CEO signing papers

Three Introverted CEOs and What You Can Learn From Them

1. Douglas Conant, the much-celebrated and beloved former CEO of Campbell Soup.

In addition to famously turning around his company, Conant is well-known for his quietly humane touch. Like many introverts, he’s interested in building alliances one person at a time. For example, during his tenure at Campbell, he wrote over thirty thousand handwritten letters to thank employees for a job well done.

In his insightful new book, TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, Conant offers this advice for winning hearts and minds:

“…simply take the next unplanned interaction as an opportunity to help. Maybe you can ask the right question to help someone get a little clearer, or maybe you can reinforce the importance of a project to help a team become a little more committed. Now think about what would happen if you were to be helpful to others three times a day for the next week. How would that feel? What if you were to do it again next week, and the week after that? Twenty TouchPoints a week in which you made a difference would add up to more than a thousand such TouchPoints in a year…”

(Conant also discusses his shyness and introversion in this Harvard Business Review blogpost.)

2. John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla.

As a self-aware introvert, Lilly realized that he needed to pay attention to how he came across to employees. Sometimes he would walk along, happily lost in thought, only to find that he’d inadvertently insulted people. Here’s Lilly, from a Q&A in Fast Company:

“…I started noticing my interactions in the hallway. I’m an engineer by background and a bit of an introvert naturally. When I walk between meetings, I think about things. A lot of times I’ll be looking down [at] my phone or looking down at the floor while I think things through. It’s sort of a natural engineer behavior, but it’s pretty off-putting if your CEO walks by you and doesn’t look up and notice you. And so I forced myself to do things that aren’t natural for me.”

3.  William McKnight, president and chairman of 3M during the 1930s and 1940s:

In Drive, his fascinating book on motivation, Daniel Pink describes McKnight as “a fellow who was as unassuming in his manner as he was visionary in his thinking. McKnight believed in a simple, and at the time, subversive, credo: ‘Hire good people, and leave them alone.’”

McKnight put this into practice by allowing 3M’s technical staff to spend up to 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. And it paid off—one scientist dreamed up Post-it notes during his free time. What’s more, writes Pink,

“most of the inventions that the company relies on even today emerged from those periods of…experimental doodling.”

Question for you: Do you find any of these three leaders useful as role models? What introverted leaders do you know and admire?

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.