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The 4 success strategies that helped this introvert climb the corporate ladder

This L’Oreal exec founded an in-house ‘DEI think tank’ whose sole mission is to develop introverted employees into great leaders.

The 4 success strategies that helped this introvert climb the corporate ladder
[Source Photo: rawpixel]

Overlooked. Dismissed. Passed over. Referred to as dispassionate and detached, passive and unprepared. Told that they lack leadership qualities. I speak regularly to the 300 members of our “Quiet Leaders” employee community group for introverts at L’Oréal USA, and it is remarkable how many of them have experienced the above at some point in their personal and professional lives.

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As executive sponsor, I founded the Quiet Leaders group in 2019 with a clear mission: to develop the leadership skills of our introverted employees and educate the rest of the organization about the leadership potential and secret strengths of introverts. In an extroverted company within a particularly extroverted industry surrounded by a culture that seems to prize extroversion as the ideal, we are determined to be as inclusive as we can of different inborn dispositions and the different models of leadership that result from them. It is striking that our Quiet Leaders group has quickly grown to be the second largest employee community group (we call them DEI Think Tanks) in the company.

My own experience as an introvert goes back many years. I took a personality assessment in college and the result surprised me: introvert. Actually, an extreme introvert. “That can’t possibly be true,” I thought. “I like going out with friends. I like people. People like me. Let me take the test again.”  I didn’t really know what being an “introvert” meant at the time, but I had internalized the messages from our society. Introverts were problematically quiet loners. They were socially awkward wallflowers.

Naturally, I resisted the label and did what many people do when they feel ashamed of who they are. I pretended to be something else. Being an extreme introvert while pretending to be an extrovert is possible for a while, but it catches up to you. Susan Cain popularized the insight into the fundamental difference between introverts and extroverts–and cleared up some myths and misunderstandings as a result. The difference between extroverts and introverts comes down to energy. Extroverts get the energy they need to perform at their highest level from social, highly stimulating environments, while introverts are the opposite. Introverts get the energy they need from quiet, low stimulation environments, often in solitude. By not letting myself be alone for fear of what that would say about me, I burned out. I never had the energy I needed and I stretched myself to the absolute limits. And my emotional and physical health suffered in my late twenties and early thirties.

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Encountering Susan Cain‘s “The Power of Introverts” TEDTalk and her bestselling book on the subject nearly a decade ago shifted my outlook and began to change how I approach my life and show up at work. If introversion is not, as I once thought, a flawed personality type in desperate need of fixing, but rather an in-born disposition originating from the basic wiring of the nervous system, then there was no reason to feel inadequate. I simply needed to better manage my energy to be the partner, parent and professional that I wanted to be.


Related: Susan Cain Helped Introverts Find Their Voice


This decade-long journey that I’ve been on, and the countless discussions that I’ve had with fellow introverts along the way, has revealed a few key insights into what it takes for introverts to be strong leaders.

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Your Calendar is Your Door—Feel Free to Close It Occasionally

Many introverts struggle with needing to be “on” all the time. While extroverts thrive with a calendar full of back-to-back meetings and report feeling “energized” at the end of the day, introverts need downtime between meetings. If introverts don’t take time to reflect on what they have heard, it robs the entire organization of the insights that come from the deep processing power of introverts. This dynamic is even more pronounced when introverts work in open office floor plans with no opportunity to close a door behind them and get some much-needed time for focused work. I always tell introverts that they need to be obsessed with calendar management because time management is energy management. While introverts can often feel like wireless charging stations for extroverts, it is our responsibility to ensure that we protect time to recharge our batteries and preserve our energy for the moments of the day that truly matter. If we don’t have a door to close, we need to treat our calendars as our doors. I have learned to block and protect portions of my calendar each day. Calendar management is so critical to my success as a leader that I would never have an assistant manage my calendar for me.

Create Value During or After a Meeting–But You Must Create Value

In most organizations, meetings are where people get a chance to problem solve together, advance their initiatives, share their perspectives, influence others and get noticed. Simply put, meetings are made for extroverts. Extroverts do their best work when they have to think on their feet, share ideas in the moment, and determine a course of action very quickly. Many introverts struggle to show up the way they want to or need to in meetings. Their sensitivity to external stimuli means that they are easily overwhelmed in large group settings. While they are great active listeners, they need to time to think silently and reflectively as opposed to “thinking out loud” on the spot. Introverts often feel that by the time their best ideas come to them, the meeting has already moved on to another topic. This can make them look timid or unprepared. My advice to introverts: if you are not able to create value during a meeting then find a way after the meeting. Send an email debrief or schedule a one-on-one exchange to make your valuable reflections known to your colleagues or manager.

Relationships Matter–Build Your Network on Your Own Terms

Any professional success that I have had in my career has come from the relationships of mutual trust that I have been fortunate enough to establish. Even as an extreme introvert, I have managed to meet new people each week and create a large network of peers. At the same time, I can count on one hand the number of professional networking events that I have attended for more than 30 minutes in my 20-year career. How have I done this? It’s all about finding the right format. I have prioritized a one-to-one social format, where I am at my best, over a group social format where I am very much not my best. Each week, I dedicate time for strengthening relationships and building new relationships with individuals inside and outside my organization.

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Stretch Yourself–Leaders Show Up for Others on Their Terms

Everyone has the ability to act out of character and rise to any occasion. As a leader, it is not enough to just show up as ourselves, on our own terms. Sometimes, members of our teams need us to show up for them in ways that are outside of our comfort zone or natural disposition. I have received feedback from extroverted team members in the past that they needed more of me, that they experienced me as too remote. Even though I am an introvert, and I am proud of that now, I see it as my responsibility to perform occasionally in ways that are more extroverted if that is what my team needs from me to get the best out of them. If we stretch ourselves, it just means we have to give ourselves more time to stretch back to our natural setpoint and recharge our internal battery.

There still exists an ideal in society that a “natural” leader is an extrovert and it’s become coded in how we assess leadership potential. By overcoming the unconscious biases around leadership that exist today, we can create the potential to better harness and unlock the value that every individual brings to our workplaces.


Matthew DiGirolamo is chief corporate affairs officer for L’Oréal North America—and an introvert.

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