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.

— Max 

 

10 comments so far

  1. G. Walker on

    This is a very interesting train of thought. I believe there is value in the “mysterious executive”. Although everyone thinks they want to “know the CEO” they really don’t. Decorum and reserve are somehow loosing their “appeal” but (I would argue) not their value.

    • Max Schireson on

      Thanks – I just ordered it.

      — Max

      • Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA on

        The classic Jungian interpretation of intraverts (get energy from internal psychic sources) v extraverts (derives from external sources) has been somewhat distorted by the media. In fact, it is a spectrum and everyone has an intraverted and extraverted side, with one predominating over the other. I work with scientists, doctors and engineers, so I know the drill

        One practical reality, though, is that entrepreneurship is a contact, team relay race and great entrepreneurs are great networkers. At some point, you need to get out there and presss the flesh or go no where with your idea.

      • MordyK on

        Here’s an excerpt I read a few weeks ago until you get the book.

        http://leanin.org/news-inspiration/quietly-leaning-in-tips-for-the-introvert/

      • Max Schireson on

        Thanks, I saw that and liked it.

  2. J. Cliff Elam (@cliffelam) on

    I think it might depend on the executive and the size of the company to a great extent. In a <100 person company I'd expect the CEO to be pretty hands on in their AOE and generally around. In a 500 person company I would expect their presence to be diluted.

    Maybe you guys are just in a lacunae space where employees expect to interact with you but there are just too many of them. (The 1:N versus N:1 problem.) At some point people will expect that you *don't* know their name and they'll just leave you alone or let you initiate.

    -XC

  3. Vincent Barr (@VincentBarr) on

    Enjoyed reading this, thank you.

    A friend of mine gave me a question that I especially like when framing introversion vs. extroversion: do you derive as much, or more, pleasure alone as you do in the presence of others?

    • Max Schireson on

      By that measure I am an extrovert, this stuff is complex. I really like people once I have gotten to know them.

  4. Anna Chronist on

    Max,

    I enjoyed your post! How old are you? You don’t have to answer that, but I think you might find it interesting to know that people tend to change in their personality traits over the lifespan, including change across two components of the introversion/extraversion trait. While meta-analyses of personality change don’t necessarily mean much for you (one single person in a galaxy of data points), your peers might increase in their social dominance (independence and self-confidence) over time, and decrease in their social vitality (gregariousness and energy level) as well. Pop psychology tells us that adolescence is the time for change, but 20-40 is actually the big one, and we change on certain dimensions even into old age! Depending on your age, you could be writing a different type of reflection on the nature of your personality somewhere down the line!

    All the best to you from the kid of a software developer and an engineer. (Imagine how much criticism I receive over my super scuffed shoes!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: