The Challenge of Being an Introverted CEO
The old joke in Silicon Valley is that you can tell the extroverted engineer from the introverted engineer because he is looking at your shoes instead of his own shoes (and yes, it is always told about a “him”, which will be the topic of another post). But what happens when an introvert becomes CEO?
I’ll start by sharing a bit about myself and being an introvert. Being an introvert does not mean that I don’t like people or interacting with them. For me it means that
- While I enjoy talking to people that I know, I find it difficult to initiate conversations with people that I don’t know well
- While intellectually I know that usually I will enjoy getting to know a new person, meeting new people consumes a lot of mental and emotional energy for me
- I need a fair bit of quiet time to rest and recharge
- While some people find the ideal of going to a big party with 300 people that they don’t know exciting and energizing, I find it intimidating and exhausting
I love my job running MongoDB. I am incredibly excited about the technology we are building, how we are helping our customers, and the team and culture we are building. I cannot imagine a better job for me; I have the opportunity to take advantage of everything I have learned in my career to date and the rare opportunity to reshape one of the largest markets in software and build a truly great company. But I often feel that my job would be easier as an extrovert.
While getting to know new people takes a lot of energy, I do care a lot about people, in particular the employees of MongoDB. I want them to love their jobs and to grow from them – as people and as professionals – as I have from my favorite jobs. I also recognize the symbolic role of the CEO. If I am interested in what someone is doing, it energizes them. If I am uninterested, it saps their energy. If I remember someone’s name or say hello to them in the hallway, it makes their day a little bit better.
I watch our ratings on glassdoor and I am proud that they are very high for an enterprise software company. Recently I saw this comment in what was overall a 5-star review titled “Incredible talent, meteoric company”:
Also, the higher executives should probably engage more with employees on an everyday level – execs can often be seen moving throughout the office without knowing many of their employees names or even saying hello. As the company grows, it becomes less feasible to know most people, but it didn’t even seem like there was much effort to personally connect with employees. A nitpick, no doubt, but worth mentioning nonetheless.
It rang true, and the blame for this lies largely with me personally. And I don’t think its a nitpick, I think it is important.
To the anonymous author and to all employees who feel that way (and I am sure there are many), I am sorry. It does take me more effort to connect with new people, but I need to make that effort, I know how much it matters to you. I do hope that writing this post and sharing why this is hard for me helps people to take this weakness of mine in context – it is not a lack of effort or not caring but rather something that has been a challenge to me throughout my life.
As the company grows, an additional challenge for me is some loss of anonymity. People sometimes recognize me at my kids sporting events, walking down University Avenue, or coming out of my once-a-year-religious-observance on Yom Kippur. The privacy of big crowds is beginning to disappear, which is a loss for an introvert.
As for my effectiveness in running the company, perhaps I would be more effective if I were more gregarious with the team. Certainly they would like it day to day. On the other hand, I do think there are advantages to my style. In larger groups I often like to hang back and listen. One of the hardest things for a CEO as a company gets large is having good data. While I am not a magnetic outgoing leader, I think I can listen well and I have high empathy. And I think we have built a strong team and they are pointed in a good direction.
I hope to build a company where people feel good about the decisions we make and how we make them, the product we are building and the impact we are having for our customers, and the team and culture we are building. I know they won’t feel great that their CEO is always energetically saying hi to them in the hallway, but hopefully they feel good knowing that their CEO does care about them and is making an effort despite his introversion.