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The Leadership “It” Factor: EQ
Published Thursday, June 8, 2017

A few years ago, I met a businessman on an airplane who owned his own internet marketing company. As he started to tell me about his company, he revealed (a bit sheepishly) that he himself couldn’t do any of the work they provided to clients. He said he couldn’t do design and didn’t know how to write code or embed analytics. He had never built a website. But he did know how to hire good people, he knew how to work with clients and he knew how to lead a 25-person company with employees in other states and countries, handling 125 active projects happening at once.

He is a prime example of the current success profile of today’s business leader. In year’s past, it was much more important to be a subject matter expert, to be the smartest person in the company or to have the most technical knowledge as a founder. What we know now is that the ability to positively influence people, and the ability to engage and motivate a multi-generational, highly diverse group of employees, is the “it” factor for business leaders in any industry. It is commonly referred to as EQ or Emotional Intelligence.       

EQ refers to a competency that includes an ability to recognize one’s own impulses and moods (self-awareness), the ability to read situations and audiences accurately (empathy) and the capacity to respond appropriately depending on the situation (self-control). The EQ competency includes a wide range of learnable skills, things that can be effectively practiced on a daily basis.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 50 percent of startups survive to year five, and that number dwindles to 34 percent by year 10 and 26 percent by year 15. Clearly, only the strongest and fittest startup businesses survive. While there are certainly a number of outside factors that can contribute to the demise of a small business or startup, there are several predictable pitfalls that entrepreneurs can learn to avoid that are completely in their control.

Leaders who lack EQ come across as out of touch with the people around them, lacking in situational awareness or self-management skills. The disconnect can stunt business growth by creating major problems such as employee turnover caused by disengagement, falling revenue, negative social media and disgruntled customers. Cultivating and practicing EQ offers the most effective path to staying in touch, and in turn create a path to sustainable success.  

Starting with Self-Awareness
If you want to focus on developing more EQ, start with increasing your self-awareness via feedback from others. It may come in the form of a focus group or a customer survey. Or it may come in the form of an employee survey or comment from a peer. It is easy to justify our behaviors or decisions because it is hard to accept things we don’t like or don’t want to believe about ourselves. We often get so caught up in our own intentions that we don’t realize the depth of our impact. We aren’t intentionally trying to make life harder for our employees, so we think that’s enough. But as you can probably guess, it is not. Perception, as they say, is reality. So, how to get more self-awareness?

• Invite your key stakeholders (direct reports, peers, partners) to take a multi-rater feedback survey on you (commonly called a 360-degree assessment) to collect data anonymously.   

• Hire a professional coach or join a peer group who can help you identify themes in feedback. You probably don’t need to take action on everything, but an expert can help you know what needs attention.

• Make self-evaluation a habit. See yourself from the perspective of others, considering your impact, not your intent.

Build Your Flexibility Muscle
When it comes to new ideas or untested approaches, risk is a legitimate concern. However, leaders with high EQ are more open minded to creative solutions and different philosophies. They seek out people who don’t share their same strengths, experiences or styles. In contrast with organizations on the West Coast, there are many Northeast companies filled with employees who are native New Englanders, many coming from the same communities, schools and/or fraternities.

As nice as it is when everyone gets along because they are compatible, surrounding yourself with people you click with often results in a circle of individuals around you least likely to challenge your approach or decisions. That’s a risky game to play in a competitive marketplace. When you surround yourself with more of “you,” you set up blind spots that can prevent you from seeing oncoming challenges because your team sees the world much like you do rather than being able to challenge, question or offer a different perspective.

How do you increase your flexibility?

• Intentionally seek out innovative pro-jects and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.

• Encourage others to question or challenge you. Assign “angels” and “devils” in meetings to objectively weigh both sides to any approach.

• Take more chances and don’t crush pilot initiatives by weighing them down with guarantees, warranties or unnecessary demands for assurances.

In business, you are always subject to factors that you can’t control, whether it’s the supply of your raw materials, competitive moves, regulatory requirements or any number of other unwelcome surprises. What you can control is how you interact with your team, whether you lead with self and social awareness, and the impact you have on others. It takes some effort to be an emotionally intelligent business leader, but it doesn’t have to be all consuming. What’s more, you don’t have to change who you are.

The goal really is to retain your strengths while being aware of the few areas where a lack of EQ may trip you up. Once you have heightened this awareness, you can shift your responses slightly when needed—doing the small things when they matter—and then watch as the individuals around you begin to respond more positively, and the organization shifts into a powerful new direction. By opening your eyes to some of your blind spots and being courageous enough to make a few important changes, simple course corrections can put you and your organization on even stronger footing.

Jen Shirkani, a Bedford resident, is a nationally recognized expert on emotional intelligence, a featured keynote speaker and author. For more information, visit jenshirkani.com.

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