"Everyone shines, given the right lighting."- Susan Cain,"Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking"
B+H Principal and Design Director Christa Jansen writes about her experience becoming a leader in her own way, and why there's more than one way to lead.
Early in my career, someone in a leadership position told me that in order to be a successful design professional, I’d need to learn to be outgoing and gregarious, or it just wouldn’t work. They told me to forget becoming a leader; leaders needed to be larger than life in order to inspire, lead teams, develop business relationships and grow companies.
This idea was completely at odds with my personality and character. I mean, I can easily carry on a conversation with a colleague, or present ideas to a client. I don’t mind pushing myself out of my comfort zone in order to learn and grow (in fact, I realize that this is critical), but changing key aspects of who I am did not appeal to me. Would I have to settle for being a high-functioning individual contributor?
As my career progressed I worked under a series of leaders with a wide variety of personality traits. I learned the most from a Design Principal whose character is very similar to mine. Through her I began to see that it might be possible to lead in a different way – that my strengths and talents were just different, and I’d just have to navigate the business with that in mind. Working with her and others, I was promoted several times, eventually leading design teams and company initiatives.
Eventually, I moved on to another firm and worked closely with a Design Director who was a boisterous, in-your-face extrovert. He was very good at his job and could schmooze like nobody’s business (something I admired, since it had never been my thing). Despite our differences we worked relatively well together, and he respected my design work. He acknowledged that I had a lot to offer the firm and encouraged me to mentor other designers. The natural next step for me was to move into a Design Director position. He told me that in order to be successful as a design leader, I’d need to be louder, more pointed and more insistent. He wanted me to go around the studio and make myself known to design teams, insert myself into team charettes and aggressively push designers to do their best work. This was horrifying to me – this is not the way I operate, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. That conversation from years earlier gnawed at me, and I started to second-guess myself. Despite my relative success, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.
It was around this time that I came across Susan Cain’s work around introverts. It changed the way I viewed myself, my character and my potential. I realized that I did have what it took to be a leader - I just needed the right environment and the right people around me. My next career move put me in the place I needed to thrive – with people who understood and valued my strengths, and at the same time, respected who I am. They made me comfortable being myself. That comfort gave me the mental freedom to do my best work, and in turn empowered me as a leader.
That early career advice probably did make me consciously work harder to make sure my voice was heard along the way. I’ve grown a lot, received accolades for my work, and moved into a position of leadership, but I still haven’t changed my character. I was recently asked, “what is your biggest career regret?” The answer is simple – my biggest regret is that I didn’t realize sooner that it was okay to be myself. That a quiet, introspective nature is not an impediment to success or leadership. That I can use my particular strengths and talents to lead in ways which come naturally to me, and that I can make a difference.