Back to Calibrate

Reshaping the Leadership Model: How Introverts Are Redefining Leadership

Billie Sue Chafins
VP Software Development

There’s an age-old assumption that the most charismatic, extroverted people are natural-born leaders, but that’s not always true. If you are a quiet person, you don’t have to change who you are to find success. Introverts can have a high impact in the workplace, but may have to battle the narrative that they’re not as ambitious or not meant to lead. In this talk, introverted leader Billie Sue Chafins outlines the strategies introverts can leverage to rise through the ranks to successfully lead teams. She’ll also discuss how all leaders can nurture and guide introverts to ensure they’re having a significant impact.

So good afternoon, everyone. I'm Billy  and I am so excited to be here today to talk to you about what it's like to be an introverted. I was thrilled standing in the sidelines here when Michael did his survey. And I realized that 98, 8 0.7 ish percent of you are introverts. So this is an excellent, I've got my right audience here.

So I've spent about the last two decades, really trying to debunk the myth that the only people who can become leaders are those loud gregarious folks in the room. So I want to share with you today, some of those strategies that I've developed over the year, Of how to lead while introverted and as fellow leaders, I want to make sure you have some tactics for nurturing those introverts who happen to be on your team so that you can get the best from them.

So I'm going to start with a poll. How many of you in here have ever heard feedback that resembles one? You've shown time and time again, that you have the right skills to deliver amazing features and collaborate well with other teams. However, to get to the next level, you've got to become a more vocal member of the team, or you need to be a thought leader.

What that means is you need to aggressively push your ideas in larger and larger forums, you know, find your voice. Or finally, congratulations on all the amazing work that you deliver this year. Like really stellar job. You really need to work on your visibility. How many of you have heard anything like this?

Yeah, it's super demoralizing, right? If you're an introverted person now second poll, and I want to see honesty. How many managers in the room have given feedback? That sounds like. All right. Never fear. I'm going to arm you with some, some tools to do a better job at this when you get back to work. So this, these quotes that I just read to you, this is real feedback that I pulled from my very first performance reviews from 20 years ago, for me, it was super discouraging.

I am an introvert. I am never going to be the loudest person in the room. I don't bang on tables. I love my quiet time just to focus. I love to hide and just get some work done. So over the years, I've had to come up with my own strategies to help me find success. Be influential and rise through the ranks feedback.

Like this does not help a team grow. If anything, it can cause great harm. Sometimes engineers or others on your team can pick up some labels very early on in their career. Oh, they're quiet. Or I don't know. They just never say anything. They're just like a fly on the wall or they need to be more confident.

Actually. I picked up that label in my very first performance review. I was given all the stellar, glowing feedback about my work, but told I needed to be more common. I'm sitting there thinking, like I got all this great work done. You're telling me I'm not confident. What do you mean by that? Right. But that label followed me around for seven years.

I actually had to change teams, go to an entirely new organization and I guess, full a new set of people into thinking I was confident. But fortunately I proved them wrong. This feedback can also just lead to hopelessness. I will never forget one of the performance reviews I gave several years ago, a new member of my team, you know, he was extremely brilliant, but very interesting.

And I was giving him some feedback of how he could take his amazing ideas and really, you know, amplify the entire team. He was on the verge of tears when I gave him this feedback and I'm like, what is going on? And he thanked me saying that throughout his career, he had been told, you know, similar things, like be louder, find your voice, all those types of things.

And he said they may as well had told me to get taller because I could take just as much action. That's crazy. Right? So when you have all of these people in your team who may be feeling hopeless, it can lead to attrition, which is never a good thing for your product. So what I want to talk to you about is leveraging all of those perspectives.

You know, we know 98.7% of you are introverts, but actually in the us a third to a half of the population, self identify as introverts. I definitely believe within our engineering community, that number is way high. And we put so much time and energy into recruiting and building these diverse teams who bring all of these different, you know, backgrounds and experiences to the table.

You know, we're not listening to all of them. We're not taking advantage of those insights and that creativity that they bring. And unfortunately, in our society, there is a stigma associated with being an intern or intern. I don't know. I think they think. You know, like we're quiet, we're disengaged, we're blah.

But the thing is they don't recognize we can be super creative in those very intense moments of focus. And so I want to talk to you about how can you pull that out of your teams and to all my fellow introverts in here, how you can be a really amazing leader, even though you are an introvert and by staying true to yourself and all of these things that make introvert sound inferior.

I'm here to tell you today, they are just absolutely not true. I have been in the industry for 20 years now. I've been managing and leading teams for 13 of them. I'm currently the vice president of software development at Hulu, where I lead the entire engineering team that does all of our front end development.

