Practicing High-EQ Leadership

Rallying employees in difficult times requires forging a true emotional connection with them. How do you do it?

“I should lead by example—not lecture people on what they should ultimately be doing.” —Kara Goldin, CEO, Hint Water

Kara Goldin headed into a local Target store one evening in March and executed a corporate duty she’d left behind a decade ago: merchandising. In the teeth of an unfolding pandemic, the CEO of San Francisco-based Hint Water decided to go where she wouldn’t send her sales team, slipping into the stockroom to assure the startled grocery manager that she would personally make sure his empty shelves would bow again with dozens of cases of Hint Water within days.

“I wanted to show my executive team that this is what should be done,” says Goldin. “I should lead by example—not lecture people on what they should ultimately be doing. They appreciated that. And then, they were like, ‘If Kara is doing that, maybe we should be doing that, too.’”

Our goal for our team is to feel inspired, confident and cared for. If they do, I know that it will translate tenfold when they engage with our clients, partners and recruits.” —Pam Maynard, CEO, Avanade

In June, Pam Maynard, CEO of Seattle-based Avanade, offered all of the IT-services company’s 38,000 employees and contractors worldwide the opportunity to take the day of George Floyd’s funeral off. “I knew that speaking up in this way and having the team come together was the key to drive real change,” she says.

In August, Egnyte CEO Vineet Jain checked in with an engineer in Dallas, and the phone call led to an impromptu 20-minute Zoom presentation to the boss about a new AI initiative for the Mountain View, California-based software outfit—and much more. “He was talking about his wife, a nurse practitioner, and how stressed she is during Covid-19,” Jain says. “I really enjoy that kind of conversation, so the empathy was genuine.”

Call these high-EQ moves—EQ as in “emotional quotient”—for a moment that demands them. Essentially, EQ, or emotional intelligence, describes an individual’s capability to recognize his or her own emotions and those of others, discern and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide behavior and decisions, and manage or adjust emotions to achieve goals.

Popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, EQ has since gradually worked its way into executive-education curricula and corporate human-relations programs. CEOs have also adjusted to the greater expectations for EQ by an ever-younger workforce.

“If you don’t treat your people right, how are you going to treat your customers right?” —Vineet Jain, CEO, Egnyte

But Covid-19 and the disruptions it wrought have given CEOs a crash course in the importance of EQ—whether they were ready or not. Add to the pandemic the widespread social unrest and epochal political polarization, and 2020 is re-setting nearly every business relationship. Proven high EQ is helping some CEOs fare well, while other leaders may be embracing the importance of EQ for the first time.

“It’s how you really grab employees’ hearts and minds,” says Ted Bililies, managing director of AlixPartners in New York City and adviser to Chief Executive’s CEO of the Year selection committee. “Personal values, authenticity, vulnerability, integrity and character are critical pieces in keeping people engaged and working harder and staying with the company and not giving up and getting other jobs. And the whole notion of diversity and inclusion that is so important today arguably rests on EQ as well.”

In fact, Bililies puts high-EQ front and center with four other critical capabilities for creating a “powerful CEO who’s custom made for leadership through business and social disruption.” The other four are creating a compelling, inspiring vision; setting a strong personal example; articulating values and purpose; and emphasizing accountability and continuous learning.

Of course, there’s lots of room for mumbo jumbo in a concept as broad and mushy as emotional intelligence. Isn’t this just what used to be called “leadership”? “No,” says Andrew Panzo, a former CEO and a general partner at NewSpring Capital in Radnor, Pennsylvania. “You hear of CEOs who scream and swear and pound desks, and people act out of fear. Then, you hear of leaders who come in and have to reprimand someone, but that person leaves feeling good.”

Empathy is the biggest component of EQ, but it also requires self-awareness and the “intelligence” part of it, the execution—what Bililies calls “the ability to utilize social skills to influence and persuade others.” Or, as Mark Mallon, CEO of Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, puts it, “Once you’ve shown understanding and caring, what do you do with it?”

Maynard channels Maya Angelou for that. Describing herself as one of the few Black, female chiefs in the tech industry, she applies a well-known aphorism of the late poet. “She said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” Avanade’s CEO recounts. “So, I’m passionate about the experience that our employees have, and our goal for our team is to feel inspired, confident and cared for. If they do, I know that it will translate tenfold when they engage with our clients, partners and recruits.”

Tim Hebert says he learned what to do about EQ during 9/11 when he was leading Atrion, an IT-services firm in Cranston, Rhode Island. “We changed our business model in essentially 35 days beginning that night,” he says. “I had to become a stronger leader versus just a more effective manager. I focused on establishing more trust within the organization, having teams collaborate more and developing people so they’d be more empowered to take on the challenges we were facing. Then I identified when people were being over-stressed and backed them off the ledge.”

A big hurdle to effective EQ is how humans are wired: the brain’s empathic capability toggles with its analytical, problem-solving side, researchers say. “These two networks literally suppress each other,” says Melvin Smith, an organizational-behavior professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “So, leaders may intend to help but instrumentally solve problems in a way that doesn’t make that emotional connection or create the space that employees really need.”

