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Don’t let being reserved hold you back from excelling in a profession devoted to people.
Illustration by James Smallwood for HR Magazine.
Research indicates that one-third to one-half of people identify as introverts—which generally means they draw their energy from being alone rather than in a group. That can be a challenge when you’re looking to advance your career in a profession focused on meeting the workplace needs of others, particularly if you’re the only person in your organization who handles HR.
I asked HR professionals from around the country who identified as introverts—many of whom were solo practitioners—to share their advice for excelling in their HR careers. Here are their tips:
1. Prepare and practice.
Introverts generally like to think things through before they speak. For that reason, practicing before a big meeting or interview can be a great tool for ensuring that you have the right words ready at the right time.
“To manage my career in HR as an introvert, I found that investing the time to do my homework and thoroughly prepare for internal meetings, one-on-one meetings with employees, civic events and presentations pays off,” says Gretchen Woods, HR manager at The Wenatchee World, a newspaper company in Wenatchee, Wash.
2. Enlist allies.
Briefing colleagues on what you want to say prior to key events is also helpful. “When I have an idea, suggestion or solution to share in a meeting, I will find allies both on the staff and in management beforehand,” says Woods, who serves as the solo HR practitioner in an organization of roughly 100 people. “That way, they help me amplify my message if I don’t speak up quickly enough.”
3. Follow up later.
Even with the benefits of planning and allies, it’s not uncommon for introverts to realize that they didn’t share everything they wanted to say at a meeting or event—or to think of new ideas or feedback after they’ve had more time to reflect.
In those instances, it’s important to remember that it’s never too late to let your voice be heard. “If I feel awkward [at a meeting] and don’t speak up but have an idea or solution to share, I handle it later that day,” says Eileen Gabaldon, SHRM-CP, an HR manager for law firm Harris, Finley & Bogle P.C. in Fort Worth, Texas. “I’ll approach the person and say, ‘After the meeting, I thought of this option/solution’ and lay out my plan in a one-to-one conversation. That way, I make my contribution and manage my introverted side.”
4. Be forthcoming.
Some people find that being upfront about their introverted nature can take some pressure off them and ease others’ expectations for them to immediately engage. That’s a strategy that Julie Worden, an HR department of one and self-described “hardcore introvert,” uses often when navigating new situations—like when she first became the finance and office manager for K Strategies Group, a Dallas-based public relations firm with 12 employees.
“I soon realized that, in order to do my HR job well, I needed to get to know people well,” she says. She found that to be especially true when she was working with other reserved people. That’s one reason it can be helpful for introverts to share insights into themselves—it encourages others to open up about who they are as well. “Fortunately, I found my tribe so I have a supportive network at work,” Worden says.
[SHRM members'-only competency resource: Introverts—The New Diversity Frontier]
5. Connect with peers.
To enhance her career, Worden knew she needed to have a presence in the profession. She joined her local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter and founded its department of one group, which is flourishing.
Introverts can also leverage social media to network and share resources—on their own terms. In addition to using traditional online platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, try seeking out virtual groups of like-minded HR professionals. For example, SHRM Connect—SHRM’s members-only online community—hosts a robust discussion forum for HR departments of one that allows participants to share advice with one another.
When attending in-person parties and networking events, a good tip for introverts and shy people is to show up a little early. Taking this approach enables you to avoid walking into a crowded room by yourself. Instead, you’ll be more likely to initiate a one-on-one conversation with another early arriver, which is often preferred by introverts.
6. Lead by listening.
Introverts are often good listeners—which is a key asset for HR professionals as well as an opportunity to engage with others.
“I observe people and learn about their interests,” says Stan Bowman, an HR manager at Shepherd Oil Company LLC in Blackwell, Okla. “My goal always is to find a common ground. Once we establish that, we have a connected conversation that’s of value to both of us.”
Making eye contact is also important for building trust. “It’s critical for my work in HR here at the firm that I’m approachable,” Gabaldon says. “When a firm employee has a concern and walks into my office, I turn off the phone and keep my eyes focused on them, not a screen.”
For Shareta Caldwell, SHRM-CP, vice president of human resources for VA Desert Pacific Federal Credit Union in Los Angeles, taking a course on effective communication was instructive. “I wanted to know how to communicate with people in the way that worked for them,” she says. “The next class I took was ‘Listen Like a Leader’ so I could best serve the people who work in our organization as well as our members.”
7. Embrace your inner extrovert.
Finally, don’t get too hung up on labels. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who coined the terms “introvert” and “extrovert,” believed that most people are a blend of the two, depending on the situation.
Moreover, each personality type has strengths and weaknesses. For every extroverted HR leader who aces a team project, there is an introverted one expertly handling a sensitive one-on-one discussion. And they can both learn from each other.
Susan RoAne is an international professional speaker who speaks to companies, conferences and universities. She is the author of How to Work a Room (William Morrow, 2013) and What Do I Say Next? (Grand Central Publishing, 1999).
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