By Laura Raines, Pulse editor
Do you enjoy solitude? Are you reserved about sharing personal information? Do your colleagues say you’re hard to get to know? Then you might be an introvert.
“Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to people or don’t like people,” said Joyce Ramsey-Coleman, RN, MS, MBA. “It just means that you don’t get your energy from interacting with people. You get energized from time alone.”
Ramsey-Coleman calls herself an introvert with a capital “I.” When she first took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test 15 years ago, it came as no surprise that she was classified as an introvert.
As a child, Ramsey-Coleman was comfortable playing by herself and using her imagination. She not only had names for her stuffed animals, but also for all her marbles. She liked to read, as did most of her family.
“It was a quiet household, but my parents also instilled in me a strong work ethic and desire to always do my best,” she said. “They told me if you work hard, you will get anywhere you want to go.”
As chief nurse executive at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and vice president of nursing and patient care services at Children’s at Scottish Rite, Ramsey-Coleman has leveraged her introversion into what she calls “thoughtful leadership.”
“Being an introvert makes me a good listener and helps me formulate more thoughtful decisions and drive them forward in a thoughtful, methodical way,” she said. “Since I’m comfortable with myself, I don’t get pulled into all the emotional opinions and separate agendas that can happen in meetings.”
For those reasons and others, “introverts can be very successful leaders,” said Jennifer Kahnweiler, an Atlanta-based executive coach and professional speaker. “But there is no doubt that they have a tougher time in the extroverted business world.
“In my two-and-a-half years of research, four out of five introverted professionals said that extroverts are more likely to get ahead where they work. The good news is that introversion can be managed.”
Playing to strengths
According to the Myers Briggs tests, introverts get their energy from time spent alone; extroverts are energized by being around other people.
“Introverts think first and talk later. They’re more reserved, show less facial expression, focus on depth rather than breadth and aren’t always easy to read,” said Kahnweiler, author of “The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength.” “Being good listeners and thought-processors make them strong leaders, but other characteristics may hold them back.”
The key is learning to play to your strengths and manage the qualities that could hinder career progression.
“Introverts tend to undersell themselves,” Kahnweiler said. “Careers are made or broken by what people know about you. If your boss is the only one who knows what you are doing, you may be working harder, not smarter.”
She suggests that introverts present reports more often, volunteer to mentor others, tell people about work successes and copy relevant people on e-mails about work progress and accomplishments.
“Practice marketing yourself and push yourself to do more networking or to speak up in a meeting,” Kahnweiler said. “You have to educate your stakeholders.”
Ramsey-Coleman advises novice leaders to take baby steps.
“Take on a voluntary role or look for ways to partner with another to lead an initiative,” she said. “I started learning to lead by becoming president of my student nurse association in college. As a young leader, I found it difficult being in meetings, so I used humor to get my point across.”
Making words count
Her boss, Denise Swords, senior vice president of operations at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, is also an introvert and may not say a word during meetings.
“People know that she’s listening and formulating an opinion, and when she does speak, the room gets quiet,” Ramsey- Coleman said.
Attending meetings can be a challenge for introverts.
“Introverts can suffer from people exhaustion. They can be overwhelmed by too many meetings or conferences,” Kahnweiler said.
She suggests that introverts build quiet time into their schedules.
“Come in early to be alone or stay late to process your thoughts,” she said. “Take a short break outside to breathe and get inside your head.”
Coleman-Ramsey’s philosophy of being a “servant-leader” means she has about 2,000 nurses who tell her what to do every day. She balances that with quiet projects that give her energy.
“I may be trimming bushes at 9 p.m. or organizing things or just reading at home,” she said.
It can take time and training to develop leadership qualities. Coleman-Ramsey joined several “Toastmaster-type” groups to improve her public speaking. She learned to process information faster so she can make timely decisions. She also has learned to increase face time with nurses and to start conversations.
“I try to remember what I know about the person and build from that, or I’ll ask about a specific patient or a general nursing question,” she said.
There are advantages to being an introvert in a leadership position.
“Introverts are better listeners than talkers, and that’s a valuable trait in today’s high-stress workplaces,” Kahnweiler said. “Workers want to be heard. They need leaders who can listen, exude calm and give thoughtful responses.”