This introverted CEO says the workplace is built for extroverts—she uses these 2 simple strategies to thrive

Deb Liu, CEO, Ancestry.com
Source: Ancestry.com

The workplace is built for extroverts, says Deb Liu: Your success is often tied to your ability to share, speak up, connect and lead others.

She'd know — Liu, the CEO of $4.7 billion consumer genealogy business Ancestry.com, describes herself as distinctly introverted. She graduated from engineering school with honors "practically without speaking at all," she tells CNBC Make It. Hard work, Liu says, was enough to get by.

Then, she attended Stanford business school, where class participation was sometimes worth 50% of her grade — mimicking many workplaces, where your ability to make yourself seen or heard can often correlate with your success.

"That's when I realized I needed to figure this out," Liu says.

Her solution was to treat extroversion like a practicable skill rather than an unattainable personality trait, she says. At Stanford, that meant setting small goals for herself, like speaking up at least three times per week in a given class. She kept practicing at her first tech job in 2002, as a senior product manager at PayPal.

Ultimately, Liu credits her extrovert training — a self-prescribed plan to help herself become more comfortable and confident engaging with others — to her career success. She held executive or product executive roles at PayPal, eBay and Facebook before becoming Ancestry's CEO last year.

Her strategy could potentially help a large swath of the American workforce: A 2021 survey by career assessment publisher Truity Psychometrics found that around 50% of working professionals in the U.S. identify as introverts.

Here are Liu's top two tips for anyone who wants to follow her path:

1. Set aside practice time

Liu says it's easy for introverts to sit back during conversations or meetings and think, "My voice isn't really necessary right now."

That mindset will prevent you from getting better at extroversion, she says. Instead, she recommends thinking about extroversion like learning a new language: You can't master it in an instant, but you can always improve by directly practicing with others.

For example, you could aim to schedule one coffee chat with an older colleague each week. Or, you could try to organize regular brainstorming sessions with a teammate to bounce off ideas off each other aloud.

2. Work toward tiny goals

Set small, attainable goals, Liu says. Don't aim to talk 10 times during every meeting, for example. Instead, start by trying to speak up twice during a meeting, or maybe even just once each workday.

That type of goal-setting approach worked for an "extremely introverted" employee Liu once supervised, she says: She told him to speak up at least once in any meeting that ran for 30 minutes, and twice in any meeting that ran for an hour. The more he spoke, the more comfortable he gradually became using his voice more broadly in the workplace.

The employee went on to become the vice president of engineering at another company, benefitting from a fresh start in a new workplace where he wasn't already known as meek or shy, Liu says: "Once he went to a new place, he could use [his voice] without carrying the burden of being this really, really quiet guy."

The key is to realize that it won't go smoothly right away, Liu says. You might feel a lot of discomfort actively reaching out to other people, and you might not always say brilliant comments during meetings.

That's all part of practicing, she says: "What matters is that you're gradually working towards it and getting better. It takes time."

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