So I'm assuming everyone in here is a Hulu fan. So if you're watching on your phone or living room a web, my team had a hand in that, and I'm also the site lead for the Seattle office, about 200 engineers for Hulu set up and see. And I have stayed true to who I am throughout my career. I am still an introvert on a Friday night.

The perfect night for me is go home. PJ's cuddle with the dog, you know? So I'm guessing some of that is true for you too, but I do want to make sure before we dive in that we're all on the same page about what is an introvert. There is unfortunately some myths out there that say introvert means that you're shy or you're quiet.

You know, something's wrong with it. And it's just not true. Introversion versus extroversion is talking about your personality type. It's how you find energy and how you recharge. Whereas an extrovert absolutely loves, you know, networking events and brainstorming for me. It's my personal health. So later during the happy hour, you know, we'll, we'll work through it together.

But as an introvert, you gain energy from quiet. And like I mentioned, this, this is where you find your most creative moments. So let's figure out how we can do a better job at embracing that in the workplace. I really feel like businesses have to tap into the insights and creativity of introverts in order to find their greatest successes.

I want to focus on three pillars today. One of those is about giving very clear and actionable feedback. The second is for all the introverts in the room. Even though I say you don't have to change who you are, you don't get a free pass. You do have to communicate effectively, be influential and have impact.

So we'll share some strategies on that. And finally, as leaders, we really need to think about creating an environment in which everyone on your team can thrive. So let's dive in. These are those quotes I read out to you earlier. Let's go back 20 years, bright eyed, bushy tail, Billy Sue sitting in her first performance review, you know, here and how great everything was just killing it.

Right. And then told at the end, however, you have to become more vocal in order to move to the next level. I sat there quietly. Smiling, politely, nodding my head. Thank you manager. That was great. I went back to my desk. I sat there and just thought, well, crap, I'm never getting promoted ever. Cause I'm never going to be loud enough to be that vocal member of the team to get that promotion.

I had no idea what to do with this feedback. I went home feeling super deflated and just had no clue what to do. So as managers, I really encourage you to think about how you're giving that feedback, make sure you're being very constructive and very crisp and that it is actionable. So there are many frameworks out there for giving feedback.

I really like situation behavior impact or SBI, because this will take out of the feedback, any subjectivity, you know, oftentimes when hearing that type of feedback, like be more confident or whatever. It can be received as though an attack on your character, who you are. It can feel very just off pudding.

And so by using this type of framework, you can make it very objective. You can talk about in this situation you did law, or you didn't do so. That was your behavior. And then the impact was this. And I love this model because it helps people receiving the feedback, really put themselves back into that situation, into that mindset.

They hear how their behavior was perceived by other people. If I'm sitting in a meeting and I'm quiet, most likely my brain is just turning a million miles a minute and I'm trying to come up with solution. But other people may perceive that as I'm just engaged and not paying attention. And so it's really great to be able to compare, you know, that perception of the behavior.

And then it's really important to talk about the impact of that. You know, if my manager knew that I had this amazing idea, but I didn't share it in the appropriate forum, the impact is we didn't make perhaps the best architectural decision as an exhibit. So I use this all the time at work. I'm sure as managers, now you're doing calibration review, you know, for performance reviews, calibration meetings, where you're talking about folks on your team, you know, what are their strengths?

What are the areas? They work on the managers on my team know, they know when they come into my calibration meetings, I have a list of trigger words. If they say something like he's just so cool. Or she's just not very visible. We stop, we take a time out and we double click on that to understand what do you mean?

So how do we make that actionable? You know, if you're saying he's so quiet, well, what do you mean? What is it that you're asking him to do? Is it that he's not participating in code reviews? Is he not influencing architectural direction? If you say that she, you know, just needs to work on visibility, what's going on?

Is she not collaborating well with her partner teams? Is she just keeping the information to herself? And so we always go that next level down to make sure we're very clear on the skill that needs to be coached. Coaching, you know, having impact on technical design is very different than coaching. How to be a good collaborative team.

But if you just say you need to be more visible, how are they supposed to know what that means? So I highly encourage you to use the, this methodology and then on the receiving end of feedback, I would encourage you, even though I know this can be extremely uncomfortable. If you get feedback next time you ever get feedback that says you need to be more vocal.

Remember me telling you to stop. Don't just smile and nod and thank you manager for the fee. But ask some questions, you know, you know about SBI. Now you can guide your manager towards giving you feedback. That is more objective. Like, Hey, can you, can you give me an example of when this happened so that I can understand how to work on it?

Or maybe you can ask, I really don't understand what success looks like here. Can you point me to someone who does this really well, that I could use as a role model or perhaps a mentor in the organization? Or some book recommendations, introverts in general, love to read our books. And so sidetrack here, sidebar, if you have not read quiet by Susan Cain, do so.

