Most entrepreneurs love to shout about their companies from the rooftops. Susan Cain, a classic introvert, prefers to speak softly beneath the gables.
On a recent wintry day, the best-selling author is curled up on a couch in the kind of cozy living room where families gather before Thanksgiving dinner. Half of her 10-person team is present, along with a marketing and strategy expert who has flown in from Arizona. They are discussing ways to get "more Susan Cain" onto the home page of Quiet Revolution, her startup dedicated to releasing the power of introverts. Cain, who practically disappears inside her long green sweater and tall back boots, is more concerned with how to make the consulting business not all about her.
"Every single author who has tried to start an organization around their ideas struggles with this," says Cain, about creating a face for the business distinct from her own. "It's a fascinating intellectual challenge."
The challenge is particularly acute for Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. The book spent more than three years on the New York Times' best-seller list: her TED talk is among the most viewed of all time. Now an enthusiastic public is pressing the introverted Cain for advice: How do I live as an introvert? How do I lead as an introvert? How do I build a company where lions and lambs collaborate productively?
So last year, Cain co-founded Quiet Revolution with Paul Scibetta, a former J.P. Morgan executive whom she had met in previous careers, when both practiced corporate law. The startup is based in the so-called Quiet House, an archetype of Victorian gingerbread and hush tucked away on a leafy street in the village of Croton-on-Hudson, New York. There is even a Quiet Dog named Mini--so preternaturally silent that she passes as part of the décor.
"We created Quiet Revolution because about half the world is neuro-biologically introverted; because introverts have unique natural strengths we all need; and because our institutions have cultures that tend not to support them," says the extroverted Scibetta. "Our mission is to unlock the potential of introverts for the benefit of us all."
Until recently, Quiet Revolution has worked exclusively with large clients, such as General Electric, Proctor and Gamble, and NASA. (The company also produces educational material for parents and individuals.) Such organizations typically "have significant numbers of analytical people, creative people, highly valued introverts operating in a largely extroverted culture," says Scibetta. "I call it the 'great mismatch.'"
Now Quiet Revolution has begun targeting small and startup companies, where the mismatch--though slighter in scale--is no less consequential. And it will work with introvert founders who, like Cain, are developing their own styles of quiet leadership.
Introverts versus extroverts
Thanks to Cain’s work, introverts today are easily recognizable. They are contemplative and cautious: listeners rather than talkers. Drained by the stimulus that extroverts thrive on, they replenish their energy in solitude or in small, intimate groups. They also spend much of the time inside their own heads, a living arrangement that makes some wonderfully creative. Many talented artists, scientists and engineers are introverts. But so are teachers, activists and--yes--leaders. In a society mesmerized by charisma and confidence, introverts are an underexploited resource.
That's an issue in Silicon Valley, where by some estimates more than half of employees are introverts. At LinkedIn, the number is 60%, according to Pat Wadors, who heads human resources for the 9,400-employee company. Last year LinkedIn enlisted Quiet Revolution to help "create an inclusive environment where everybody feels that they belong and can be heard and have an impact," says Wadors.
Before being introduced to Cain (by Arianna Huffington), Wadors had launched a series of roundtables to help introverts--exclusively women at first--find their own voices. Now Quiet Revolution is advising LinkedIn on content for those roundtables and helping Wadors create an "Ambassador Program" to disseminate introvert-related practices throughout the business. They are piloting the program with 10 ambassadors, self-selected employees who will meet with others one-on-one and in groups. The ambassadors will share tools that help introverts brainstorm effectively, for example, or conserve their energy. (A bustling workplace exhausts introverts, as do sustained efforts to fake extroversion.) Quiet Revolution plans to adapt the Ambassador Program for other clients.
Wadors, who has achieved a leadership role despite lunching alone and eschewing happy hours, follows Cain's advice herself. Speaking up in large meetings, for example, has long been a struggle. "Susan says to speak first, speak second, but speak early," says Wadors. "Put your point of view out there and you change the direction of that meeting. Then people will pull you into the dialogue, and it's less stress on your energy."
