by Frank Levesque
illustrations by Lauren Rebbeck

Hard technical skills are table stakes for executive hires in today’s economic environment. The differentiators will be those able to display the soft, emotional, hard-to-define skills of emotional intelligence.

• • • • • • • • • •


magine the following scenario. You’re hiring a new member of your executive team. The candidate across the interview table has impeccable credentials: MBA, professional certifications, a decade of relevant industry experience and a track record of “getting it done.”

During the extensive interview process, the candidate demonstrated clear examples of strong business acumen and strategic thinking — they’ve checked the box on almost all the hard skill qualifications you’re looking for. If there is a red flag at all, it is that, based on your own observations and feedback, the candidate may have come on a little strong in describing their accomplishments. They also interrupted the interviewers on a few occasions.

One interviewer in particular remarked, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something there that just doesn’t feel right.” Regardless, this was quickly dismissed as a nonissue, as the position required tangible results in a relatively short period of time and, based on the alignment of the candidate’s experience and the established key competencies for the role, they certainly appeared to fit the mold.

Within the first 90 days, however, the honeymoon appeared to be over. Despite an initial affirmation of their strong technical skills and knowledge, concerns about the candidate’s communication style and overall approach with people were being brought to your attention directly and indirectly from every direction. Employees, his team, even his peers described your “rock star” as self-aggrandizing, interested in talking more than listening and unable or unwilling to properly read people and situations, all the while seemingly unaware of his perceived shortcomings.

As a result, your new executive hire has been unable to gain any traction in building important relationships. Moreover, they haven’t been able to establish any credibility within the organization.

Fast-forward another month. Things haven’t gotten better. Despite repeated performance conversations with your new executive hire, you eventually make the difficult — and costly — decision to terminate the employment.

As you get back to your desk to prepare for the time-consuming process of finding a replacement, it becomes clear that something must change in your interview process. Business acumen, strategic abilities and a seat at the table are simply a “ticket to the dance.” You decide that your focus must be on the often maligned but underestimated soft skills, things like self-awareness, empathy and building relationships. What you’ll be focusing on is the critical competency of Emotional Intelligence, or EQ.

The emotional side of leadership or intellect is commonly downplayed as the “touchy-feely, soft underbelly” of business management.

This article will take a closer look at EQ, including references to literature on the topic as well as why, despite the encouraging evolution of soft skill development in leadership development, EQ doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves as a critical success factor for leaders and executives. Finally, I will make recommendations on how business leaders can develop their EQ capabilities so they don’t fall into the pattern showcased in the example above.

A Closer Look at Emotional Intelligence

In the last century, human potential has almost always been defined in terms of cognitive intelligence, according to Stephen J. Stein and Howard E. Book in their 2011 book, “The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success.” In other words, it was thought that the more intelligent you were — usually derived from the higher you scored on an IQ test — the more likely you would be successful in your chosen field.

Until recently, however, the role of emotion in this sort of professional success has been left to the back burner. The emotional side of leadership or intellect is commonly downplayed as the “touchy-feely, soft underbelly” of business management. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer had originally coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” in 1990. They described it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”

It wasn’t until Daniel Goleman’s seminal 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence” that EQ began to gain the attention of both business leaders and academics as a key competency of high performance. Multiple research studies have borne this out. For example, in his initial 1998 research of nearly 200 large global companies, Goleman determined that, in senior leadership positions, nearly 90 percent of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

The findings of the late David McClelland, the renowned researcher in human and organizational behavior, also serve as a good example. In a 1996 study of a global food and beverage company, McClelland found that when senior managers had a critical mass of EQ capabilities, their divisions outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20 percent. Meanwhile, division leaders without that critical mass underperformed by almost the same amount, according to Goleman’s research.

Goleman defined EQ as “the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups.” He grouped EQ into five skills that enable leaders to maximize their own and their followers’ performance, as shown here:

  • Self-awareness: Knowing one’s own strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and impact on others.
  • Self-regulation: Controlling or redirecting disruptive impulses and moods.
  • Motivation: Relishing achievements for their own sake.
  • Empathy: Understanding other people’s emotional makeup.
  • Social skill: Building rapport with others to move them in desired directions.

