This weekend, 1,500 people will descend on Las Vegas to compete in a 24-hour, mud-covered obstacle course known as the World's Toughest Mudder. Tough Mudder events - which have soared in popularity over the last several years - invite participants to plunge into deep icy mud pools, belly crawl under live wires, swing across monkey bars covered in mud and butter, and more. Sound like fun? I thought so, which is why I decided to sign up for a Tough Mudder a couple years ago and bring 30 of my top performing and promising employees with me.

I knew Tough Mudder would be a good team-building challenge that would require grit, gutsiness and collaboration -- all things I value as a leader. But once we got on the course, I was shocked to see which young leaders thrived under the pressure and which ones absolutely caved. In almost every case, the teammates who excelled tended to be more introverted, while the ones who failed were loud and gregarious. These outgoing leaders were well liked at the company, but collapsed when faced with an intense situation that required collaboration and the ability to lead by playing a supporting role.

In a recent interview, Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean said that he "wanted to create an event where success was achieved by supporting each other, rather than surpassing each other." It's a philosophy that easily translates to the workplace. Indeed, the qualities I saw in the young leaders that day weren't limited to the Tough Mudder course. So, it may not come as a surprise that today, none of the struggling, more extroverted team members remain with the company -- despite once being some of our most beloved employees. On the other hand, several of our best leaders are the strong, silent folks who stayed positive and focused on getting our entire Tough Mudder team across the finish line.

As a leader of thousands of employees, the Tough Mudder race gave me pause. I realized that we had created a culture that valued big personalities at the expense of giving more introverted team members the opportunity to shine and thrive. And it's not just at my company - new research shows that despite often being highly qualified, introverts are generally less likely to emerge as leaders.

Create space for people to feel heard.

When a company is full of outgoing personalities, introverted team members often feel overshadowed or uncomfortable speaking up. For an employee to truly prosper, she has to feel heard -- and in order to feel heard, she has to feel comfortable. After the Tough Mudder race, I brought my executive team together to talk about how we could do a better job of making every employee feel comfortable to lead.  

One of the ways we ultimately achieved this was through the creation of a series of international Leadership Camps. The competitive, annual events provide staff an intimate opportunity for different types of aspiring leaders to develop their voices and build or show their leadership skills with colleagues outside their direct peer circles. Our goal was to create an environment where everyone had the chance to be heard and valued -- and to demonstrate that effective leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. By taking team members outside of their typical settings and routines, you can carve out space that helps them feel comfortable and confident in their role at the company, beyond the limits of their role or title. As an added bonus, these types of experiences can help company management identify strong leaders who may have otherwise gone unnoticed.  

Adapt your communication style.

To create a culture where introverts can thrive, I realized we also needed to avoid being prescriptive about how we communicate as a company. Instead, I let my team communicate in whatever way feels most authentic and comfortable for them -- whether that's picking up the phone, texting, messaging on Slack, meeting on video chat or just walking into my office. Some people send short, terse emails while others like to linger on the phone and engage in small talk. Anything goes -- as long as the person is performing. In my experience, when someone's able to communicate in the way that's most comfortable for them, that's when the best work happens. It's been critical in helping us create an environment where introverts have the tools they need to thrive and lead.

Don't miss out on talent.

As a company with a dynamic culture, it can be tempting to hire gregarious personalities and dismiss those who seem more reserved. While we have plenty of strong team members with outgoing personalities, this alone is not a reason to hire someone. Over the years, we've evolved our thinking on this front. Culture fit is important, but it really comes down to whether the candidate embodies our company values -- not just how fun they'd be at happy hour. By focusing on values, we're able to make smarter hiring decisions and avoid missing out on the type of soft-spoken, strategic leaders who know how to carry their teams to the finish line.   

Tough Mudder was a revealing experience, but thankfully we no longer need to get chin-deep in mud to assess whether some of our top potential leaders may be flying under the radar. Leaders come in many forms and reveal themselves in different situations; by consciously creating environments that value collaboration and performance over showmanship and allowing all types of leaders to shine, you can cultivate a team that will drive your company to win.

Published on: Nov 9, 2017
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