From technical lead to leader of people
Yvette Vignando has been working for 11 years as an executive coach specialising in emotional intelligence. She describes EI as her soapbox issue. Vignando says people often arrive to executive management after many years in a technical or semi-technical role, but rarely with any management or leadership training.
“We often get promoted because of our academic background, our technical expertise, or a record of achievement,” Vignando says. “But what really makes people successful once they get to senior management is their ability to manage themselves and other people on an emotional level. It’s not so much about your industry expertise; it’s about your people expertise.”
Most large organisations recognise that successful leaders need highly developed interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Vignando has found without exception that every senior manager she has worked with — men and women — accept that this is fundamental to their success.
“In some cases they are people who have got to where they are because they are driven personalities,” Vignando says. “They are intellectually incisive, they have driven change management through an organisation, or they have an enviable record of achievement. They are tough people. They are also highly creative and innovative. They come up with fantastic solutions.”
“But many come unstuck when they have to manage difficult people, or when they themselves are classified as being difficult. As soon as a mirror is held up to them they recognise that EI is a skill they lack — and they want it. I guess many people have seen enough carnage to know that it is imperative to have EI.”
What really makes people successful once they get to senior management is their ability to manage themselves and other people on an emotional level
“When you are being managed by somebody else you have performance systems in place, people are not intimidated by you, and you get feedback on the run. It helps you stay grounded.
“I want to be authentic. But I also want to be able to influence the people I manage on a personal level to make them more motivated, help them take more responsibility, and help solve their own workplace conflicts so they can get on with their job.”
Simarjit Chhabra, CIO at early warning life safety and security firm, Xtralis, says EI is the only thing that separates leaders from managers.
“CIOs should be inspirational,” says Chhabra. “A true leader displays a sense of self-confidence and self-worth. In times of crisis, which is a regular occurrence in IT, CIOs need to send clear and convincing messages, take the initiative, and use a sense of humour. This is how to wield influence.
“Leaders need EI to develop a participative style of management where relationship-building skills are valued within and between groups. This is important to get early buy-in for any changes because Generation-Y rejects an authoritarian style of management outright.
“Leaders also need to develop skills for active listening and putting people at ease. They need to be conscientious, decisive and straightforward. They need to demonstrate a balance between their personal and work life, and take an active interest in understanding the concerns of others. They need to be able to control their anger and withstand adverse events.”
Jones and Livingstone argue that a leader’s role is to shape and change culture, which is essentially behavioural management. If you cannot master your own emotions, you have no chance of influencing the emotions of others.
Read Part 2 - Thinking dispassionately about passions.
The dilemma, they say, is that too many C-level executives are in their role based on their technical expertise. Such specialists tend to have a reductionist view of the world. They are tactical, analytical, and procedural.
Once they reach the senior ranks they lack the skills to see the whole picture. They have little or no feel for context, nuance or strategy. They are unable to stand outside themselves to get new perspective, nor transform their view of the world. Psychologically, they have reached a dead end.
“Few have these other so-called softer skills,” Jones says. “But remember, soft is hard to do. People call it a soft skill as though it is touchy-feely, but I would argue that this is the hard stuff.
“We prefer to avoid or oppose rather than grow and develop. Senior executives aspire to being constructive, but when we measure what staff actually experience, 95 per cent of the time there is a mismatch. People think they are being constructive but when we scientifically ask five others to rate them we find it is completely the opposite. Many managers think they walk on water but they can’t work out why people keep sending them scuba gear for Christmas.”
When you humanise, you harmonise…
…And when you harmonise, you monetise.
Wherever you see yourself on the EI scale, there is hope. Psychologists at the University of California have been tracking how our emotional responses change as we age. Their findings support the established theory that our emotional, social, and cognitive skills sharpen as we get older.
As Jones says, the habits of 30 years are hard to break, but it’s not a case of unlearning. The task is to learn over the top of existing knowledge.
Colleagues and customers don’t care if you graduated from MIT, Stanford or Harvard. They want to be heard, understood and treated with respect. EI can be the difference between winning the argument or winning hearts and minds. And nothing will ever change the fact that while people may not remember what you did or what you said, they will always remember how you made them feel.