This challenge sets up the risk for CEOs to fall backward on EQ, as they cope with today’s potentially tectonic shifts in the economy, their industries, their companies, their customers, their communities, their employees and their own careers.

Tips to Help Optimize EQ:

Wear a SCARF: David Rock, CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute, based in New York City, came up with a framework to help keep leaders’ mental switch flipped to “EQ” and “activate their people networks to understand others’ goals, motives and intentions,” plus give them “levers” to operate.

SCARF is his acronym for the employee needs that high-EQ leaders must recognize. “S” is for “status, feeling you’re equal to other people,” Rock says. “C” is for certainty, which the brain craves. “A” is for autonomy, the feeling of having control and choices. “R” is relatedness, “a feeling of safety with others, a core human need.” And “F” is for fairness.

Put employees first: High EQ helps with customers, investors, suppliers and other CEO constituencies. “But employees always come first,” Jain says. “It doesn’t mean we’re building a charitable organization and we’re all kum-ba-yah; we want to make money and have a big enterprise. But if you don’t treat your people right, how will you treat your customers right?”

Xactly goes so far as to close the San Jose, California-based software company for a mental-health day occasionally. “If wellness days are made optional,” explains CEO Chris Cabrera, “many employees won’t feel comfortable asking for them or going fully offline when they do.”

Man—and woman—the barricades: During Covid-19, says Stew Leonard Jr., “the best leaders walked the talk.” The CEO of Stew Leonard’s, a regional supermarket chain based in Norwalk, Connecticut, says “they didn’t stay home under quarantine; they were on the store floor, every day, in the middle of the battle. Your people want to see you doing that, not staying at home on a Zoom call all day.”

Flow authenticity: It’s a sine qua non for high EQ. For example, amid the Covid-19 fiasco, Alex Bingham fielded a video-conference question from an employee: What if The Little Gym International, a Paradise Valley, Arizona-based-franchisor of fitness gyms for kids, had to close its doors? “I said I didn’t foresee a scenario where we wouldn’t be able to stay in business,” he recalls, “but that we could lose some franchisees and team members. Being able to have that kind of conversation in a public setting on the spot makes people feel that we can get through this.”

And lace transparency with optimism. “You have to be a merchant of hope for your people,” Leonard says. “You have to stay positive. Maybe you relay some experience in your life where everyone said there’s no way to get out of this one. You’re able to say to everyone that you’ve been counted out. And look where you are today.”

Switch moccasins: Walk a mile mentally in another’s shoes. “Put yourself in my place as an employee: Help me understand how my efforts and what I struggle with every day will help the organization,” Bililies advises. “Leaders need to be able to connect and understand what it’s like for a 30-year-old mother of three who’s now working from home and whose partner may have lost their job.”

But don’t over-reach. “You can only do so much,” says Samantha Ettus, founder and CEO of Park Place Payments in New York. “If you’re running an organization, you can’t solve everyone’s problems, and you probably have your own problems. You have to set boundaries to focus on helping people with their problems and also focus professionally.”

Communicate deliberately: Don’t just check in more often, check in effectively. Be purposeful and set an actual agenda for online “town halls” for employees, for instance—and be prepared for interruptions like a six-year-old coming in and sitting on someone’s lap, says Boston-based Mallon. “Say hello to the child, ask their name and acknowledge what’s happening and ask the [employee], ‘Do you need a minute, or should we continue?’”

Celebrate and commiserate: Capture and leverage employees’ moods. Globalization Partners, a Boston-based global-recruiting outfit, recently established “Rock Star Awards” in which employees nominate co-workers for special recognition and a monetary bonus. “It pulls the team together and gives them an opportunity to show gratitude to colleagues,” says CEO Nicole Sahin.

Spread out the feelers: Take pulses everywhere. Jain drills down into his workforce of 700 to many individuals—such as the engineer in Dallas—via text, Slack, email or a phone call to update them and solicit their thoughts. “I don’t set up scheduled meetings,” he says. “That takes the formality out of it, and people appreciate that.”

Hebert gathered small clusters of Atrion staffers. “Get them together and talk about what they’re feeling, what’s working and not working—and don’t spend a lot of time on what you think,” he says. He also checked in with five or 10 key employees regularly, one on one. “Share where the business is going, where some of the challenges are. Don’t sugarcoat it.”

Change up just one question: Switch from asking, “How are you?” to, “How are you feeling?” That was “a big moment” for Hebert. “There were people who I thought had things handled who would break down when I would ask them that.”

Wield purpose: Reaffirming a company’s “purpose,” an exercise that has been so important to millennials and Gen Z-ers, is crucial. “It’s still important that CEOs understand the values of their organization and promote and inform the values of their organization besides making a profit,” Bililies says. “Connect an individual’s efforts with the purpose and motivation of the company.”

Hone your EQ skills: High EQ may come more naturally to some but, like any other leadership competency, “can be developed and sustained in a significant way by being broken down into behaviors,” Smith says, “and it’s about engaging more consistently in these behaviors.”

Charlie Young, CEO of Gilbert, Arizona-based Synergy HomeCare, agrees. “All CEOs can hone their emotional-intelligence skills, just like they perfect other skills.”