By Alisa Bonsignore | STC Senior Member
I’ve been successfully self-employed for a decade, negotiating contracts with roughly a dozen clients and their attorneys each year. I regularly deliver talks to groups of 50-100 people or more at conferences. I’ve delivered client workshops to multinational audiences in foreign countries. I put myself out for election and I’m serving on the Board of Directors for STC.
I’m also an introvert who, if left to my own devices, would contentedly work from my home office with only email contact with the outside world.
If you put stock in the Myers-Briggs assessment, I’m an INFJ: introversion, intuition, feeling and judging. Wikipedia uses words like, “organized,” “orderly,” and “independent” to describe us, noting that we like quiet environments and have high expectations of ourselves and others. Suggested careers include writer, counselor, clergy, doctor, and teacher.
None of this screams “entrepreneur,” does it?
So how does an introvert succeed in a business that seems better suited to extroversion? Here’s the secret: you don’t have to be an extrovert to be successful. You just have to make the most of the traits you have.
The Tall, Quiet One
To set the stage for my story, let’s go back to 2000. I was working at a startup, fewer than 20 people, with a content and taxonomy team of half a dozen women. The management team never bothered to learn our names, which is how I became known as “the tall, quiet one.” I wasn’t expected to speak to anyone outside the content group, and that was fine by me.
By 2001, the bubble had burst, the dotcom folded and the tall, quiet one moved on to a prominent information security company. I stood on the periphery, still largely anonymous. But learned that I could turn on an outgoing persona for short bursts, particularly when discussing topics that I knew well.
In 2004, I moved to another tech company. I found myself in a role that required interaction with other divisions, the corporate web team, and the public relations team. I was forced out of the comfort of my cubicle. I spent my days in meetings, forced to introduce myself to strangers, voice opinions, and negotiate outcomes.
By 2005, I was managing a team of freelancers, setting team goals, meeting with stakeholders across multiple business units, and having regular sit-downs with executives to set priorities for the group. In the span of five years, I’d learned two very important lessons: 1) I had the knowledge and confidence that I could hold my own in meetings, even with the CEO, and 2) I did not want a career where I spent my day in meetings, especially with the CEO. However, the traditional corporate career path was such that I was rapidly approaching the level where meetings were the order of the day, while quiet, reflective work would become a thing of the past.
The independent life was starting to look better and better.
Going Out on My Own
By the time my company closed its California doors in 2006 to move out of state, I was in a very different position than I would have been just a few years earlier. I’d honed skills that I didn’t know I had in the nineties, which gave me confidence. Nonetheless, the transition wasn’t easy
It’s one thing to be the voice of a department when your salary is secure. It’s another thing entirely to be the voice for yourself when your income and success are solely on your shoulders. My introversion made me want to crawl into my shell at a time when I most needed to emerge from it.
For a couple of years, I went to conferences … and sat in the back of the room. Alone. Quietly. I would attend the social events and stand along the wall nibbling on the crudité, watching silently. I would come home with one or two business cards and no new connections.
I realized that while I was learning useful things from the speakers, I was missing out on the larger lesson; if I didn’t put myself out there, there wasn’t going to be a business.
I couldn’t spend the rest of my career pretending to be something I wasn’t. I needed to work with the personality I had, not the personality that I thought I should have.
Don’t Fight Against Your Type: Embrace It
While I’m sure it would come as a surprise to 20-something me, my unique combination of traits has proven to be an asset in my business. So what if I don’t like speaking on the phone? I keep the calls short. I’m an empathetic listener who does her research, comes prepared, and doesn’t waste the client’s time. People want that.
So how have I put my personality traits to use? I’ve learned the techniques that work best for me in different scenarios.
- Do your research: Introverts love research and preparation. If you take time to research the industry and client, you’ll enter the discussion with knowledge and insight.
- Make a plan: Introverts plan, prepare and consider the options for a project.
- Offer details: Details are the introvert’s thing. We’re not about hand-wavy, high-level ideas. We provide clients with comprehensive plans and tangible deadlines.
- Listen: Our instincts for listening and thinking before speaking makes us seem smart.
- Empathize: When you can identify, address, and understand and address the client’s pain, you become a valuable partner.
- Be concise: We don’t want to talk any more than we have to. This makes it seem like we’re efficient, effective, and right on target.
- Empathize: Just like you were able to put yourself in the client’s shoes during negotiation, you’re able to put yourself in the reader’s shoes when writing. What are their pain points? How can you effectively address their needs and concerns? This is an introvert’s strength.
- Plan ahead: As an INFJ, my “judging” strength means that I’m a planner. This also means that I leave plenty of time to meet and exceed deadlines, making me a reliable business partner. Clients know that I won’t miss deadlines.
- Use your intuition: The “N” in INFJ is “intuition.” Like assembling a puzzle, clients love that I can see the big picture and how everything connects. Having this sense of strategy and vision helps me to better understand how the elements of a project come together, and create elements that best fit their larger needs and goals.
Introversion doesn’t necessarily mean a life of isolation. Entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re always “on” and selling yourself. It’s a life of balance. By playing to my strengths and finding workarounds for my weaknesses, I’ve been successful as an introverted entrepreneur.
Based in the Bay Area, ALISA BONSIGNORE spends her days clarifying complex ideas, translating technical and clinical information into understandable language tailored to the needs of healthcare, network security, and healthcare IT clients around the globe. She uses humor and real-world scenarios to form the basis for her talks about professional development. Alisa has been elected to serve as Director of STC (2016-2018) and is past Chair of the Education Advisory Panel for STC and a member of the 2016 Summit Review Team. You can learn more about Alisa at clarifyingcomplexideas.com.