Emotional Intelligence in Management Differentiates the Great Ones from Lesser Leaders

Chris and Steve Focus Search Partners

Twenty-three years after he retired from professional hockey, Wayne Gretzky still holds more records than any other former or current NHL player. Considered the league’s all-time greatest competitor, he had all the functional ability required at the elite level like many others before and after him. Notably, however, Gretzky was never the fastest, strongest, or biggest player on the ice.

What accounts for Gretzky’s status as “the Great One” or the fact that everyone recognizes his name whether or not they’re hockey fans? By all accounts, he had exceptional hockey IQ, the ability to see the game, anticipate what was coming, and adapt his on-ice decisions as a result of that vision. In business, emotional intelligence is a comparable IQ that differentiates exceptional company leaders from peers with similar or even broader functional skillsets.

Emotional Intelligence Equals Awareness Plus Action

According to the Harvard Business Review, two psychology professors coined the phrase emotional intelligence—or EQ, in the early 1990s before Daniel Goldman, Ph.D., made it famous in the HBR article, What Makes a Leader. In it, Goldman argues that functional IQ and technical skills matter but only as entry-level requirements for executive positions.

Without emotional intelligence, he says “a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but still won’t make a great leader.” Over more than four decades of conducting executive searches, we’ve found that statement to be highly accurate.

Still, people often mistake emotional intelligence in management as nothing more than self-awareness. In our view, leaders with high EQ are just as aware of other people’s emotions and reactionary tendencies as they are their own. And critically, they contextualize both within the broader situation and take appropriate, positive actions to effectively correct and manage everyone’s emotions toward a positive result.

Indeed, Goldman says the essential components of high EQ include such self-awareness and self-regulation, as well as empathy for others, strong social skills, and motivation not entirely driven by status or money.

In the real-world, this might be a CFO who recognizes that their tendency to micro-manage direct reports in stressful situations hampers everyone’s productivity rather than facilitates it. Their self-awareness is commendable, but nothing changes unless that CFO works to self-regulate this negative tendency by more effectively delegating work and communicating clearer expectations as advised by the Harvard Business School.

Likewise, it’s terrific when a COO recognizes and acknowledges that an employee is going through a stressful situation, but leaders with high EQ take it a step further by exhibiting empathy and figuring out the best way to respond and support that person.

Modern Companies Need High EQ in the C-Suite and Beyond

Company boards have always sought out highly intelligent CEOs. In turn, CEOs have prioritized exceptional intellect in their direct reports. This won’t change, but high IQ alone isn’t enough anymore. Not when many of the most difficult challenges facing the C-suite are now highly emotional issues rather than functional ones. Here’s just a sample of such recent challenges:

  • A global pandemic which endangered the health of employees and their families
  • Pandemic-induced layoffs or furloughs that jeopardized employee livelihoods
  • Remote work that disconnected teams and isolated employees with varying effect
  • Hiring and onboarding in remote and hybrid situations that complicates training efforts
  • Increasing societal polarization associated with the pandemic and politics that can drastically impact public or employee relations
  • A tight labor market causing higher-than-normal employee turnover that disrupts team dynamics and increases the stress level of those that stay
  • A spate of natural disasters from wildfires to 500-year storms and floods that severely disrupt life for employees and offices in the affected areas
  • Return-to-the-office decisions that some employees clamor for and others resist

All the functional skill, industry experience, and leadership seniority in the world couldn’t effectively solve those problems without a high degree of emotional intelligence. Organizations that lack C-suite and leadership EQ are at greater risk of failing to establish and/or maintain a cohesive company culture and to attract and retain the best talent. Such failures directly correlate to decreased productivity, increased turnover, and lower profitability.

Fortunately, many seasoned C-suite leaders have had time to refine their EQ. However, they rely every day on first-time executives as well as mid-level managers and, even, high potential employees being developed for leadership pipelines to implement their strategic and tactical plans. It’s just as important that these populations possess enough emotional intelligence to lead by example in effectively managing their feelings, operating with empathy, and coaching others to do the same.

Best Practices for Gauging Emotional Intelligence in Management Hires

It’s not unusual for company boards to search for executives who are results-oriented and can add immediate value to their investment or drive share price, without focusing on the importance of high EQ. Such hires may bring short-term gains, but that success is unlikely to last for longer than a season or two.

The smarter approach is to search for the corporate equivalents of Gretzky, candidates with exceptional IQ in both the functional and emotional realms who can successfully lead and grow a company or a function today and over the long haul. These best practices will help you find those leaders:

  • Formally develop a strategic hiring process that includes a candidate scorecard, structured interview questions, and formal assessments.
  • Intentionally incorporate emotional intelligence into your candidate scorecard.
  • Include informal discussions and meetings to further gauge candidates’ EQ – this might include interpretating real-world scenarios and problem-solving situations.
  • Pay keen attention to candidates’ communication skills as advised by our colleague Adam Charlson.
  • Extend the EQ requirement down through your entire leadership pipeline and ensure everyone maintains a coachable attitude for feedback.

And remember, all the great ones, no matter their arena, never stop honing their skills. Offer opportunities for your management ranks to participate in leadership development courses focused on more than functional skills, and it will further elevate your company’s collective EQ to its distinct competitive advantage.

Do you need help finding executive hires, mid-level candidates, and even interim consultants with enough emotional intelligence to effectively lead your company and its critical functions? With every engagement, Focus Search Partners takes the time to understand our client’s company culture and our candidates’ EQ to find the ideal leadership match to grow the business. Contact our team today.

By Andy Olson and Brad Olson, Managing Partners at Focus Search Partners