Have you considered starting a consulting practice but wondered whether an introvert is cut out for this career? Who’s really an introvert, and can we build successful businesses? Let’s find out.
Who’s an introvert?
In the 1920s, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung popularized the notions of introvert versus extrovert with the publication of Psychologische Typen (tr. “Psychological Types”). He described introversion as “inner-directed psychic energy” and launched a debate about what it means to be an introvert that the field of psychology – almost a century later – doesn’t seem to have settled yet. But here’s what we know.
If you’re looking for guidance on whether you’re an introvert or not, don’t consult Google or the dictionary. If you Google “introvert,” here’s what you’ll find: “a shy, reticent person.” And the Cambridge Dictionary says an introvert is “someone who is shy, quiet, and prefers to spend time alone rather than often being with other people.”
But shyness and introversion are two different psychological traits. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes shyness as “the fear of negative judgment,” and introversion “as a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.”
In fact, Cain and others are leading a campaign to get Google and the dictionaries to update their definitions. The campaign’s proposed definition of an introvert is “someone who has a preference for minimally stimulating environments, due to a difference in the way sensory input is processed in the introvert’s brain.” Those are two important characteristics: “a preference for minimally stimulating environments,” and “difference in the way sensory input is processed.”
What about the Myers-Briggs definition? The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was developed in the early 1940s based on a conceptual framework outlined by Carl Jung, whom we met earlier. The MBTI is probably one of the best-known personality tests, and it enjoys widespread popularity in corporate America where it’s used by 88% of the Fortune 500. Because of this, millions of Americans can tell you whether they are an INFP or an ESTJ or another of the 16 possible personality types based on the following four scales:
- Extroversion versus Introversion
- Sensing versus IntuitioN
- Thinking versus Feeling
- Judging versus Perceiving
The MBTI describes an introvert as someone who draws their energy from “dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside [their] head, in [their] inner world.” Socially, they prefer to do things alone or with a few people they feel comfortable with. They are reflective and want to have a clear idea of what they’re doing before they act. And ideas are the most solid things for introverts; ideas are sometimes better than the real thing. For MBTI’s full description of introverts and extroverts, click here.
Despite its widespread popularity and commercial success, the MBTI has been widely criticized by the psychological research community. Many of those criticisms are covered on the Myers-Briggs page on Wikipedia.
Introvert or extrovert? It’s not black-and-white. Introversion-extroversion is a spectrum, and no one is 100% one or the other. In fact, it’s estimated that one-half to two-thirds of the population are ambiverts. Ambiverts fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but they lean toward one trait or the other. They may identify with either or both labels at times, depending on the situation. So, you might be wondering if you’re really an introvert-leaning ambivert? See the resources section for some free and low-cost introversion-extroversion tests to help you find out.
Are introverts second-class citizens?
In the 1990s the field of psychology coalesced around the “Five Factor Model” as the basic dimensions of personality. Known colloquially as the “Big Five,” the personality factors are extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. In this framework, the implied definition of introversion is a lack of extraversion.
The Extrovert Ideal. According to author Susan Cain, in the U.S., we live in a value system that she calls the “Extrovert Ideal,” a value system with “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” She goes on to say that “we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. [As introverts, we are] told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable.” And nowhere in America is that more true than in our business schools. They are veritable temples to the Extrovert Ideal.
Laboring under these confusing (and sometimes outright false) messages, it’s no wonder that we introverts might question whether we are cut out for the world of business, and particularly consulting. And yet, without introverts, there wouldn’t be Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook, to name a few companies whose products are probably within your arms’ reach right now, or any number of other companies and causes that are important to our society. Plus, introverts are well represented at the top of the wealth and influence lists.
So, with a nod to Cain’s book title, let’s look at the power of introverts in the world of consulting.
Selling for introverts
No matter the nature of the business, it lives and thrives only because it makes sales. And sales and selling are an integral part of the consultant’s work life.
At the core of any sales situation are three ingredients: (1) a prospect with a need, (2) a provider with a solution, and (3) a price that both can live with.
And the heart of the sales process is the relationship-building journey that precedes closing the deal. At the end of that journey, before the prospect is willing to make a buying decision, the prospect has to know, like, and trust you.
When it comes to that know, like, and trust journey, introverts have advantages and disadvantages. The secret is to turn those advantages into strengths (to identify, hone, and build your introvert superpowers) and find workarounds for your disadvantages, which we’ll discuss below.
By the way, forget the old mantras you might have heard about sales, especially the “ABC” of selling – “always be closing.” Constantly pressing to seal the deal is a surefire way to come off as “salesy” and turn off today’s savvy buyers.
Also, forget the stereotypes about sales and salespeople. We think of sales as a profession for extroverts. Sure, a lot of extroverts are drawn to sales, but that doesn’t mean they are especially effective. Many of the most effective salespeople use a consulting-style approach to build rapport, explore the prospect’s situation through active listening, bring the prospect’s problem or need into sharp focus, and tailor their solution to the prospect’s need. Relationship building, active listening, and creative insights are all strong suits for introverts.
