For years I worked diligently at my desk, approving check runs, producing financial statements, and silently praying nobody would knock on my office door. Born an only child, I have thrived solo all my life. I spent years in a company where I sat at the boardroom table, but my ideas were never implemented. Why? I had earned myself a management role, but I was too intimidated and uncomfortable with the thought of stepping outside my comfort zone to vocalize my thoughts and ideas. I was my own worst enemy. I told myself “no” before anyone else had the opportunity to do so.
One day a consultant visiting the company told me something nobody else ever had. She said, “Anne, you need to learn how to market yourself. If you don’t effectively toot your own horn, who will?” Market myself? I broke out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of it.
As with any other skill, marketing myself took practice—lots of it. I’m still no extrovert, but I’ve come to realize that I can succeed as an introvert, too. Through the years, I learned to embrace the characteristics I had as a more reserved person, constantly absorbing information around me. I began pushing myself out of my comfort zone to practice the skills that didn’t come so naturally. I’ve also had the benefit of meeting many CFOs and vice presidents of finance who, as introverts, had learned how to excel in an extroverted business culture.
I tend to be more reserved, and people with that quality are often great listeners. We feel no need to compete for the mic at every meeting. On conference calls, we listen, process, and analyze. So how do we get heard? We rarely make impetuous or impulsive decisions. So how does an intelligent yet gentle-natured CFO gain respect? Market herself?
- Be prepared. Introverts generally prefer to listen and don’t tend to be impulsive or jostle for position at a meeting, but we can use good preparation to help create the confidence we need to share thoughts and ideas in a way that will make others listen. By understanding the meeting agenda or the topic of the upcoming conference call, we can do the research and analysis in advance. We can make note of the information we want to add to the conversation. A reserved person often is more comfortable speaking up and participating when he or she thoroughly understands the subject matter.
- Embrace your skills. You may not be one to walk into a room and “work the crowd.” Should you simply forgo networking? Skip the company mixer? Absolutely not! Chances are you excel at relationship building in a one-on-one setting. Again, some advance planning may help. Gain knowledge of potential attendees at the event. Surely there will be two or three people you would like to meet. If you know someone else who’s attending the event, ask them in advance if they could make the introduction. (Yes, you can request the introduction by email.) Do your homework so that you feel prepared to discuss a topic of joint interest once you’re introduced at the event. LinkedIn can often be a tremendous tool for such background information. Does the person have any experience or education in common with you? Do you share an interest in the nonprofit sector? Perhaps the colleague worked in an industry of significance to you. The possibilities are endless. Remember: You’re a good listener, so asking the person a few open-ended questions could easily spark a conversation that flows naturally. If you’re prepared, you’ll find it easier to feel in control of the conversation and to strengthen your network.
- Reenergize. Let’s face it. If you aren’t an extrovert, it can be draining to be in demanding social situations, leaving you feeling exhausted. I have listened to numerous TEDx speakers and other professionals who are adamant that it’s critical to take the much-needed time to reenergize yourself. It doesn’t have to be hours at the spa (although if you can make that work, more power to you), but taking a walk around the block or reading a book could be just what you need to refresh yourself. You’re a highly valued asset to your organization. Don’t overlook the importance of allowing yourself this luxury.
- Practice makes perfect. I’ve been a fan of the Olympics for many years. Although not an athlete myself, I can certainly appreciate the dedication each competitor has to the sport. I remind myself that these athletes didn’t just wake up one morning able to jump seven feet, clear an obstacle, or flip and land on a narrow beam with grace. It took practice. Marketing yourself and networking are no different. It takes determination and a willingness to fail and do it again. I can vividly remember walking into a networking event with the goal of meeting a couple new people. Once I walked through the door, I saw 100 unfamiliar people all talking in tight little groups. I broke out in a sweat, went to the restroom, and then left the event. But I didn’t permanently hibernate in my office. I took a deep breath and went to another event. Eventually I became more comfortable and could approach a group and politely get myself involved in the conversation.
Today I walk into events and look around, take meetings with strangers, and even speak in front of groups on occasion. I still get nervous and critique myself afterward, but I rely on my years of practicing the ability to build lasting business relationships every day. I’m not perfect, but I’ll spend the remainder of my career unashamedly “practicing.”
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