Interview with an Irreverent Introvert

Meet Larry Underwood*, the founding father of Enterprise Rent-a-Car in the Desert Southwest. We’re chatting about his 26-year experience as an irreverent senior corporate manager who some people might be surprised to learn is an introvert.

He doesn’t like meetings. But he likes to make people laugh. He inspires his staff, takes care of his customers, and knows how make an operation wildly profitable. And he doesn’t always go with the flow.
Underwood’s most recent achievement is his book, Life Under the Corporate Microscope, which offers a glimpse behind the curtain from his days at Enterprise.

Here’s how I connected with Underwood. I recently launched my first book, Self-Promotion for Introverts®. A few weeks before my book was even available at bookstores, I found my first customer review on Amazon, which Underwood wrote.

I liked his writing, Googled him, read his blog, found his perspective fascinating and fun, and learned that Underwood has written over 300 Amazon reviews. What a great way for an introvert who likes to read and write to reach lots of people and raise his visibility. Here’s to self-promotion by using our strengths as introverts—and without bragging!

So I had to find out more about Underwood. In the following exchange, he shares his experience navigating his life at Enterprise as an introvert. Despite his reputation as a maverick, I find his insights and advice for introverts sound and sage—and they smack of good leadership.

NA: What challenges have you observed among introverts at work?
LU: The biggest challenges for introverts: Going on sales calls and/or talking to the big boss (me). The introverts didn’t feel comfortable walking into the State Farm claims office and mingling with the adjusters or taking donuts to the dealerships or body shops.

NA: What, if anything, have you done as a leader to address those challenges?
LU: The best way to get the introverts to feel more comfortable with making sales calls was relatively easy. They went in with one or two of their cohorts, and slowly got to know everybody.

NA: How did you make yourself more approachable to your employees as a senior leader?
LU: I put myself in their shoes. That’s why I went out of my way to use humor—not necessarily cracking jokes, but keeping a light-hearted demeanor at all times. Eventually, even the most reserved person on earth felt comfortable talking with me, good old non-intimidating “Uncle Larry.”

NA: What do you think of public speaking as an approach to raise an introvert’s visibility?
LU: Public speaking terrifies some people more than the prospect of dying. Not me. Put me in front of a microphone and I turn into a regular Johnny Carson—the most gregarious introvert who ever lived!

NA: How do you do it?
LU: The key to successful public speaking is to make the audience feel at ease quickly. Size up the mood of the gathering and say something somewhat witty to get the audience on your side. Then speak with confidence and personality. The audience is probably more terrified than you are—the thought of listening to another boring presentation gives them nightmares! Lighten ’em up and chances are, you’ll own the room.

NA: The car rental business seems to rely heavily on strong customer service to be competitive. In what ways, if any, did introverts in your organization have an advantage?
LU: Introverts often leverage their quiet personalities to their benefit in dealing with customer service issues.

NA: Would you share an example?
LU: Most of Enterprise’s customers were renting cars because their own cars had been clobbered in an accident that wasn’t even their fault. These customers may have come in with a chip on their shoulder and may think that the insurance company can’t be trusted. Maybe they were right. The smart customer service representative who’s an introvert will show empathy about the customers’ plight and will make them understand we’re on their side (we were). Customers tend to trust the quiet customer service representatives.

NA: What have you noticed about the dynamic between introverts and extroverts in the work environment?
LU: The dynamic usually plays out favorably, like a balance of nature. Extroverts are the entertainers, the jokesters, the people most likely to keep an office laughing. The introverts are the appreciative audience. The blend of personalities usually produces a favorable work environment, especially after the introverts have spent enough time getting to know everybody.

NA: How can a work group transform itself into a team?
LU: It really boils down to trust. The sooner everybody feels comfortable with one another, the sooner a spirit of teamwork can define that group of co-workers. As long as there are no hidden agendas, the results are usually favorable. The office often becomes one big happy family.

NA: Really, Larry? Are we working on the same planet? From my experience with my corporate clients, harmonious organizations are the exception rather than the rule.
LU: Sometimes personalities clash. Introverts may view the extroverts as being nothing but self-absorbed windbags, and the extroverts may think the introverts are unreasonably stand-offish.

NA: Who’s right?
LU: They may both be right. Usually, these character flaws come from a lack of confidence.

NA: How does that lack of confidence manifest itself?
LU: The extroverts brag about the most inane stuff—now they’re viewed as buffoons, while the introverts draw deeper into their shell—now they’re viewed as being sullen.

NA: That sounds dismal. Do you think that extroverts and introverts can work well together?
LU: In time, the clashing personalities may reconcile their differences, especially if the leadership in the office is strong.

NA: What happens if the conflict doesn’t get resolved?
LU: If the resentment festers, the best recourse may be the transfer of one of the people to another location or department, or a resignation or termination—if there are performance issues at the root of the problem.

NA: Can you give me an example of how you’ve worked well with extroverts?
LU: Over the years, I found it interesting that some of our most successful sales efforts occurred when introverts, like me, went head to head with gregarious extroverts, like Jim Click and Harold Meek, both big-time car dealers.

Both of them liked to talk and I liked to listen. We always seemed to resolve any issues, primarily because they trusted me. They’d tell a funny story or make a quip about something or other, and I’d always show my appreciation. They were the performers and I was the audience—the perfect complement for their dominant personalities.

NA: What was the common bond you shared?
LU: These were good natured business relationships, which made for a definite “win-win” scenario for each side. An introvert shouldn’t feel intimidated when faced with a difficult sales challenge. Quite often, the difference in personalities forms the perfect bond between the two parties. I saw it work hundreds of times over the years. Introverts can use their quiet charm in swaying those extroverts into doing business with their company. It worked for Enterprise.

*Not pictured here.
©Copyright 2010 Nancy Ancowitz

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