As additional research and data became available, Goleman’s model evolved into four main quadrants supported by 12 competencies. “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” written by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves in 2009 is a best-selling book based on this “newer” model, as shown here:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen.
  • Self-management: The ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and positively direct your behavior.
  • Social-awareness: The ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on.
  • Relationship-management: The ability to use awareness of your emotions and the other’s emotions to manage interactions successfully.

The top two skill areas are focused on the individual themselves or personal competence, while the bottom two skill areas focus on how we relate to others, or social competence. Social competence is of particular importance and should be considered foundational for business leaders.

Various other models and assessments on EQ exist as well, and like both Goleman’s and Bradberry and Greaves’ models, there are similar characteristics and overlap. For business leaders working on their own professional development or on others’, determining which model or assessment is “best” depends in large part on what their specific areas of focus are.

Having emotional intelligence is not just about being a “people person.” EQ is a foundation for a host of critical skills that influences everything a business leader says or does. Yet how many times can you recall seeing an otherwise bright, technically proficient business leader be unable to make the necessary inroads and partnerships with others in the organization because of their lack of skills rooted in EQ?

HR’s Evolution and the HR Business Partner of Today

To get a better understanding of how important EQ has become, let’s focus on the role of human resources. It’s no secret that over the past few decades the HR profession has seen a major shift from an administratively focused, task-oriented “personnel” function, to one that is more strategically significant. In an ever-changing business environment, organizations have demanded that HR should demonstrate its value to the business. Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, authored the landmark 1996 book “Human Resource Champions.” In it, Ulrich made it clear that, for HR to fully contribute and provide the value that organizations demand, the function must shift from a mentality of “what I do” to “what I deliver.” The reactive mindset of processing paperwork and putting out fires needed to evolve to a proactive, strategic business partner with four distinct roles: strategic player, administrative expert, employee champion and change agent.

However, in the race to achieve the seat at the table, HR must not do so at the expense of the human element. By doing so those in the profession risk ignoring their own growth and development in the area that is the very core and essence of what it is they do: work with people.

Why Is EQ Any More Important for HR?

So why is it that EQ is so much more important for HR professionals? Why is it any more important than the aforementioned business focus and acumen — the skills that the HR profession has branded itself on and gained a new level of credibility with over the past two decades?

One look at the Society for Human Resource Management’s competency model reveals that nearly 70 percent of the model’s skills/competencies can be linked to one or more areas of EQ. Moreover, HR research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte’s “Human Resources Business Partner ‘List of Capabilities’ ” includes relationship building, executive partnership and internal customer focus, each of which can also be linked to EQ. Thus, the most current HR competency models available today are making it clear that today’s HR professional must possess strong EQ skills to perform at a high level. Although there’s been no shortage of research on EQ’s link to high job performance, there’s been very little research on EQ as a specific key competency for HR professionals. There is, however, a fair amount of research and evidence that EQ influences many areas that HR business partners work in, such as conflict resolution, organizational change and coaching.

Author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni, best known for his landmark book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” writes in his most recent book, “The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues,” that the essence of team is a combination of humility, hunger and smarts, with smarts not meaning IQ but “a person’s common sense about people.”

In a study of emotional intelligence and HR Professionals, M.N.R. Manohar, associate professor and head of business management at the Matrusri Institute of P.G. Studies, Hyderabad, India, determined that EQ factors are common to all HR Professionals and that the clear majority of respondents wished they’d had EQ training available through their company’s professional curriculum.

The fact is that HR is there at nearly every step in the life cycle of an employee — from recruitment and onboarding, to performance management and development, to recognition and offboarding. HR practitioners are continuously working with people and their emotions. As David C. Forman points out in his 2015 book, “Fearless HR: Driving Business Results,” the HR profession is under greater scrutiny now more than ever because it is the single function in an organization that touches every employee. It’s also true that HR is beholden to the business more than ever, thus putting HR at the intersection of being both a business partner and employee advocate, often with competing priorities. The ability to manage these competing priorities and increased demands, including the emotions that come along with them, is critical.

