Do Introverts or Extroverts Make the Better Product Managers?

Published Aug 21, 2018

Introverts unite!

It seems that everywhere you look these days there’s celebration of the introvert, abundant attention being paid to this often less-noticed personality type. And if you know an introvert, which of course you most certainly do–or if you are one yourself, of which there are roughly even odds statistically–you recognize that this attention comes with decidedly mixed emotions.

While their more boisterous counterparts would surely bask in the attention, introverts are more inclined to slink out of the spotlight, quietly appreciating the acknowledgment. Why? Because while they may not be caught wearing the proverbial lampshade on their heads at the company Christmas party or gregariously glad-handing clients on the golf course, they know that they, too, are forces to be reckoned with. They always knew it, thank you very much.

I say this as an introvert myself, a fact that I wasn’t always particularly happy to share. Before Susan Cain began her crusade to bring voice to the reticent, to celebrate the power of quiet, the personality trait often felt like a liability, something that you were better off disguising by hiding behind a more sociable facade. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

After all, the image of twentieth-century success was more often akin to Dale Carnegie than Abraham Lincoln, where winning friends and influencing people were valued above thoughtful contemplation; and glibness, sharp barbs, and witty repartee were valued over the slower pace of sense-making and problem-solving. Above all else, society encouraged you to be noticed.

But the world has begun to catch on to the fact that introverts are (not always but) often the ones observing more closely, feeling more acutely, thinking more deeply.

Because they’re energized by time alone, introverts are more inclined to focus, to dig deep, to go to the heart of darkness. They’ll wrestle with the dragons of difficult challenges and persevere through the monotony of research and reading that would make another personality type agonize in the sheer boredom of it all. The horror!

Which is why I would argue that introverts are often the better product managers.

Part of this is self-selection, of course, the fact that the nature of the work itself seems to draw those who are close observers, deep thinkers, and empathetic souls. You’ve probably noticed how passionate many product managers get when they talk about solving problems for customers; it’s not just a job, it’s a cause. They’ve taken notice of what’s not working and they genuinely care to make it right.

My colleague Brian Crofts likes to share an anecdote from his time at Intuit that illustrates this sort of single-minded devotion to solving customer problems. He remembers a colleague who quite literally walked out of a customer interview out of sheer urgency to fix an issue that she discovered in the product. So determined to produce a better result, he forgot to excuse himself or explain his hasty exit. Was he an introvert? I can’t know for sure, but my guess is yes.   

This isn’t to say that extroverts can’t or don’t possess these same focused, single-minded characteristics; they can and they do. I’ve known extroverts who, as product managers, are every bit or better than introverts. But, all things being equal, I’m inclined to believe that introverts are the better product people.

Granted, the benefits of introversion come with a cost, particularly in a discipline like product management. Beating a hasty retreat from a customer interview without excusing yourself is probably single-mindedness run amok. A little human interaction probably wouldn’t have hurt in making that particular moment perhaps a bit less awkward.

The reality is that every job has a political component and every new idea, on some level, requires selling. But product management, uniquely, is a game of influence, not authority.

In addition to penetrating analysis, the role requires persuasive argumentation and persistent negotiation. Product managers need to align cross-functionally, working with a variety of stakeholders from sales to marketing to engineering and customer success to ensure product plans align to the highest yield opportunities and customer needs. The role requires a lot of internal selling to get others to believe that your view is the right one and that what you believe matters most ought to be where the resources migrate.

The good news is that introverts are known to do their homework, so these arguments are often tight and bright. But beyond the merits of the argument, product managers require the courage and a willingness to go to battle when and where it counts. They don’t always have the luxury of slinking away to the quiet corners because, frankly, all the best product thinking in the world counts for very little when others in the organization don’t bother to get on board.

Which brings me back to, well, me. Yes, I am an introvert; that is an unavoidable fact. True to the textbook definition, I do find more energy alone than together. But introversion and extroversion are a continuum, not an absolute value. I’ve tried to put that to good use.

There are times when there’s no substitute for together. Often, it’s a conversation with a small group of whip-smart colleagues that makes an idea pop for me, or smooths off the ragged edges of an underdeveloped plan. For me, these interactions, at the risk of hyperbolic overstatement, are magical. This is why great teams make all the difference.  

The key, for product people–and people in general–is finding the right blend of introversion and extroversion to get the job done, while also keeping yourself healthy and whole. It’s about putting to practice some combination of both traits while accounting for your own biorhythms and sources of energy and inspiration.

In the end, perhaps introverts do make the better product managers. But the role clearly requires both traits. If you ask me, so does life.