Even if you are an extrovert, please read it because then you'll understand. We're not weird. We just think differently. So it's an amazing book. I highly recommend it. And then finally, perhaps these are just new skills that you need to build and it's okay to say. And just ask your manager, Hey, can you brainstorm with me some things I could do some skills I can build.

So really make sure when you get this feedback that feels not actionable dig in until you can understand how to walk back to your desk and understand what your next steps are going to be. So let's quickly go back and revisit 20 something year old, Billy Sue, and see how could this situation have gone differently.

If I had it to do over now. When my manager says, congratulations on all the amazing work people love working with you, but you need to work on your visibility. I would say, how did you know my work was great. If it's not visible, this doesn't add up. And hopefully what he would have said is of course it's visible within our own team, but you've got amazing ideas.

And I think you could really do a whole lot for the broader organization. So how can we share those ideas? And I can be like, oh, I get it. Well, let's brainstorm some ways I could do that. Maybe I could write a blog. Maybe I could hold some brown bags. Cause there are many different ways that you can influence and have that visibility of your ideas.

And so had my conversation gone that way, I would've gone back to my office and felt re-energized because I know what the next step is. I know what I need to go do. So really focus on feedback. It is so critical to making sure that you're getting the best out of the introverts on your team and you're helping them grow.

So, you know, these are some examples of how you could give that feedback in a different way. Rather than be more vocal, visible, louder, you know, are you talking about increasing your sphere of influence? Are you talking about, you need to mentor others? Just really put the effort into this. So now for those introverts in the room, and I told you, you don't get your free pass, you do have to find your strategies to communicate effectively.

I would highly encourage you to always think of these three. Collecting your thoughts when you're getting ready to present a case for something you're going into a meeting where a big decision is going to be made, really get your thoughts collected ahead of time. I hate being in meetings where I'm put on the spot to answer a question and I have zero context.

I like to read. I like to think, I like to think of the trade-offs, you know, and so for me, I will always ask, Hey, what's the agenda? What decision are we trying to make? What are the next steps we hope to come out with? And I can at least get my thoughts organized before I go into the room. Secondly, know how you communicate best, you know, for me, I right to think I, if I'm like really caught up in a really challenging problem and I can't figure out my way forward, I will just sit down and write and I never share it with anyone.

Typically it is just the mechanism that I use to get my ideas to. So think about what works for you. Is it writing? Is it talking it out one-on-one with one of your peers, but figuring out what that is. And then finally, you know, the third step is really to think about knowing your audience. Are you going into an architectural design review where you need to know all the technical details and you gotta be on your game and ready to share.

Or are you going into a meeting with your executive leadership? And they trust that, you know, all those details, they just want the concise TLDR, tell him what we should do. So to tie all of this together, I do this all the time. I have a colleague I never get a word in edgewise in these meetings and we both leave every single session.

Completely frustrated with each other. We never make progress. Well, we never made it got better. And so I really stepped back and thought about what could I do here? You know, I know I right to think. I know if I send an email ahead of time, this person always reads their email. And so I will sit down and actually get my thoughts together in an email.

And I basically write the transcript of the meeting before it happens. And I send that email to them. And so it's very concise and here's what I want to get out of this. Here are the decisions I think we need to make. And here are the next steps that I feel like we should consider. I send that a day in advance.

And then when we get into the meeting, I still can't get a word in edgewise, but they already know where I'm at, where my position is. And so we're able to work together much more successfully now, like it has improved our relationship a ton. Oh, you know, over the few months that I've been doing this, so really consider your audience and leverage those ways that you're most powerful and communicating to make progress and have impact, you know, as leaders, we also really need to consider the environment in which we work.

We need to have an environment that works for everyone. For introverts and extroverts. I'm guessing most of us in here work in open floor plans. Somebody had this brilliant idea. We put everybody in this big pen, they all look at each other. They're all talking. They're distractions. There's noise. It's going to be so creative, except if you're an introvert for me, I tell people the least productive place in the world for me to work is that my desk.

And so you really need to think about as a leader, we all have different work styles. Yes. Those open floor plans is fine for some, you know, spontaneous conversation and brainstorming, but make sure you have those places or that flexibility for folks to really go hide. I know the most remote conference rooms in my building, you should go find yours.

And I book those and I'll go high to actually get some work. You know, so really think about the physical space that you you're providing to your team. I would say also really think about creating an inclusive environment where everyone's work is being recognized. And this one's a little nuance. So you want to recognize introverted people for their contributions.

That'd be really careful if you're giving public attention, because it may make them just want to go crawl under a table somewhere. Some of them absolutely hate the spotlight, but there are other ways you can do this. I was once asked to send my manager list of the rising stars on my team, and I use those very consciously as an effort to take someone on my team, who I know is.

