Real Leaders

Engaging the Quiet Chiefs

When I took over Lucent’s Government Operations, I was confident in our ability to turn around the unit in part based on many great suggestions made by a group of strong, vocal employees in Washington, DC and Greensboro, NC. By and large, these employees were visible and forceful in sharing their views of what it would take to regain customer trust.

But it was also a third group of employees located in Whippany, NJ who quietly played a big role in our comeback. This team worked for Bell Labs.

Today, people marvel at the innovation coming out of Silicon Valley from firms like Google and Apple, companies that top the most admired lists. Not long ago, the hallmark for innovation resided on the opposite coast, in Murray Hill, NJ at the headquarters of Bell Laboratories. Born out of the original American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) company in 1925, researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system, and information theory itself. Eight Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Labs.

The good news for me was Bell Labs had a long history, and a dedicated unit, focused on providing advanced technology to the US government.

Walking into my new assignment, I had clear ideas about how to increase the productivity of my sales force. Having “grown up” in a sales environment I was accustomed to working with a gregarious peer group of people who made a living by talking. For example, I was an early adopter of an “open office” approach years earlier at AT&T that was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review. Creating space that increased conversations was one of the goals. It worked well.

But the first time I walked into Bell Labs, I knew I was in a different space. This was a place optimized for introverts.

I immediately noticed the large number of small offices lined up off the main corridors. And I noticed the silence. I learned about the many different ways Bell Labs employees created and reinforced viral engagement, helping these brilliant thinkers bring out their very best. I saw that big team meetings were few and far between and that email was often the preferred communication tool, even between colleagues in adjoining offices. Many chose to enjoy lunch breaks without leaving their offices, or when the weather permitted, by taking walks around the building grounds, alone. Perhaps my biggest lesson was that viral engagement among introverts is more subtle, but just as impactful, as viral engagement among extroverts.

How can you bring out the very best from the third to half of your team who are introverts?
Here are my top takeaways:

Lead time – can create better quality
Small groups – can enable more contribution than large groups
Written communication – allows for thoughtful responses
Directed questions – clearly identify expectations
Team building – needs to be structured so it works for everyone
Office space – can be configured to support creativity
Technology –improves communication, via social media and on-line chat tools
Diversity – of approach can be important
Individual challenges – sometimes work best
Anonymity – can be a good thing

Chiefs at all levels in Bell Labs connected what they did to who they were, and management understood what it took to support a primarily introverted culture. The results were amazing. Our government unit’s dramatic growth was fueled by Bell Labs innovations.

Subsequent to my government assignment, I came to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It is a must-read for anyone committed to engaging any team.

In addition to a deep dive into the world of introverts, Susan offers the following central insight “[We] would be better off if we appreciated that not everyone aspires to be a leader in the conventional sense of the word—that some people wish to fit harmoniously into the group, and others to be independent of it. Often the most highly creative people are in the latter category.”

With introvert estimates as high as 50% of some groups, it’s high time we all learn how to better engage the quiet Chiefs. Sustainable growth depends on it.


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