Before Jess Lee became a CEO, she planned to be an engineer. After studying computer science at Stanford, she got a call from a Google recruiter who convinced her to stray from the engineering path and try product management at the company instead. But even before that, she’d considered a different option: comic book artist.
Lee spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in San Francisco on Wednesday about her path from budding childhood artist in Hong Kong, to CEO of shopping site Polyvore—which Yahoo acquired this year for $230 million. Her trajectory is a kind of case study for how quiet people attracted to typically solitary professions (drawing, engineering) can make it in the bravado-laden world of management. Here, a few pointers:
The best advice she got, Lee said, came from Marissa Mayer when Lee considering taking a job at Google. Mayer said her own favorite choices had come when she followed the more difficult road. “’Are you learning, are you growing, are you challenging yourself?’” Lee recalled Mayer asking. “I always define my career in terms of that.”
When she became CEO of Polyvore, the role brought new challenges. “It was actually kind of difficult for me to find the right leadership style,” Lee noted. The archetypal CEO is a great orator, she said, but “I’m more of an introvert and maybe a little awkward.”
So, she tried to play to her strengths. “What you see is what you get, I’m very transparent,” she said. “That helped engender a lot of trust.” And when it came time to do public speaking, she often tried to put the spotlight on her team instead, calling on them to present and do other events. And when presentations are a must: Visual aides help.
As for the often stilted conference circuit, when looking for someone to talk to in a room full of people, “Don’t pick the group that’s really lively and already engrossed,” she said. “Pick the wallflower instead who doesn’t have anyone to talk to — like you.” Or even better, find a “connector”—the person in the room who loves introducing people.
Eventually, she says, you’ll make friends: “I have my certain conference buddies that I see all the time.” And then eventually, when you become the person at the conference people want to talk to, “pay it forward,” and be the person making the introductions for your fellow introverts.