Helping an Introvert Find Her Way: A Management Success Story

I had finally gotten the big promotion I’d always wanted. It was my tenth year at a big healthcare company. My first seven years were spent as a Six Sigma Black Belt (aka project manager). My new title was Master Black Belt (or, for those not familiar with Six Sigma, manager of project managers). For the first time in my career, I was managing people. Well, one person: Joan.

Joan had risen up through the ranks of the company—from call center representative to analyst to project manager. Her employee file was filled with glowing comments from supervisors, who clearly saw her potential for growth. Despite her numerous accomplishments, however, Joan wasn’t happy.  

A big part of a project manager’s job is leading meetings. Most of the meetings in our division were on the phone with people in three or four locations. Even more challenging, there might be five people in one room and seven people individually calling in. For Joan, it was exhausting keeping such a large group focused and on task. She became quiet; others spoke over her; and side conversations began. Sensing her discomfort, a higher level manager sometimes took over the meetings, leaving Joan hard-pressed to regain control.

I thought I could help her become more comfortable. Joan, I believed, just needed a good agenda and some public speaking classes. I suggested that she read How to Make Friends and Influence People or attend a Dale Carnegie workshop. We rehearsed meetings together, and I simulated difficult situations so that she could become more comfortable addressing them. We discussed nonverbal cues, and I recommended that she watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language. Still, her comfort level did not improve.

It was around this time that I met Linzi.  Linzi worked in our IT department, managing our lab computer system, and she was bored. She wanted a career in project management and asked me for a small project and some mentoring. After checking with her boss to make sure it would work with her schedule, I scoped out a three-month long project for her to complete. I taught her how to document her progress; however, I did not need to teach her how to communicate with leadership—she did that naturally on her own. Within days, Linzi was fearlessly speaking to all levels of management necessary to move her project forward. She loved the role of project manager—so much so that she started looking for a project management job.

Shortly thereafter, it was time for mid-year reviews. I sat down with Joan, and we talked about what she liked and did not like about her job. She shared with me how much she enjoyed working independently on documentation tasks and analytical problem-solving. Not surprisingly, however, she found leading project meetings stressful and exhausting. She felt drained and unhappy at the end of each day.   

Joan needed something different. I thought about what I had learned from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. I knew that I needed to help her play toward her strengths. Our meeting ended with me trying to figure out a way to make that happen.

As I drove home that night, I thought about Joan and how she might find higher job satisfaction. She would be great in an IT job…just like Linzi’s. I thought about Linzi and how she was bored in her IT job and loved the taste of project management so much that she had begun looking for other positions.  

And that’s when the solution hit me: Joan and Linzi should trade jobs.

The next day, I shared the idea with Joan, and she loved it. She could sit in a quiet part of the building, answer emails, and create worklists all day. No more meetings. No more trying to herd a bunch of type-A personalities. It fit her perfectly.

I spoke with HR and upper management about my proposed solution. I described Joan’s strengths as an introvert and explained how her skill set would be perfect for Linzi’s position. I told them about Linzi’s unhappiness as an extrovert trapped in a job with little human interaction. With this one change, we could create two happy and successful employees. Luckily, everyone supported my idea.

The following week, Joan, Linzi, and I went out to lunch to talk about switching jobs. Both of them were thrilled. That same day, Joan moved her desk to sit next to Linzi, and the cross-training began. Three weeks later, the transition was complete.

Today, Joan loves her new job and feels like she is in the right place and heading in the right direction. Linzi has a mountain of project management skills to learn, and she is working hard and loving it. Both women are extremely happy to be in positions that match their strengths and personality characteristics, bring them job satisfaction, and are likely to lead to further career success.

Matching Joan’s and Linzi’ personality strengths to their job responsibilities proved to me that a successful manager has to do more than divvy up the work. It’s about getting the most out of your team while paying attention to all of an employee’s strengths and aligning those strengths with the right position.