Success at sales is less about who you are and more about having a system and working it. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need a reliable system for gaining visibility and getting prospects in the door, and a reliable system for cultivating those prospects and leading them to a buying decision. Being focused and systematic is another introvert strong suit.
Sales is a craft that can be mastered by both introverts and extroverts. We introverts just develop our craft differently. Given the “Extrovert Ideal” and our notion that sales is a field for extroverts, we might try to mimic or tap into our inner extrovert. Trying to be someone else against our nature is not a pretty sight. Developing sales skills, or any personal development for that matter, isn’t about trying to become someone else – it’s about becoming a better version of yourself.
Take advantage of your advantages
As an introvert, you have many strengths that can help you be a great consultant. As Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making A Difference, puts it, “Introverts can be highly effective influencers when they stop trying to act like extroverts and build on the strengths that they have inherently.” Let’s look at those strengths.
Relationship building. Most introverts are great at building relationships. We’re good at building and maintaining a client base because we “wear well” over time, which is great for building trusting relationships with clients during the consulting engagement and getting repeat business and referrals afterward.
Good active listeners. Introverts tend to be good at active listening, which is a key component in building trust with clients. And of course, it helps in deepening your knowledge about the client so that you can properly advise them. For the same reasons, it’s also an advantage in the sales process – building trust and becoming knowledgeable about the prospect’s situation, enabling you to better tailor your solution to the prospect’s needs.
Composure. Most introverts exude composure, which puts people at ease and builds trust. Composure has another benefit, often giving the introvert a better vantage point from which to view the people and the human dynamics at work in a situation. It’s a vantage point above the fray that allows us to strategize better and manage the process, whether that’s at the sales stage or during the consulting project.
Insight creation. Introverts have a knack for guiding rather than telling. We tend to be natural-born teachers. Clients learn better, and the changes they make during the consulting project are more likely to stick when those changes are based on insights that the client created for themselves rather than what the consultant told them to do. You can use that skill to help clients – as well as prospects in the sales process – to see their situation and the ways forward differently.
Systematic thinking. Because we mentally fly above the fray, introverts are usually very good systems thinkers and good at helping clients see the big picture. That’s great for planning and problem identification, but after the heady planning, just remember to get back down to ground level where the problem-solving action needs to take place.
Anticipate obstacles. Because of how our brains are wired – information gets routed through the error-checking part of our brains – we can be very good at anticipating obstacles that our clients might not see.
Find workarounds for your disadvantages
Despite our strengths, there are areas we as introverts might need to work on or offset with other strategies and approaches. Here are some typical areas:
Lean in during conversations, authentically. Many of us introverts aren’t naturally demonstrative, which makes us sometimes seem standoffish, and that can be a barrier to building rapport. So, lean into the conversation. Pay attention to your body language. Remember to smile and make eye contact. Nod and gesture. Let the prospect know that not only are you paying attention, but you’re connecting with them and what they’re saying too. But make it authentic. Remember, you don’t need to be someone else. We’re just learning to be a better version of ourselves.
Manage your energy. Recall that the defining characteristic of introversion is sensitivity to stimuli and how we respond to it. Human interaction, whether it’s in a sales meeting or networking at a conference, is draining for us introverts. It’s important to schedule times to recharge after a client meeting, a sales conversation, or while you’re at a conference. The more intense the interaction or conversation, the more important it is to have some go-to techniques for clearing and recharging.
You have to believe in what you’re selling. Introverts have difficulty putting on a false front. That whole fake-it-until-you-make-it thing might be acceptable advice for extroverts, but introverts need to be a little more grounded in reality. So, fully “own” your expertise and your services. Spend time cataloging your know-how, track record, and the value of your services. That will build your confidence, and confidence builds sales.
Find some good prospecting tools. Probably one of the biggest challenges for introverts is the outreach work to identify new prospective clients and project opportunities. It’s important to have an effective way of gaining visibility for your business and identifying prospects. But it needs to be a way that works for you – something you’ll actually do and do over the long term.
Cold calls = cold sweats. Do “warm calls.” The mere mention of cold calling is enough to induce a panic attack for most introverts. But prospecting for new business is an area where your relationship-building skills can work to your advantage. Think of it as “warm calling” instead of cold calling. Warm calling is working your network: reconnecting with past clients, connecting with current clients to talk about follow-on work and referrals, and letting them know that your schedule is about to open up for great people like them to experience your awesomeness.
Schedule the stuff you dread. All parts of the sales process are necessary and some of them you probably dread – like making those calls, even if they are warm calls, or following up with that person you met at the conference last week, or checking in with your LinkedIn network. You know it’s necessary for your business flow, but it’s so easy to put off. Break it into small chunks and do some every day. Put it on your calendar.
Practice your ask. The other big sales challenge for introverts is to ask for the sale. To close the deal when the time is right. Find some closing lines that work for you and your business. My personal favorite is simply, “are we ready to turn this proposal into a contract?”
Finally, don’t worry about the size of your network. Focus on quality and depth of relationships. Research suggests that extroverts have larger business networks and have, on average, more “friends” on social media than introverts. But where introverts excel is the quality and depth of the relationships that they form. The size of your network doesn’t necessarily correlate to sales success. Sales success is about conversions – how you work with prospects and manage that sales journey mentioned earlier.
Tap your inner ambivert
Recall our earlier definition of an ambivert. Also, recall there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or pure extrovert. It turns out that the most successful salespeople are ambiverts. And the best of the best are right smack dab in the middle of the bell curve, according to research by Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant. Depending on the situation, ambiverts can draw on all those good introvert tendencies such as listening, relationship building and so forth. But they can also tap extrovert tendencies when necessary, bringing the extrovert’s energy to prospecting and drawing on the extrovert’s boldness for closing the sale.
Speaking, training, and presentations for introverts
If you’ve made it this far in this article, you’ve made it through the sales discussion without fainting (we hope). So, we’re about to help you face the introvert’s Mount Everest – public speaking. Hang in there, the view from the top is magnificent. Plus, two of your superpowers are focus and persistence. So, let’s press on.
Sooner or later somebody’s going to ask you to give a talk, a speech, or at least a presentation. And the best time to start preparing for the inevitable is today.
According to the experts, the three best ways for introverts to overcome stage fright are desensitization, preparation, and recognizing that it’s all about delivering a great performance. And a great performance has NOTHING to do with being an introvert or extrovert.
Desensitize yourself. Desensitization means getting yourself on stage in small doses: getting face time with audiences, and realizing that you’ll survive, and even thrive. Start small and work your way up to larger audiences.
Delivering a great performance has nothing to do with being an introvert or extrovert. As author Malcolm Gladwell (and noted fellow introvert) puts it, “[a speech or any presentation is] a performance, and many performers are hugely introverted.” A good performance has everything to do with embodying the role – the role of storyteller. As author Susan Cain says, “…it’s okay to pretend a little when you’re on stage.”
Over-prepare. According to Michael Port of Heroic Public Speaking, the best way to reduce anxiety is to be prepared. He goes on to say that the first principle of performance is knowing exactly what you’re there to do, the promise you’re there to deliver on. He also says that the biggest mistake that people make in speeches or any other performance is that they lean too heavily on their subject matter knowledge. At best they might run through their talk a couple of times and expect to wing it.
Drawing on his background as an actor, Port underscores the importance of rehearsal. And rehearsal isn’t about memorization. It’s about running through the material so many times that we’re able to put down the “script” and embody the spirit and the message. To that end, it might be well to remember the advice of the Greek poet and soldier Archilochus (650 BC): “We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” Archilochus must have been an introvert.
See our companion post: Five Myths About Introverts and Extroverts.
The extrovert ideal is fiction. Albeit a widely perpetuated fiction. Don’t buy into it. Our introvert peeps are well represented at the top of the wealth and influence charts.
Brain physiology dictates how we react but not how we act. There are strategies to…
- Leverage our inherent advantages
- Work around our inherent obstacles
Many sales and consulting success factors are the introverts’ inherent strengths: listening, composure, insight creation, systemic thinking, anticipating obstacles, AND, most of all relationship-and trust-building. Things that come to us naturally.
But, we do have inherent obstacles. Obstacles we can overcome: finding ways to market effectively and prospect to fill our sales pipeline.
Public speaking is an equal opportunity fear, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. And the four strategies for overcoming that fear are, desensitize yourself, recognize that it’s about delivering a performance, over prepare, and rehearse + rehearse + rehearse.
- The Quiet Revolution Personality Test: quietrev.com/the-introvert-testom/ (short (10 questions) and free) RESULTS: Simply tells you if you’re an introvert or extrovert.
- Dan Pink “To Sell is Human” Assessment: danpink.com/assessment (short (18 questions) and free) RESULTS: Also, just tells you if you’re an introvert or extrovert.
- Psychology Today Extroversion Introversion Test: psychologytoday.com/us/tests/personality/extroversion-introversion-test (longer (81 questions), with free and paid ($6.95/$8.90) options) RESULTS: For $8.90 I received a seven-page PDF report, with three pages based on my responses and four pages of boilerplate content. It does provide a graph that tells you where you fall on the introversion-extroversion spectrum as well as four underlying measures. This tells you how much of an ambivert you are, which the two assessments above do not.
Articles and Papers
- Analyzing Effective Leaders: Why Extraverts Are Not Always the Most Successful Bosses
- How To Rock Public Speaking When You’re An Introvert Who’s Terrified By It
- Introverts are Natural Disruptors—Here’s Why
- Introvert or Extrovert? Here’s How to Boost Your Productivity
- Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage by Adam Grant
- Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introverts Roadmap for Getting Out There(When You’d Rather Stay at Home) by Maura Aarons-Mele
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.