that gives them a sense of purpose
  • Helping co-workers when they need assistance

Introverted types are more likely to select intrapersonal and goal-oriented activities like reading, playing video games, and meditation to support their wellbeing.

From the analytical and risk-averse to the gregarious and creative, there are so many personality traits that can only add texture and personality to a business. The real challenge for the business world today may be to break presuppositions that pigeon-hole not only would-be entrepreneurs but should-be entrepreneurs: those with the skills, talent and vision to run their own business but may find the label too much to take on.

Do you identify as an introvert or an extrovert? How has that affected the running of your business? Do you find yourself shying away from hiring quiet people in your business? Share your story with us for a chance to be featured on Real Business.