The Introvert’s Guide to Thriving at B-School

the introverts' guide to surviving in business

I finally got around to a book that’s been on my reading list for a while: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The book examines how extroversion came to be so highly prized in Western culture and how this tendency may be causing harm to not only introverted individuals but to our society at large.

As I was reading the book—which I highly recommend for extroverts and introverts alike—I kept thinking of the many people I know who were accepted into top MBA programs. Some of these candidates fit the extrovert personality profile to a T: gregarious risk-takers who had no trouble expressing their ideas and selling themselves to the admissions committee. But a surprising number of these successful applicants were clearly introverts, individuals who needed time to think through their ideas before expressing them, who were naturally more reserved and regarded the prospect of a group interview with nothing short of dread.

I say the number of these individuals was “surprising” because many people think that anyone drawn to business school must be an extrovert.

Students in countless MBA programs will see the truth in this statement. So where does this leave those who are more inwardly focused and need time away from friends and colleagues to recharge their batteries? The good news is that introverts can thrive in extrovert-driven environments—they might just have to work differently to do so.

 

Watch the video above of Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.”

 

Here are a few things for the introverted b-school student to keep in mind.

Make time to work alone.

It’s no secret to anyone in the business world that collaboration is highly valued. Demonstrating your ability to work with others is key to getting into business school. Yet Cain makes a compelling case that we may be overvaluing teamwork and its ability to generate good ideas.

Regardless, you will be called upon to work in many collaborative settings in b-school. This suits extroverts well, as they generally enjoy talking through ideas and are less likely to take criticism to heart. Not so with introverts, who prefer to think things through before sharing. Therefore, it’s important for introverts to carve out the time and space to work alone even in the collaborative landscape. If you know your task ahead of time, do some solo brainstorming before you meet with others. If this isn’t possible, take time for reflection afterward. This may be the time when you’ll come up with your best idea. Just don’t be afraid to share it with the group the next time you meet.

Learn to self-monitor.

Cain discusses the concept of self-monitoring, or modifying one’s personality to fit the needs of the situation. This is an especially important skill for introverts to master. To illustrate this point, Cain turns to introvert Al Gore, who became concerned about global warming long before he produced An Inconvenient Truth. However, it took him a long time to successfully call others to action. In order to do so, he needed to learn to “sell” the idea—a talent that comes far more naturally to extroverts. When you know you have a strong idea or the best approach to solving a problem, it will be important to tap into the traits of an extrovert to get others on board.

Don’t underestimate soft power.

The introvert has a natural advantage in making allies at b-schools. Extroverts who need to be heard will naturally seek out those who are good, thoughtful listeners. Cain demonstrates that the ability to win others over, rather than forcing their hands, has its own advantages. When introverts think about building their friendships and network during b-school, they should take the long view. While extroverts may make the strongest first impressions on their classmates, it’s the introverts who often make meaningful and lasting connections with less effort.

Be confident in your unique skills.

In the highly competitive MBA world, it’s common for first semester students to go through periods of self doubt. This is especially true for the introverts, who may feel overwhelmed by their extroverted peers. In these times, it’s important to remember that many of the introvert’s skills—among them team building and problem-solving—are key to successful businesses. In fact, we need more introverts in business, Cain explains, positing that extroverts in finance are more likely to take undue risks. It’s the introverts who are better at thinking through possible scenarios and making better long-term decisions. Cain points to Warren Buffet as an introvert who exemplifies sound business decisions.

So don’t fear, MBA introverts. You may not be the loudest voice in the classroom, but you’re in good company.

Editor’s note: For more about Cain and Quiet, read our blog post about her Authors@Wharton lecture on campus, “Stop the Groupthink Madness.”

 

 

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