The workplace is made for extroverts, says Deb Liu. In words and success in business is often related to one’s ability to share, speak, connect and lead others.
She knows what she’s talking about. Liu is the CEO of genetic testing company Ancestry.com, which is valued at $4.7 billion.
Liu describes himself as an introvert. She graduated from engineering school with honors “practically without ever speaking,” she told CNBC Make It. Hard work, Liu says, was enough to graduate.
She then attended Stanford University’s Business School, where class participation sometimes accounted for 50 percent of her grade—an approach that mimics the environment of many workplaces, where your ability to be seen and heard often correlates with your success.
“That’s when I realized I had to figure out how to be successful in this world,” Liu says.
Her solution is to treat extroversion as a practical skill rather than an innate personality trait. At Stanford, that meant setting small goals, like speaking at least three times a week in a given class. She continued to practice this method during her first job in the technology sector, after becoming a senior product manager at PayPal in 2002.
Today, Liu attributes his success in business to his self-education in extroversion. She moved through a series of executive roles at PayPal, eBay and Facebook before becoming CEO of Ancestry last year.
Her strategy could potentially help a large swath of the workforce: A 2021 study by Truity Psychometrics found that about 50 percent of working professionals in the U.S. self-identify as introverts.
Here are Liu’s two tips for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps:
Take time to practice
Liu says it’s easy for introverts to relax during conversations or meetings and think, “Right now, there’s no need for my voice to be heard.”
This mindset will prevent you from becoming better at extroversion, she argues. Instead, Liu recommends thinking of extroversion as learning a new language—you can’t master it overnight, but you can always improve by practicing with others.
For example, you can make it a goal to go out for coffee with a colleague every week to discuss issues that may later come up in team meetings. You can also organize regular brainstorming sessions with colleagues to exchange ideas out loud.
Work on small goals
Liu advises setting small and achievable goals. “Don’t aim to speak 10 times during every meeting. Instead, start by trying to express an opinion once or twice during a meeting, or once during the workday,” she says.
This type of goal-setting approach has worked for an “extremely introverted” employee Liu has managed in the past. She told him to speak at least once during a 30-minute meeting and at least twice in cases where meetings lasted at least an hour. “The more she spoke, the more comfortable she became and accepted the idea that she could use her voice more widely in the workplace,” she shares.
The employee later became a vice president of engineering at another company, taking advantage of a new workplace where he was not known to be meek and shy. when he was a really quiet person,” she says.
“The key is to realize that things are not going to be smooth sailing from the start. You may feel seriously uncomfortable when actively interacting with other people, and you won’t always impress with brilliant comments during meetings. It’s all part of the practice. This takes time. The important thing is that you gradually work towards the goal and get better,” Liu explains.