Hi, My Name Is Beth, I’m A Powerful Executive—And I’m An Introvert

Hi, My Name Is Beth, I’m A Powerful Executive—And I’m An Introvert

Welcome to Introvert’s Advantage, a column by former GE Vice Chair Of Innovation, Beth Comstock, taking stock of what being an introvert looks and feels like in the workplace. Based on an extraordinary career and a lot of hard-won experience, she’ll explore how to sidestep the pitfalls of being inward-looking in a corporate culture that prioritizes the loudest voices, how to use your introversion to your advantage, and how to stop being so damn hard on yourself for your quieter reflective moments. Got Qs for Beth? Send them our way at introverts@girlboss.com.

Once, in college, after a boozy evening out with friends, I seized a tricycle that was in a neighbor’s yard and rode it down the street with wild abandon. My friends ran after me, one shouting, “I never knew you could be fun!”

Ouch. Except, I’ve heard some version of that for most of my life.

People say that I’m different from what they expected, once they get to know me. I think what they really mean is that I’m hard to get to know. I’m not always comfortable putting myself out there. I’m quiet. It’s taken me a while to master the art of small talk—or really any talk.

You probably wouldn’t guess that, if you’ve seen me give speeches to room filled with thousands of people—or even if you know a bit about my career trajectory (from publicist to chief marketer to GE Vice Chair). But this is the real me: I’m an introvert, shy even.

Business, however, is an extrovert’s game. As I built my career, I came to realize that as an introvert, I had to overcome some parts of my nature if I was going to be successful.

I’d see others leave meetings victorious after having contributed to the conversation, credited for their ideas (some that weren’t even very good) while I contributed nothing. Whether it was a gathering of a few people or dozens, the same thing happened to me every time: I would have an idea–I always have an idea—something that needed to be said. But then, I would sit there, sweating, my heart pounding, waiting for the right moment.

“My words would be perched on my tongue, ready to dive off and dance across the table. I had something to say!”

I was so wrapped up in waiting for that moment that I was no longer even paying attention to the words my colleagues were saying, but rather the rhythms of their sounds, hoping they’d take a breath, a pause so I could wedge my idea in there. My words would be perched on my tongue, ready to dive off and dance across the table. I had something to say! The sounds would slow, collective inhale, micro-pause. My chance to go. Would I do it?

Of course not. I would whiff. Stay silent. Yes, there were many loud voices in that room—and every room—people talking too much, talking over others, making it hard to get in there. But that wasn’t what held me back. The thing that held me back came from inside.

A boss once called me into his office to say “Beth, we need to hear more from you. Speak up! You have good ideas. I have you here for a reason.” Keep in mind that I was well established in my career at this point, having recently been tapped as Chief Marketing Officer. I was in a new role facing uncertainty and those comfortable behaviors had come right back.

My first reaction: Yikes, he’d noticed!

My second reaction: I was there for a reason. I did have good ideas. I had a lot to contribute. But my reserved nature combined with a lack of confidence and courage was holding me back.

So, I vowed to channel my frustration into action. So I set out on a series of small challenges designed to push me out of my comfort zone. First and foremost, I challenged myself to make one comment in every meeting. To ask one question, trying not to overthink whether it was the right or best one. Instead, I’d ask myself: “What’s a point of view that I can uniquely bring to this conversation?”.

For example, when I first started leading NBC Digital, I didn’t actually know a lot about internet technology. But as a marketer, I knew a lot about how people behaved. So I’d ask, “What are their motivations for adapting to new technology?” Or “How can we make this easier for people to use?” Working from my base of strength gave me a boost of courage to speak my ideas out loud.

I’d set other challenges for myself, too. At networking events—a nightmare for me—rather than hanging out by the chip bowl for a few minutes before hightailing it out of there (which was my default approach), I’d vow to introduce myself to just one person. The next time, it would be two people. And so on.

