“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
You don’t have to look much farther than the legacies of Bill Gates, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, and Mark Zuckerberg to see that prophecy realized. Distinct as each of them are, they have two things in common: They founded some of the most successful and revolutionary technology companies of our time — and they’re all famous introverts. That may not be a coincidence.
Researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago found a correlation between CEOs with reserved personalities and “contemporaneous and future return on assets and cash flow.” The National Bureau of Economic Research published their findings a few weeks ago.
The study’s authors listened to conference calls, analyzing the linguistic patterns of 119 CEOs — 28 from tech firms and 91 from public firms. The initial findings suggest that reserved CEOs are connected, in some way, to a stronger bottom line.
That being said, the study has not yet been peer reviewed and the researchers themselves admit more work must be done to say definitively if there is causality. The authors of the study write:
We find that openness is positively associated with R&D intensity and negatively with net leverage; whereas conscientiousness is negatively associated with growth. In performance tests, extraversion is negatively associated with both contemporaneous and future return on assets and cash flow. However, our results are descriptive and further work is necessary to understand the nature of the causal relations, if any, between personality and firm policies and performance.
Interestingly, Bill Gates addressed the introvert label head-on during a talk in 2013, in which he noted that “introverts can do quite well,” a comment that drew huge laughs and big applause from the crowd. One of Gates’ favorite Ted talks is Susan Cain’s talk on the “Power of Introverts.”
“If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area,” Gates told a live audience of Q&A. “Then, if you come up with something, if you want to hire people, get them excited, build a company around that idea, you better learn what extroverts do, you better hire some extroverts, like Steve Ballmer I would claim as an extrovert, and tap into both sets of skills in order to have a company that thrives both as in deep thinking and building teams and going out into the world to sell those ideas.”
Oliver Staley, a veteran journalist who covers management and workplace issues for Quartz, discussed the new findings on NPR’s “Here and Now.”
“We don’t know that the personality results in the business results,” he said. “A failing company may seek out an extrovert because they feel like that’s going to be the secret and so that extrovert is going to get tagged with the failure whether or not it’s their fault.”
But Staley did offer a hypothesis for why CEO introversion may be related to stronger returns for the company.
“Someone who is not so worried about their public persona may be more attuned to actually getting the job done,” he said.
Between Zuckerberg’s signature wardrobe and Gates’ permanently unkempt hair, it certainly seems plausible.