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The Most Overlooked Quality in Leaders

Peggy Johnson, EVP of business development at MicrosoftPeggy Johnson, EVP of business development at Microsoft
Peggy Johnson, EVP of business development at MicrosoftPhotograph by Brian Smale — Microsoft

The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “When it comes to leadership, is it better to be an introvert or extrovert?” is by Peggy Johnson, EVP of business development at Microsoft.

Peter Drucker, founder of modern management, reportedly coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Culture use to be viewed as the “touchy-feely” side of business, but that’s no longer the case. If you don’t have a defined culture behind you, then you aren’t going to be effective at executing your strategy. When a culture is broken, the cracks show – morale is weakened, but so is profit and performance. That’s why culture has to be at the core of any business transformation.

Yet as leaders we often don’t get much insight into how to actually put culture into practice. A lot of companies have nice-sounding cultural values like integrity, respect and excellence, but if those values don’t map to specific behaviors, then they quickly get lost. Instead we see what’s called a “halo effect” where leaders tend to overvalue certain attributes and undervalue others.

For instance, oftentimes we overvalue assertiveness and undervalue humility. We’re told to channel charisma and show toughness as a sign of strength. But the truth is it takes all kinds of leadership attributes to make an organization successful. A culture that only recognizes and rewards the same set of attributes results in less collaboration, creativity, and innovation. If we only reward the loudest voices or the sharpest elbows, then we’re missing out on the full range of talent. If people think they have to abandon core behaviors to get ahead, then we’re not going to get the best results. Asking people to be someone they’re not never works.

I know this from experience. Over the course of my career, I’ve had managers tell me to “speak up” more and to “be more assertive” in meetings. I was told this is how to demonstrate my strength as a leader and that this was the path upwards. For a while, I tried to model these behaviors, and even tried banging my fist on the table to make a point. But I didn’t feel good about any of it, and it didn’t feel natural. At my core, I am more of a quiet leader.

Organizations should do more to nurture quiet performers. I’ve worked with some amazing, effective, and impactful people who identify as introverts. They may not be the first to speak up in a team meeting or openly take credit for a big win. Instead they influence through one-on-one’s and small groups. They credit the team over themselves. Yet, they are often overlooked.

The truth is there is a lot we can do as leaders to support quiet voices. I always try to take a pause and ask people at the table who haven’t yet spoken if they have something to share. I let people know I have an open-door policy so if they don’t want to share something in a meeting, they can share it with me afterwards. I encourage people to communicate in the way that is most natural to them, and sometimes that’s through their written word.

We all want to build strong organizations and drive effective strategies, but success hinges on nurturing our cultural values. One way to get started is to look out for underserved voices on your teams and help make sure they’re heard. Take care to build teams that represent a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and leadership attributes. Then, make sure you are encouraging authenticity by creating an environment where people feel comfortable just being their true selves.

Cultural transformation doesn’t happen overnight, so be prepared for the journey – but the rewards are immense and totally worth it.