The Ambassador Program is one of several tools that Quiet Revolution has developed with or adopted from successful introverts. Another is Declare Yourself, created by Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell's Soup and chairman of Avon, and now founder of the consultancy ConantLeadership. Concerned during his corporate career that employees thought him aloof, Conant started bringing new reports into his office for hour-long personal introductions. He would tell them, "Here is who I am. This is how I operate. By the way I'm an introvert," says Conant. "If you see me standing off at a reception, you should think, 'oh, there is Doug being shy and reserved again. He doesn't know many people in the room.' And then come talk to me."
That frankness "took this enormous weight off my shoulders of trying to pretend to be an extrovert," says Conant, who is on Quiet's board of advisors. (Other advisors include Adam Grant of Wharton and Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School.)
Such tools--like Cain's book and now her business--mean to influence behavior through education. The lessons are both universal and specific. "What does it mean when this guy has his head down and doesn't come and talk to you for four hours?" says Cain. "Does it mean he's mad? Does it mean he's sad? A lot of this is getting questions out in the open and getting people talking."
What startups can learn
So what can small and startup companies--Cain's next market--learn from Quiet? While introverts employed by small businesses may find it easier to function within intimate environs, they must typically deal more with outsiders, such as clients and vendors. And as the business grows, the workplace itself becomes less comfortable. Small companies--particularly startups--have an opportunity to engineer their cultures to support all personality types, says Cain. Quiet Revolution has designed an online course to help them do that.
Entrepreneurs may also learn from the practices of the Quiet House itself. There is a no-meetings-before-noon rule that "is a way of allowing people to be together but to respect each other's privacy," says Cain. Employees are encouraged to stake out space; for example, Michael Glass, Quiet's creative and digital director (and the former director of TED Talks in New York), nests in a small gabled bedroom upstairs. "He spends hours a day by himself, and he doesn't always say hello," says Cain. "But he is the biggest team player." Cain herself sprawls on a sofa in the living room with her laptop. If someone approaches while she is in a decaffeinated lull, she will nicely ask them to come back later. "Everyone is cool with that," says Cain.
Quiet Revolution also plans to help entrepreneurial leaders with their own personal development. On the surface, "introvert entrepreneur" sounds as oxymoronic as "superficial philosopher" or "lethargic tap dancer." But in fact, many entrepreneurs are introverts, including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniack. "Quiet sold more in the Bay Area than in any other region of the country," says Cain.
The defining trait of entrepreneurs, says Cain, is that "you are fundamentally going your own way. That can describe extroverts. But it also describes an awful lot of introverts."
In fact, many successful entrepreneurs are likely "ambiverts": people who combine introvert and extrovert qualities. Two years ago, Inc. found something similar when it collaborated with the Gallup Organization to assess the personal strengths of Inc. 500 CEOs. Not surprisingly, the CEOs' most dominant trait was risk-taking: an extrovert hallmark. But the CEOs scored high on delegation and knowledge seeking, strengths more associated with introverts.
No available research correlates a founder's introversion with company size, but Cain and Scibetta agree that introverted entrepreneurs may be less ambitious about scale. "For an introvert to want to create a big company--that's really hard to do," says Scibetta. "You have to be out there in public all the time. So they are more likely to need to do that from a place of deep purpose than an extrovert, who would more possibly be interested in the fame of it or for the money."
Like many introvert entrepreneurs, Cain cares greatly about her startup's impact, less about its ultimate size. She recognizes but dismisses the pressure for fast growth. "We are sent the message that the best means the biggest, loudest, most attention," says Cain. "I have been steeped in resisting these pressures for the last decade. So it is easier for me to not notice them."
Cain speaks nostalgically about the coffee shops where she wrote Quiet, surrounded by solo, silent toilers, sipping lattes, absorbed in their work. At some point she expects to leave the subdued environs of Quiet House and resume the near monasticism of a writer's existence. "I just want to make some impact," says Cain, "and have a very nice life."