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The Role of Introverts in the Boardroom

As the old saying goes, it takes all types to make up the world. However reading the literature about introverts, one can quickly come to the conclusion that they have no place in the boardroom. According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, introverts are seen as reflective and reserved. They feel comfortable being alone and doing things on their own and prefer to know just a few people well. Importantly, Myers & Briggs also states that introverts “sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.” Clearly, in today’s highly competitive, real-time and 24/7 business environment at first blush it would appear that introverts do not belong around the boardroom table. Or do they?

Let’s examine some of the aforementioned characteristics as well as others typically ascribed to introverts and see whether they have any value in the boardroom.

As mentioned above, reflective and reserved are often what comes to mind when thinking about introverts. To be reflective is to have the ability to contemplate, to ponder and to be deliberate. Given that much of the work of board directors involves making decisions about high-level and strategic issues, the ability to be reflective is actually highly desirable. Reflecting can mean the difference between a thoughtful decision and carelessness.

Reserved on the other hand is not so unequivocal. Those who are reserved tend to be restrained and composed. In conjunction with this, on the perimeter of reserved is bashful and withdrawn. So, some level of reservation in the boardroom can be desirable although there is a fine line as to when demure becomes debilitating to the functioning of the board. Another way of looking at this is that being reserved in the boardroom in isolation or in abundance is not advantageous but when complimented with more outgoing types can actually be quite effective.

What about the characteristic of being alone and working in a solitary fashion that introverts so often demonstrate? Boards are teams, they are, in the words of Harvard Business Review (September 2002) “robust social systems.” So does working alone have any place in the boardroom? Well, maybe not in the actual boardroom itself and perhaps not at board meetings, but there is much more to the role of Board Director. According to the 2016-2017 NACD (National Association of Corporate Directors) Public Governance Survey, Directors spend approximately 245 hours per year on board activities. Of this 72.4 hours is spent reviewing reports and other materials and 31.9 hours is spent travelling to and from board events. So in essence, 40% of a board director’s time is actually spent on solitary activities whether they like it or not. The big question is what about the other 60%? Can an introvert sufficiently rise to the occasion and be a productive team member, can they do the opposite of act in a solitary manner? Those of us introverts of a certain age and seniority learn how to adapt and participate in a manner appropriate to the circumstances surrounding us. Basically if we are to be successful we learn how to conform. For boards and the companies they serve it then becomes simply a question of evaluating and assessing the introverted board candidate’s capacity to do as such.

The ability to move in real time and to be action oriented is clearly a necessity for all companies and their boards. Analysis paralysis can lead to missed opportunities and being overrun by competitors. However, knee jerk reactions and impulsiveness can also be detrimental. The right balance is essential. In her article, “Introverts: The Best Leaders for Proactive Employees” Carmen Nobel states that “introverted leaders are more likely to listen to, process, and implement the ideas of an eager team (Harvard Business School, Oct. 2010). Here we see once again, that introverts working with extroverts is optimal.

In a recent article in Psychology Today (Allison Abrams, June 2017), the following seven characteristics were attributed to introverts:

1. Creative minds

2. Ability to think outside the box

3. Attunement to others

4. Uncanny powers of observation

5. Ability to overcome challenges

6. Ability to form genuine connections

7. Ability to quietly change the world

Number seven is particularly interesting. So, the next time the question of a board director appearing too introverted comes up, before being too critical, consider the positives associated with this type of person. Work with their strengths and together with their more extroverted team mates anything is possible!