When Flying Under the Radar Doesn’t Work

The month’s Field Notes contributor, Dorothy Tannahill-Moran, is a speaker, leadership coach, and bestselling author of Career Mapping: Planning Your Career on Purpose and Personal Branding. Her company, The Introvert Whisperer, focuses on providing career advice for the ambitious introvert.

As a quiet kid, I consistently tried to fly under the radar. It wasn’t hard—I grew up in the country surrounded by fields of wheat and very few people.

In school, my goal was to not be called on in class. I aimed to do the least possible amount of interaction with others, but at the same time, I wanted to have friends. Such is the inner conflict and the life of an introvert as I have since learned.

The older I got, the more my involvement and interests in life increased and the harder it became to avoid the attention of others. Strangely enough, I loved public speaking, which for many seemed very incongruent with my general desire to disappear while in the company of others.

When I entered the professional world, my ambitions collided with my personality. I didn’t want to “just” supervise; I wanted to be at the top of the heap and control my direction (such a modest goal!).  

For a person with a history bent on invisibility, the shift to seeking promotions, higher levels, and more people to be responsible for was a huge leap. I had to change my behavior in order to achieve my goals. There were no books to help me tackle my challenges, and no one talked about how to overcome my own proclivities.

I was left to figure out a path to the top on my own. I also could tell that many of the behaviors I saw in others simply wouldn’t be ones I could emulate. Merely observing them in others made me cringe. Being the first person to start a discussion during meetings, talking about my accomplishments, and flitting around a party like a butterfly were not the types of things I wanted to do to get ahead.

Instead, being a process goddess, I reverse-engineered my way through many of the things I needed to do to achieve recognition and the subsequent rewards that went with it. For example, I broke down the process of networking and meeting new people into tiny, discrete steps. By approaching what had previously been a mysterious and tortuous activity into a much easier to execute process, I took a different path but arrived at the same destination.

I didn’t realize what I was doing until one day my mentor told me about a conversation he’d had with my current boss. I guess my boss was underestimating my ability to get a pesky group of executives sold on an idea of mine. My mentor said he had told my boss: “Never underestimate Dorothy’s ability to influence anyone. She may be quiet, but while everyone else is blowing a bunch of hot air, Dorothy gets things done and brings people along gladly to her proposals.” That was my first realization that my stealth-like ways of getting results was uncommon. I liked getting noticed without having to stand on a table and wave my arms (my metaphor for being gregarious).

I was onto something that eventually became the cornerstone of my current coaching business. While I was going through my 21 years of management at Intel, I didn’t realize I was figuring out adaptation approaches for introverts. I had discovered alternative ways of doing things that solved common problems for introverts in the workplace.

As a career & leadership coach, I focus on helping my clients accelerate their careers with faster promotions and achievement of their career goals. I started noticing that more and more of my clients were introverts and the approaches I suggested that had worked for me worked for them as well. For example, one of the more troubling issues is not speaking up in business meetings. Introverts tend to be silent in these settings, but not contributing to a discussion can give the wrong impression to others (which isn’t good if you have professional aspirations). A solution to this challenge was to set a goal for how often they would contribute remarks.

My clients would return to me shocked at how quickly and effectively my suggestions worked. The most astonishing thing to them was not only how fast they got results but how easy it was for them to implement my suggestions—the process didn’t make them cringe. Like many of my clients, I was tired of hearing classic networking advice such as “Go work the room” or “Just get out there and meet people.” Seriously? That type of advice not only doesn’t work for us introverts, it’s the last thing we would do.

As I was going through my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator teaching certification, I came to understand that throughout their lives, many people, based on the situation, start taking on behaviors not commonly consistent with their personality types. Some adapt in this way quickly, and others never do. It was a confirmation to me I was indeed onto something. After learning this skill myself, I was helping my clients to accelerate situational adaptation to accomplish their goals.

It felt good to close the loop of my understanding—not only about the introvert personality but about how we introverts can effectively address some of our most career-limiting behaviors. We can effectively move to the top of any success ladder we choose.

QLI‘s Field Notes brings you first-hand workplace experiences written by contributors who share their own stories, the lessons they’ve learned, and the unique benefits of a quiet approach to life in the office. Submit your own story to [email protected] and watch this space for more perspectives from your colleagues.