It’s Not Introvert v. Extrovert. It’s Whether You Can Sell.

TL;DR: People from various intellectual/technical backgrounds tend to over-value IQ and undervalue EQ; meaning that they neglect just how crucial communication/sales skills are for executives/founders, especially a CEO.

I spend a good amount of my time training lawyers not only on how to use technology effectively (because lawyers are second only to doctors in sucking at tech adoption), but on the key ‘soft’ skills that underly client satisfaction. As a profession, lawyers dramatically over-value their credentials and under-value basic human skills like the ability to charismatically start, lead, and end a serious conversation. But when you step back and analyze how lawyers perform throughout their careers, it becomes extremely clear that far less ‘intelligent’ lawyers are the employers of lawyers with significantly better credentials.

Why would that be? Because for lawyers, legal skills get you a job, but communication skills get you clients. And without clients, no one has jobs. Any lawyer who wants to move from being a “worker bee” to leading client relationships needs to self-critically assess and devote serious attention to her/his communication skills: reading people for their pain points/values and adjusting your message, building rapport with diverse people, speaking crisply and confidently, etc. And the exact same can be said about a founder who wants to be and stay CEO.

Everything is Selling

When investors want to discuss investment, when employees want to discuss employment, or when key early customers want to discuss the product/business, whom do they ask for? The company’s technological savant? No. They want to talk to the CEO. The 3 core jobs of a founder CEO are to find customers, recruit employees, and close on investment. All three of those require strong sales and communication skills, because 90% of the work is deep, serious conversation. As the company scales, those tasks become more segmented, but at early-stage the CEO, and only the CEO, can get them done effectively.

All the time I see founder teams full of MIT, Stanford, etc. technical degrees, and a CEO who went to an unremarkable school. But 5 minutes into a conversation with them you know exactly why he’s CEO. He can sell. And I’ll see VCs who are fine keeping X founder as CEO, but insist that Y step aside for an outside CEO. Why? Because Y can’t sell. Sure, I may be over-simplifying a bit, but not by much. Assuming you aren’t dealing with a VC who always replaces founders purely for control purposes, whether or not a VC trusts you in the CEO seat often boils down to whether you can look them straight in the eye and convince them, through well-articulated conversation, that you are ‘CEO material.’

Sales Skills ≠ Extrovert. Find a Coach.

Like any other skill, sales skills can be learned, practiced, and taught, but it takes honest self-criticism and time. And they do not even remotely boil down to whether or not you are an extrovert. Shyness/social anxiety/bad communication are dysfunctions. Introversion is not a dysfunction; it’s just a personality orientation. Sales/communication skills tend to come more naturally to extroverts, but there are extroverts who are terrible at sales (often because they are glad-hander loudmouths), and there are introverts who are fantastic at it. Apart from self-practice, there are excellent executive coaches who can be engaged to help founders improve their ‘presence’ in conversation.

By no means should the above be interpreted by smart, technical founders as that they absolutely need to go out and find a schmoozer MBA to put on their team. The best lawyers (and executives) are extremely technically smart and know how to communicate. It should, however, be read to mean that you should rid yourself of the delusion that your technical skills/intelligence alone will ensure your position on your company’s executive team. ‘Soft skills’ are at least as important as ‘hard’ ones, and the faster you improve yours, the greater chances you’ll have of getting customers, employees, and investors to not only ‘buy’ your product and company, but ‘buy’ you as an executive as well.

Also published on Medium.

  • Paul Spitz

    I’m constantly amazed by how few startup founders can clearly and succinctly explain what their company does in less than 45 seconds.

  • bryan hancock

    I work around some pretty technically-inclined folks and they tend to get lost in the weeds a lot too. I think a lot of people that know technology well have a hard time relating it to the needs of customers. Professors at universities tend to suffer from this affliction as well. If you know material really well sometimes it is really hard to break it down into basics that are consumable by novices.

    Early sales at startups are often really hard because the customers don’t believe in the viability of the startup in the long run. You’re not only selling the product or service, but you’re also selling that the company will be successful enough for the company to stick around.

  • Sean Sheppard

    This is a fabulous post. Having re-trained “recovering lawyers” for Co-Founder/CEO, Sales and BD roles in startups I can speak from experience when i say it’s more common than not for product focused founders to lack the “bedside manor” or market acumen and human skill set to acquire investors, much less customers. As investors, we look for humble an hungry product centric teams which happily acknowledge and embrace the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know about the market and human side of their venture. Why is this important? Because between products don’t create value in the market, customers do.

    • José Ancer

      Yep. Without clients, there is no law firm. And without customers, investors, and employees, there is no company. Once we put aside the historical disdain for ‘hustlers’ among high IQ people, it becomes crystal clear why the guy who can sell is the guy who’s in charge.

  • Fascinatingly true to the core!

  • John Mark Kerr

    Spot on. Should be required reading for anyone seeking to start a business, but particularly relevant to those more linear self-styled idea types that shy, and even obsess–over the mention of the word”sales” . Fear of rejection is deep water for many, but as detailed so well in your piece, there is no place at the head table for those unwilling or unable, to learn to swim.