Introverts and Interviews

Full introverts

Image: Illustration by Steven Doyle

By Amy Crutchfield

In the years since the publication of Susan Cain’s popular book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a lot has been written and said about introverts. For an introvert like me it almost felt like a movement, or a Quiet Revolution. We could embrace our true selves and no longer have to pretend to be extroverts — I probably wasn’t fooling anyone, anyway.

Turns out we can make great leaders, according to recent research, which has shown that the character traits of an introvert actually lend themselves to success in management positions. Unfortunately, before being hired, those of us in the introvert category must go through an extensive vetting process that is often more conducive to extroverts, in that it usually involves extended interviews with lots of different groups and even a series of public gatherings.

As a search consultant in higher education, I have seen firsthand how the hiring process can inherently challenge introverts. That process is unlikely to change, so the question becomes: How can you better position yourself as a candidate in a system that favors extroversion?

I offer the following suggestions to introverts who are candidates for senior-level positions in academe. These tips can also apply to any introvert looking for a career change.

Prepare for a long day (or two). The campus interview process, in particular, is a test of endurance. For senior positions, the final round of interviews is often a two-day marathon that includes breakfasts, dinners, open forums, and group and one-on-one meetings with students, faculty members, administrators, and board members. It's a grueling process and understandably so these are important positions that will affect the future vitality of an institution. Campuses want leaders who can rise to the occasion.

That sort of marathon interview is tough for everyone, but if you identify as an introvert, it may feel especially onerous. It's not true that introverts don't like poeple. We do -- and not all introverts are shy. But our energy is derived internally, so after an hour or two of social interaction we need time to recharge.

Trouble is: You’re unlikely to get much scheduled downtime during an interview for a senior administrative position at a college or university. As an introvert, you may have to psych yourself up ahead of time: Try reading for 30 minutes while on the plane (instead of working), hitting the gym prior to a full day of meetings, or meditating for 10 minutes in your hotel room. You may be able to snatch brief periods of time to decompress in the minutes prior to interviews and meetings.

I have a colleague who keeps a very busy travel schedule, and when driving between campuses she’ll sometimes pull over into the parking lot of a nature conservancy or historic landmark. That is her way of recharging, even for a short amount of time, in the midst of a hectic day. Before your trip, identify some strategies to find your place of Zen and make it through a tough process.

Some campuses automatically include small breaks throughout the interview schedule, while other institutions assume that candidates want to charge right through. People interviewing for executive-level positions are used to long days and are capable of hours of back-to-back meetings without a break, and introverts are no exception.

However, if you are given the opportunity to weigh in on your schedule, don’t hesitate to ask for a 10-to-15-minute break at some point during the day. It’s important that a break doesn’t detract from your time connecting with people on the campus — for example, don’t cancel lunch with someone. But a short break can give you a moment of respite that allows you to remain charged throughout the day.

What if your schedule doesn’t allow for any break?

Then regroup whenever and wherever you can, such as the few minutes in between meetings or while washing your hands. Campuses want to be good hosts and most will understand if you need a few minutes to yourself in the midst an eight-hour (or longer) day. Sometimes a meeting will end early and your host will offer to give you 10 minutes to catch up on emails. If presented with that opportunity, take it. For an introvert, those 10 minutes are golden and may make the difference between feeling "on" for dinner or feeling like you’d rather have room service.

Play on your strengths but learn from extroverts. Introverts tend to be gifted listeners who ask thoughtful, perceptive questions — good qualities for senior leadership positions in academe. In organizations with a strong culture of discourse, introverts can actually outperform extroverts, thanks to those superior listening skills and willingness to hear alternate views. That’s important in academe, where leaders are often faced with many competing points of view. People want a leader who listens, cares, and doesn’t talk over them.

In considering what makes a good senior leader, we regularly hear about executive presence — someone who exudes competence and commands a room. As an introvert, you don’t like being the center of attention, and it can be harder for you to project this leadership quality. During the course of your campus interview, be mindful of your leadership presence. Make eye contact, stand tall, and project your voice while speaking.

Introverts may be great listeners, but we sometimes forget that an interview situation also requires showing that we’ve listened. That can be as simple as taking a moment at the end of a meeting to summarize the main points. Experience shows that extroverts are often more peppy and communicative the whole way through an interview. If you are an introvert, it’s important to find ways to convey that you’ve heard and understood what people have said in the room.

Practice small talk. Introverts aren’t interested in chitchat. By no means am I saying that we lack basic social skills. What I am saying is that small talk may not come as naturally to introverts, who don’t always feel the need to fill silence with conversation.

During the course of an interview you will meet a lot of people and you will need to talk with them, even for just a few minutes. While such brief moments of interaction may seem trivial, they are one of the ways in which candidates are judged. People want to know if you are someone with whom they’d enjoy working. If you aren’t comfortable with small talk, the best thing you can do is to make yourself practice, whether you do so on your own campus or in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Know that it will be over soon. I was recently visiting a campus, and after a long day of meetings a new acquaintance — who was clearly extroverted — asked if I was an introvert or an extrovert and if I felt up to going to dinner with a few people. I was a little tired but I knew that the time spent connecting with these new acquaintances would be valuable and, in the end, much more enjoyable than room service in front of my laptop.

I did appreciate, however, this person’s kind gesture and acknowledgment that some people feel more drained than others after a long day of conversation. For introverts, a dinner meeting after a full day can be like going to the gym; it takes a lot of energy to get going but afterward you feel much better for having done it.

While the time and effort that you devote to a campus interview can seem like a marathon, it really is a sprint that will be over before you know it. Push yourself during the interview process. Accept the unexpected invitation to dinner or the unasked-for tour of campus with a faculty member. It will pay off and you will earn your much-deserved downtime after the interview is over — along with, I hope, a new position that will be rewarding for years to come.

Remember that all of us have both introverted and extroverted qualities. An introvert can be a captivating public speaker, and an extrovert can be a superb listener.

To succeed in a campus interview you will want to recognize your weaknesses, make slight adjustments where needed, and develop your natural abilities to perform as best as you can — all the while embracing and enhancing the many wonderful characteristics of an introvert.

Here are a few articles and blog posts for additional reading on this subject: "An Introvert’s Guide To Small Talk: Eight Painless Tips," "The Introvert’s Guide to Leadership Presence," and "Quiet Leaders: 5 Tips for Success."

Amy Crutchfield is deputy managing director of Witt/Kieffer’s Education Practice and a consultant on management searches for a variety of types of colleges and universities. While a self-professed introvert, she loves connecting with clients and candidates — and also doesn’t mind invitations to dinner.

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