Unfortunately, these demands may be taking their toll on HR’s EQ capabilities. A survey of more than 24,000 professionals by U.K.-based organizational development firm JCA Global in 2015 showed that, while the HR sector scored higher than most other job sectors in EQ over the previous nine years, a significant drop took place since 2012. The good news is that there’s still plenty of evidence that strong EQ can have an influence on the bottom line, thus allowing HR business partners to simultaneously help drive business results.

Business partners must be adept at effectively understanding and relating to employees at all levels and in different functions. As an example, the field employees may already be on a project with scheduling delays, staffing issues, a difficult owner and a sense of disconnect from corporate headquarters. Meanwhile, the marketing team has worked together for many years, is highly engaged and enjoys the “creature comforts” of being in the home office. An inability to read, recognize and understand the highly charged emotions of the field team puts the HR business partner at a clear disadvantage. A one-size-fits-all approach by the business partner could prove disastrous in the field, the very group that generates the revenue for the organization. The fact that the rollout to the marketing team went well doesn’t mean that the field will follow suit.

Often seen as the “moral compass” or “conscience” of the organization, HR must hold itself to a higher standard. Quite simply, it is trusted to lead by example by exhibiting the very same behaviors and qualities that are expected of a company’s top leaders. Valuing others, empathy and human connection are just some of the key attributes that must be in the function’s wheelhouse.

“Emotional intelligence is the starting point for success in our complex organizations, no matter what job you have,” said Annie McKee, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Doctoral Program and author of “How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship.” Feelings and moods have dramatic impact on our thoughts and actions, so understanding ourselves and others allows us to build healthier, more productive relationships. And, as good HR leaders know, relationships are at the heart of organizational success (and, it turns out, engagement and happiness at work). What’s more, emotional intelligence allows us to understand and shape organizational culture — something the best HR professionals see as a primary responsibility.”

While it’s been shown that having strong EQ is beneficial in almost any profession, because of the HR business partner’s role at the center of an organization’s workforce it is especially critical today.

HR is beholden to the business more than ever, thus putting HR at the intersection of being both a business partner and employee advocate, often with competing priorities.

Here are some ways business leaders can inject more EQ in themselves or their organizations:

  1. Assess your own EQ: There are several self-assessment tools available. Two of the more popular and readily available tools are found in Bradberry and Greaves’ “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” and Harvard Business Reviews’ “Do You Lead With Emotional Intelligence?” Share your results with your manager or a trusted co-worker and ask for their candid feedback on whether the results are aligned with others’ perception of your EQ skills and what suggestions they might have for improvement.
  2. Introduce EQ to your team and organization: Consider offering a workshop to introduce EQ to your organization. Some of the more popular tools include HBR’s toolkit on EQ for teams and the Boyatzis, Goleman and Hay Group’s ESCI, a widely used 360-assessment and development tool, as well as SEI Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment.

  4. Practice and model the behavior: Unlike IQ, EQ skills can be improved. Examples of strategies to improve your EQ (based on the four primary EQ skills from Bradberry and Greaves’ “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”):
    • Self-awareness: Our senses are wired to send signals to our brain first through the limbic system, which are feelings/emotions that exist before reaching the frontal lobe made up of rational thinking and reason. Learn to intercept and identify your emotions as they happen, using them as a source of information that can help you better understand where they’re coming from and why.
    • Self-management: Building self-awareness skills allows us to then manage our reactions and behaviors — both deciding what to do and what not to do. An HR professional who is unable to stay cool, calm and collected in stressful situations will have a hard time gaining or maintaining confidence from others that they can handle tough news and matters. Over time the combination of strengthened self-awareness and self-management skills allows us to better anticipate tendencies and “triggers” to certain emotions, thus allowing us to exercise better control of situations and outcomes.
    • Social awareness: Business leaders must earn the trust of employees and managers alike. With myriad situations in which leaders may find themselves, social awareness and empathy is critical to building the level of trust that employees and managers require. Active listening and laser-focused observation are at the core of social awareness.
    • Relationship management: The pace of change, uncertainty and volatility in today’s business environment is unprecedented. How we’re able to manage the stress of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is dependent on the strength of our relationship management and overall EQ skills. Leaders’ ability to connect with and collaborate with others at all levels of an organization, providing support in navigating that change while also being tasked to help drive it, has never been more important.

Frank Levesque regional vice president, people & culture at Suffolk Construction Co. To comment, email