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Shaking Off a Shy Reputation at Work

How office introverts can get ahead while staying true to themselves



It's easy for someone who's not a big talker in meetings to be pigeonholed at work as lacking ambition or drive. Conference calls can fly right by and he's still reflecting on what to say.
Thomas G. Lynch, a self-described introvert, shook off his old image among managers as quiet and took on new leadership roles at work—without becoming a backslapping extrovert. Here's how he did it.


The Problem
Mr. Lynch was a sales-support executive with a good track record who was passed over for leadership roles because of his quiet personality.
He was promoted several times at SAP America in Newtown Square, Pa., most recently to senior principal in 2011. He enjoys solving customers' problems and working one-on-one or in small groups with his clients, including top officials at government agencies. After 10 years at the maker of business-applications software, the 44-year-old engineer, who also has an M.B.A., wanted to move up into management.
When he started exploring the idea in 2012, however, he heard from bosses that he lacked drive and ambition. "The feedback I got was, 'Tom, you're a smart guy. You're well-respected. But you need more edge,' " he says. He assumed that meant he had to become an extrovert, or more assertive and dominant.
Mr. Lynch has scored major successes with clients, helping drive at least $20 million to $30 million in sales each year, often earning above-average or "top performer" ratings. "You'd never think I'm an introvert if you saw me in front of a customer, because I'm asking questions and trying to solve problems," he says. Introverts tend to thrive when able to think deeply about solutions.
He was often overshadowed at the office by outspoken colleagues, however. "I'm not the type of person who has to say something at every single meeting," he says.
The Solution
Mr. Lynch focused on making his strengths clearer to others.
He asked Julie Cohen, a Philadelphia career and leadership coach and his former colleague at a previous employer, Ernst & Young, to help him become more extroverted. They agreed on six months of coaching sessions every other week.
Ms. Cohen had Mr. Lynch ask 20 colleagues and friends for three adjectives that described him. He was pleased that not everyone saw him as "this quiet person," he says. Colleagues described him as innovative, thorough, empathic, trustworthy and "highly influential." He also attended an SAP employee-training program on developing a "personal brand," or positive image.
Mr. Lynch made a list of his strengths: his focus on the customer, technical skill and being a team player. He enjoys making presentations when he can prepare in advance. Ms. Cohen also had him list his values, to understand what motivates him. To his surprise, it wasn't status or money, Mr. Lynch says. "For me, it's about helping people. Once I reassessed what was important to me, I came to realize that I am more successful than I thought."
He and Ms. Cohen concluded, based on the exercises, that becoming an extrovert "was the wrong goal," Ms. Cohen says. Some of Mr. Lynch's best qualities were tied to his reflective style.
They refocused on helping Mr. Lynch present himself differently, as an innovator and an expert on public-sector clients. "I realized I needed to stop flying under the radar and take more risks," Mr. Lynch says.
Ms. Cohen urged him to speak up more often in meetings. "Sometimes you need to react in the moment, with something that is not 100% fleshed out" to be seen as a full participant, Ms. Cohen told him. She also suggested he talk more with managers about specific contributions he wanted to make.
The Implementation
At Ms. Cohen's urging, Mr. Lynch called a boss, Michael Nixon, who he knew saw him as lacking in ambition. He described what he saw as his strengths, and asked Mr. Nixon how he could gain more responsibility.
"I was a little surprised" by the call, says Mr. Nixon, who is vice president, financial services, for SAP America. He told Mr. Lynch, "This can't be an easy call for you to make." Mr. Lynch had a reputation as a "solid, very professional, very disciplined" employee, but Mr. Nixon says he hadn't seen him show the entrepreneurial skills that help managers advance at SAP.
Mr. Nixon says he urged Mr. Lynch to promote himself and his skills, rather than assuming "people would see his ability and tap him on the shoulder." Self-promotion, he added, "isn't a selfish thing."
Mr. Lynch also called a manager who was organizing an annual sales meeting last January, and asked to participate. When she said, "I've got it handled," he pressed the point. "Even if there's a small part, I'd love to do it." She agreed to let him plan a 30-minute presentation to 100 colleagues in Las Vegas, which broadened his network.
The same manager remembered him a few months later when she became his boss.
He has started building relationships two or more levels up. He recently asked a senior executive for leadership opportunities and won an assignment to a new team studying ways to improve his unit's performance. He also has signed up for professional-development services SAP offers employees, including more coaching and an online tool for help finding an internal mentor.
The Outcome
On a recent team project, the change in Mr. Lynch's confidence and leadership was so marked that "I barely recognized him," Mr. Nixon says. "I would label him a difference-maker." The project brought in three times the expected revenue, or several million dollars, Mr. Nixon says.
Mr. Lynch was delighted recently when his manager asked him to lead a 90-minute breakout session for about 100 colleagues at this year's annual sales meeting next week in Las Vegas.
Being an introvert, Mr. Lynch has decided, can be a plus. While he would welcome a promotion or a new title, he is focusing less on that now, and more on the intrinsic rewards of his work.
The changes have rippled through family life with his wife, Robin, his daughters Tyler, 13, and Ryan, 10, and his 5-year-old son, Tommy. Mr. Lynch used to keep to himself at activities with his kids. At a cookout last fall for Ryan's soccer team, he realized that having a father who knows other parents and coaches might help his daughter have more fun and success on the team.
Knowing he was extending himself for his daughter, he said, "I had a purpose. And the more I have a purpose, the easier it is."
—Have you escaped being pigeonholed on the job and reached a new level? Send your stories to sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com.

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