“Introversion isn’t all challenges and anxiety. Our thoughtful, quiet deliberation is needed in the world. We’re not sucking the air out of the room with our loud stories.”

If you’re not introverted, you probably can’t imagine the energy required to make a move as seemingly simple as introducing yourself to a stranger. But it’s uncomfortable, awkward even. First off, I overthink what to say to them. What if it comes out wrong? What if they don’t want to talk to me?

In my case, it’s a combination of feeling comfortable being quiet—I’m happy to hear people talk; I feel some anxiety over what to say; and I worry about what the others must be thinking. Over time, with enough practice, I stopped overthinking the situation and also came to realise that most people don’t spend all that much time thinking about what I’m saying. They’re on to the next person. And in my hesitation, I’ve likely missed an opportunity to connect.

Don’t get me wrong, though: Introversion isn’t all challenges and anxiety. I believe there are many advantages to being an introvert. Our thoughtful, quiet deliberation is needed in the world. We’re not sucking the air out of the room with our loud stories. We consider things deeply. We’re good listeners and facilitators. Susan Cain’s book Quiet beautifully outlines the many benefits of quiet leadership. And I believe businesses need more diverse minds—introverts and more—to be truly innovative.

But still, as an introvert, I had to wrangle with some of its elements and rearrange some of my instincts in order to get ahead—and to succeed. Here are a few things that helped me the most:

Ask for help

This may be the hardest thing to do. One approach that’s worked for me is finding a friend or close colleague who is more extroverted and can help pave the way by inviting me to things, introducing me to people, asking me to answer a question in a meeting.

Similarly, I’ve gone to my manager with ideas separately. Or I’ll send a note following a big meeting with additional ideas or actions I plan to take, showing I’m engaged. One of my managers was superb at asking me and other quiet types questions that drew us into the conversation when we held back. Having that prompt was helpful. And something that won my loyalty—as I think back on my career, I’ve probably stayed longer working for those managers who took time to understand my style and make room for it in the way the team worked.

Develop your own prompt

Do your homework; prepare a couple of ideas and questions that you plan to contribute at any upcoming meeting or gathering. “What problem are we trying to solve?” is one of my favorites as a way to re-center the conversation. Or, I’ll bring up a relevant new trend or competitor moves that I know about, playing to my strength of being externally focused.

Alternately, another quiet friend of mine takes the role of the synthesizer. She’s often the one who summarizes the discussion with the big themes and questions at hand. It’s a valuable role and takes a bit of pressure off of having to fight to share an idea during a impassioned discussion.

Get better at small talk

This is non-negotiable, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. First, don’t think of it as small talk. Instead, reposition this as a chance to learn. I’ve found that calling on my curiosity helps me get over my awkwardness. Ask questions so you can learn from the new person you are meeting. Questions like: What are you working on that excites you? What are the trends or challenges facing your industry? What movies (shows or books) has you seen recently? People love talking about themselves, so questions are a great way to keep the conversation rolling, in most cases. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to tell your story, to make a connection. It’s about give and take for both sides.

Recognize your need to recharge

It takes a lot of energy to put yourself out there. Carve out time to do this. For me, taking a brief walk or listening to a few minutes of music can give me some much-needed respite in a busy day. On business trips, I’ll often bypass one evening event in favor of room service, begging off by saying I need to recharge. (Just be careful not to do this too often—there’s a fine line between recharging occasionally and simply not putting yourself out there.)

Challenge yourself

Take small steps to get over those parts of introversion that you feel are holding you back. Small steps forward are how change happens. Give yourself permission to feel awkward as you do something new, and also be proud of doing even the smallest things to move yourself forward.

Here’s the truth: Introversion is just one aspect of my character; not a label that should define me. But it’s something that colors how people perceive me from the moment they meet me. And so I continually have to challenge myself to not let it become something that holds me back. So, if you happen to see me by the chip bowl, just give me a gentle nudge by saying “hello.”

Beth’s first book,Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, debuts later this month, on September 18.