Leadership strategist and entrepreneur Lisa Petrilli explains why leadership requires vision, and why introverts can be great leaders, too.
When it comes to introverts, there’s a common misconception that they lack the necessary qualities to be effective leaders. It’s a perception that leadership strategist and entrepreneur Lisa Petrilli disagrees with and, as a self-described introvert and a highly successful entrepreneur, it’s one she can legitimately disprove.
But being introverted isn’t about being shy or team averse, says Petrilli, who founded executive consulting firm C-Level Strategies in 2010 and authored The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership last year. Instead, it’s simply about drawing energy and creative juices from a different place.
While extroverts are at their best in more populated, bustling surroundings, introverts thrive in smaller group — and, yes, sometimes singular — settings and draw their energy from their inner world. Neither preference is wrong or better than the other, Petrilli explains, and both types of personalities can produce excellent leaders.
Petrilli recently sat down for a brief conversation with OpenView to discuss her experience as a successful introverted CEO, the roadblocks she faced along the way, and why she thinks possessing and communicating vision is the true foundation of great leaders.
As an introvert, did you find the leadership component of being an entrepreneur difficult early in your career?
Absolutely. In a business environment, you can’t escape the outer world that extroverts prefer. You have to exist and interact there if you want to be successful. For an extrovert, it’s an energizing experience to participate in larger groups and lead large teams. An introvert can be very successful in that world, but we don’t like to spend the preponderance of our time there.
Ultimately, leaders at companies of all sizes need to spend time every day getting out of their comfort zone if they want to be successful. I’m not suggesting that introverts have to become extroverts, but it’s important to get out of your office, motivate your team, and talk to the world about your company. If you’re the CEO of a growing company, those situations are unavoidable, and if you don’t embrace them at some point you’ll hit a career ceiling.
The good news, though, is that once you’ve done that, I absolutely think it’s important for introverts to return to their sanctums and explore their inner world of ideas. It’s really about striking a balance between your introverted preferences and the extroverted demands of corporate leadership.
What makes introverts particularly strong leaders in the startup and expansion stage phases?
I think introverts excel at creating and setting a vision for their company or product. Many people assume that the majority of CEOs — because they’re the figureheads of their companies — are extroverts. In my experience, that has not been the case.
Introverts — like a lot of entrepreneurs — tend to be creatively minded people who work well in innovative environments that allow them to dream up fantastic products and features. Early on, those people are great leaders because they’re comfortable communicating that vision to their small teams.
You talk a lot about the concept of “visionary leadership.” How exactly do you define it and how does it differ from other leadership styles?
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I’m not sure that visionary leadership is a “style” as much as it is a foundation for great leadership. Ultimately, CEOs at the startup and enterprise levels need to know where they want to take their organizations. Executives may have a tendency to brush aside the idea of vision and turn it into a stock exercise that they execute with their team once a year.
That’s a big mistake. Your vision should be the framework of your business. It gets to the core of what you do, where you want the company to go, and what your market’s going to look like when you get there. Ultimately, a company’s leader needs to illuminate that path. If you look at Steve Jobs, he certainly did that with Apple. Steve Jobs was well known as a visionary and he created, communicated, and stuck with a very specific vision.
In the end, vision is about asking yourself how your business is going to make its customers more successful. When you think about your company as a medium for improving its customers’ lives, it can be hugely inspirational for you and your employees. Without that vision, your business will likely lack the internal fire that truly fuels long-term success.
What one piece of advice would you give early-stage CEOs — particularly introverted ones — about creating and communicating that vision to their teams?
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I think the easiest way to summarize everything we’ve discussed is to say that what you bring to the table needs to be uniquely you. Whether we’re talking about leadership styles, personalities, or products, it’s critical to understand your strengths, embrace them, and deliver them in a way that is genuine and impactful.
Everyone assumes that innovation is about creating groundbreaking technology or that leadership is about being this boisterous personality, and neither is necessarily true. Ultimately, innovation and leadership are about being who you’re meant to be and less of who you’re not. If you can figure that out and clearly convey your passion, then you’ll empower your employees, investors, and customers to follow you.
You’ve heard from Lisa, now we want to hear from you.
Are you a introvert in a leadership position? What challenges have you faced? What advice do you have for other introverted leaders?