Martin Edwards: Making the case for shy chief executives

Chief executives are expected to fit the extrovert ideal – but the more I learn about being a leader, the more I think that is wrong

Martin Edwards

Whether we’re shaking hands or still elbow-bumping, post-pandemic networking is definitely back – but part of me really, deeply wishes it wasn’t. 

As an invitation to yet another networking event plopped into my inbox like a cowpat today, encouraging me to spend time with a bunch of strangers, I wrinkled my nose.

My reaction is not from the risk of Covid-19 any more but because, for an introvert, networking events are like having root canal work: noisy, viscerally unenjoyable and requiring plenty of anaesthesia. 

Let me get some excuses in first. 

I am partially deaf and don’t hear conversation well in crowded rooms; it takes a big chunk out of my busy day to attend; and the people I most want to reel in for the charity are too senior, too rich and too private to attend networking events.

That said, my introversion is the biggest barrier of all.

Chief executives are expected to fit the extrovert ideal: brimming with boldness and back-slapping bonhomie. 

But the more I learn about being a leader, the more I think that ideal is wrong.

Introverts do high-quality work in small groups of people, listening, building deep one-to-one relationships and evaluating risks more carefully than many extroverts.

This makes us well suited to good decision-making; focusing on quality and safety; supporting people; partnerships; and making asks of major donors.   

All of the above was pretty important in the pandemic.

Chief executives have to do some glad-handing in larger groups, which I get through by acting the part of an extrovert – and I think I act well enough by now that you wouldn’t know I’m faking it (so long as I don’t glance too often at the exit). 

But, like an electric car, I need some time alone to charge up beforehand and to recharge afterwards, because large gatherings drain me.

I also know that ‘walking the floor’ in my workplace is a crucial way to glean information from the front line and make people feel valued, so I do it often enough that it becomes second nature (even if my first nature would be to spend time alone).  

I actually love public speaking, which to my mind is a controlled group environment, and one where talking from the heart and valuing other people are vital to connecting with the audience.         

And when I do meet people, I want to invest in that relationship and get to know them well.

You will never see a job advert for a chief executive that asks for someone shy. 

But maybe we should.  

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children’s hospice Julia’s House


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