It happens time and time again: I’ll meet with a potential client or mentee with a home-run résumé, an ironclad project plan, or an idea that will actually save the world. And yet her (and usually it’s “her”) demeanor belies all of that brilliance. Introversion is real, and while I’ve always been blessed with the gift (sometimes curse) of talking and socializing, some of the most effective and powerful partners and clients I’ve had have been introverts. How is that possible? If you’re not the kind of person to walk over to Marc Benioff and ask him for a job or tell him about your new patent—or get excited by the buzz of a 200-person cocktail party in a ballroom—you can still be an effective connector and have a killer career. But the tips here work for everyone, even if you’re not introverted, since we all get uncomfortable or inwardly focused sometimes. We will also find ourselves working with introverts, so understanding what they need to thrive and support their vision, whether they’re our client or our colleague, will ensure that everyone feels engaged and represented.
For years I watched in awe the skills of one of the very few female executives at PR Newswire during the 1990s, Shari Coulter Ford, whom I am still in touch with after 20 years. She would run executive team meetings filled with men and keep them all at bay and literally in fear as she would be silent for the vast majority of the time. By observing her, I learned the power that silence can have, and how if used effectively, it can keep everyone on their toes, regardless of any power discrepancy. Silence can be a powerful strength and certainly keeps those in the room guessing what is on the person’s mind.
INTROVERSION VERSUS ANXIETY
We tend to conflate social anxiety or shyness with introversion. But they are two very different things. Introversion and extroversion are defined by how you derive energy: do you recharge best in quiet reflection? Or do you get a boost in energy from other people? An extrovert, like me, feeds off of the energy of others. Some introverts are perfectly fine being alone and don’t need a lot of social stimulation, but others enjoy being around others—they just need time to recharge afterward. Social anxiety is independent of whether or not you’re an introvert or an extrovert; social anxiety stems from a fear of being criticized or judged. Social anxiety can affect both introverts and extroverts. I’m an extrovert, but I also experience that fearful, voice in my head at times. Being an introvert does not automatically mean that person has anxiety about being around other people. Being afraid of how others perceive us contributes to social anxiety and it can happen to any one of us.
Over and over again in my career I’ve seen that success and power are not limited to those with the gift of gab. In fact, those of us who do love to talk are sometimes missing what’s been said, but our schools, workplaces, and cultures tend to prize talkativeness as a key to success. As Susan Cain pointed out in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, we live in a culture that rewards extraversion and categorizes introversion “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” But introverts tend to be fantastic listeners, and deeply hearing what others have to say is anything but a liability in building relationships. Morra Aarons Mele is another successful introvert. She has worked with the world’s leading organizations and institutions on digital marketing campaigns since 1999, especially in the political arena. She helped Hillary Clinton log on for her first internet chat, was the director of internet marketing for the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 presidential election, and was BlogHer’s first political director. Even though she describes herself as an introvert, Aarons-Mele is an expert on the art of connecting. She’s also the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get out There When You’d Rather Stay Home. As she argues in her book, inwardness is a superpower, not a flaw. Aarons-Mele wrote her book because she wanted to share the methods she’s developed over 20 years of building a fantastic business network in the way that works for her, a self-avowed introvert. She says the key is discerning who is most important to your career, who brings you new business and clients? Who are the people in your life who open up access to new social networks? She wrote the book as a guide for people who are extremely ambitious and want to have a great career but also want more control over the pace, place, and space of how they work and interact with others.
Instead of trying to change your disposition and seek to become what Cain calls “the extravert ideal: the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight,” Aarons-Mele tells introverts to lean into their strengths. You don’t have to become the chattiest person in the room to get the most out of a gathering. (And if you want to hide in the bathroom, she says that’s OK too.
PARTNER WITH A SUPER CONNECTOR
One of the most effective strategies for those sensitive to overstimulation: partner with a super connector. We super connectors thrive off of connecting others and love to play matchmaker. (I do think I must have been a Yenta in an earlier life.) Once you have them in your constellation, you can ask that person questions like, “Who should I talk to about getting a job in fashion?” Leverage their networks so that you can be intentional and protective about yours. In Hiding in the Bathroom, Aarons-Mele calls this technique “adopting an extrovert.” But I suggest taking it one step further: connect with someone who is not only an extrovert, but also a super connector. Pick someone who knows everyone in your field. Do you want to work in media? Find the super connector, the person who is ultra-plugged-into that network. Then you can leverage their networking skills in a very intentional way that won’t deplete you. Pre-connect with your super connector before the event to learn who you should prioritize meeting.
Lois Weisberg was one such super connector like this. In fact, she was an uber-connector—and the epitome of the “how can I help” ethos.1 If you can meet someone like her, she would be the person to pre-connect with! In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell described her as being a super connector within 15 to 20 different powerful communities. Weisberg was enmeshed in the lives of doctors, lawyers, financiers, actors, writers, and politicians. Weisberg lived in Chicago where she was known for her ability to meet, to connect, and to facilitate political, cultural, and economic work that would help make the city of Chicago a better place—all by being generous and sincere. When she passed away at the age of 90 in 2016, an article of remembrance in the Chicago Tribune was titled, “The Remarkable Lois Weisberg: Famous as a Connector, but Really a Producer.”
Weisberg knew what I’ve been saying all along about the constellation effect. Meeting and connecting is for a higher purpose—action. Yes, the purpose of these relationships is to enrich and nourish your life, but the greater intention is also to leave this world a better place than it is today. The two concepts are related, of course. If you can look back on your life as Weisberg no doubt did and feel that you not only built meaningful relationships, but also through that constellation of connections you created art, solved social problems, helped people in distress, or somehow tackled issues that the world desperately needs to solve, then the “connecting” is also about “producing” something wonderful together—and that is what sustains you and nurtures your soul.
Excerpt from The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships by Susan McPherson (McGraw Hill, March 2021).