Extremely introverted. And I knew my manager probably wouldn't even know this person's name. And so I put his name on the list and sure enough, my manager's like what? This guy never says a word I'm like, ah, oh, but yes he does. And it gave me this opportunity to really open up and share this person's accomplishments.

And now my manager will sometimes seek this person out for their opinions and influence or. So really think about that as leaders, it is on us to help create those opportunities as well. I would say, also think about how you run your brainstorming meetings or any meetings where you're making decisions.

I, you, I don't know about you, but we go into some of these meetings and there are two or three loud people in the room. And then all of a sudden our entire product is being designed by those two or three levels. Nobody else's voices are being heard. They just can't get a word in edgewise. So in Hulu, one of the things we do big surprise, did you know, many architects are introverted.

Yeah. And so when we do an architectural design, right. We have both the in-person like debate brainstorming aspect of it, but there is a written component as well, that lasts for a couple of weeks so that all of the team members have an opportunity to read and process and consider pros and cons and trade offs and other ways of designing the system.

And so this whole process, we call it hoop, which I found out does not stand for something. It just means the hoop. You have to jump. So this process has led to our architecture, just being so much stronger because we are leveraging the opinions of everyone. Right. And so, you know, you have to keep in mind, all this stuff we've been talking about for introverts, all these one-on-ones and how do I get my message out there?

And now I got to find my voice. I didn't know. I lost it. What do I do? It is exhausting. Absolutely exhausting. I do. Some days go home feeling this way. As a leader, we have to always be on. We're always on stage. People are watching your, every move to gauge their own responses based off of how you are reacting to things.

And so I highly encourage you to find your coping mechanisms. No. When you need to go for a walk. No. When you need to book that remote remote conference room and just hide. It's really, really important because if you're constantly depleted, you also are not going to show up in the best light for your teams.

I would encourage you when you go on vacation, go on vacation. I model this to my team and I am a stickler with my directs. When they go on vacation, you sign out of slack. I even go as far as delete my email account off of my phone. Seriously. I don't take my laptop anymore. People. If the building is burning down, don't call me call nine one one.

But if there is a true emergency, the right people have my cell phone, but if I never disconnect, I'm never going to have that time to recharge. And what you'll find is when you truly disconnect, oftentimes those thoughts are kind of circling in the back and they just work themselves out. It can be when I have my best ideas is when I'm sitting somewhere at a beach with a fruity drink, with an umbrella.

So you really have to give yourself that opportunity to, to let it go. I would say, also take control of your calendar. This is my calendar. And what you will see is I think best. If I don't do this type of thing, this has been in the last couple of years, I've done this. My calendar just becomes an open lottery for whoever wants my time.

And I'm just running from room to room, to room, to room context, shifting all day long. I go home and I just want to stare at a wall and not even talk to my husband. So I might calendar. I will start out my days, most days with a block called focus time. And this is mark as. People are not allowed to book over this.

Yeah. Sometimes there's an emergency and you have to do it. But in general, this is my time I block out lunch because if I don't, I forget to eat. If I get those little half hour breaks, sometimes I just blocked breathing room, you know, just to give myself a moment to take a beat. And then if I'm going to be preparing for something like this, you know, a presentation or an all hands or quarterly review that is real work that you have to do.

And so I know if you're like me, sometimes you're just like, okay, I've got to give all of myself to my team all day while I'm at work. I'll just do all of this late at night. And then you're just exhausted all the time. This is real work. It demands your attention for me. That best attention is going to be in the mornings.

And so you see here, if I have an all hands, I'm actually going to block out time. To prep for that all hands so that I can be prepared to engage with my team, energize them give them a really great look at our strategy and forward direction. But if I don't take that time, I'm not going to show up in my best light.

So to bring it all together, I really think we have to tap into the creativity and the insights of those introverts on our teams as leaders. Next time you write feedback. I hope I'm in your ear asking if you say things like be more vocal or louder and you stop and you use SBI, make it very concrete and actionable.

I highly encourage you to consider. There are many, many different ways of having effective communication. It is not just the loud gregarious person on the team. There are many different ways to convey an idea. And then finally, really think about that environment that you're creating for your team. You want everyone to thrive for the introverts on the team.

If you get that feedback that you don't understand next time, please, please, please push back until you understand what is expected of you, you know, really think about your own communication tactics and strategies put effort into this so that you can be someone who can. You know, have impact and be influential in your team and your organization.

And finally take care of yourself. It is exhausting to feel like you're running on empty every single day. Like really take control of your days, take control of your time, take control of your calendar and your team is going to be better for it. If we do these things, I think that your products are going to be better.

Your businesses are going to find even greater success. And everyone on your team is going to feel like they have an environment in which they can thrive. Thank you very much.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.