I’ve heard it said that people get hired for their IQ—but they get fired for their EQ.
EQ, known less colloquially as emotional intelligence, is defined by Psychology Today as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.”
Soft skills, in other words—but without them, leaders will find themselves in decidedly hard situations. The evidence is clear in the news stories we see about nonprofit leaders fired for foolish or negligent interpersonal decisions: executives scandalizing donors by insisting on corporate-style salary incentives and bonuses, high-profile CEOs who fail to respond appropriately to reports of staff misconduct, leaders who are the very source of that misconduct. But there are un-newsworthy ways executives flounder and fail, too—ignoring toxic staff conflicts, failing to notice and address culture-wide stress levels, remaining insensitive to community concerns and changes in public opinion.
It can take a lifetime for a person or an agency to earn trust and respect, but it only takes a moment to lose it. Make sure you have someone at the helm who is conscious of and sensitive to such moments before they occur—and who can also use his or her EQ to elevate your organization even further.
The Elements of Heart
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis hone a definition of emotional intelligence that comprises “four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.” The authors further outline twelve necessary competencies: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation, positive outlook, empathy, organizational awareness, influence, coaching and mentoring, conflict management, teamwork, and inspirational leadership.
A tall order, to be sure, and the authors of the above article stress that strength in one area of emotional intelligence might lead to weakness in another—such as a manager who struggles with conflict management due to an overabundance of empathy that makes him or her cautious about stirring negative emotions in staff members. The most successful recipe is a leader who possesses each of these qualities in even measure, along with the logical intelligence necessary for knowing which skill is most aptly applied to a given situation.
The Power of Authenticity
In the course of launching many of my CEO searches for developmental disability organizations, I often hear board members use the word “authentic.” Even in looking outside the nonprofit sector, search committees seek out solid business skills balanced with a very real sense of connection to mission, along with an almost innate ability to interact with both staff members and people and families dealing every day with extraordinarily challenging situations.
A senior executive’s authentic connection to an agency’s mission is palpable and powerful, especially for the community that’s being served. Today, families have choices as to which agency they will choose for their loved ones. In a competitive marketplace, it isn’t enough to be a doorway—that door needs to open into a caring environment, something that feels like home. To that end, leaders need to be able to convey that their organization, under their specific guidance, will strive at all times to act in the best interest of their clients. That message can’t be faked. However brilliant the mind of the person at the top, an executive must be, above all, sincere—deeply, authentically ensconced in and passionate about the work they do.
The Engine of Your Work
If an agency is a bus, the CEO is the driver, steering the direction, navigating around hazards—but the staff is the engine. Without them, nothing even moves. An executive who fails to recognize that truth, to live and breathe it in all aspects of their work, does so at their own peril. Consider, for example, direct service providers, who work grueling shifts for entry-level pay. The turnover rates for DSPs are notoriously and unsurprisingly high, which can cause both operational and cultural problems for an agency hoping to establish a solid and stable foundation. In order to retain talented staff members at that crucially important level, you have to create a culture that makes it worthwhile to stay, that fosters a sense of being included in a team that passionately believes in its work. And that culture starts at the top.
In their 2016 study, Emotional Intelligence and Burnout in Child and Family Social Work, University of East Anglia researchers concluded that “it is important to recognize and acknowledge the value of the collaborative and supportive work that social workers do, for parents and children and other professions. Such acknowledgement needs to be explicitly made to both social workers themselves and external stakeholders…senior managers should aim to create a positive emotional climate where social workers have the opportunity to undertake direct work, receive positive feedback, have influence over their work environment and have opportunities for collaboration and learning as this is likely to mitigate the emotional demands of the social work role.”
In other words, in addition to looking out for the bottom line, finding new areas of business opportunity and selling the agency to potential donors, CEOs need to be able to sell the agency to the very people who work there, ensuring that they feel valued and supported in the process. By gaining that level of across-the-board buy-in, they’ll be building an internal network that is much stronger than the sum of its parts.
The Empathy Test
Anyone applying for a job leading a human services organization will, as a matter of course, mention during an interview that they feel passionate about the work of the agency. Testimony is one thing, evidence is another. As part of our search process, we certainly appreciate hearing from candidates about how they emotionally connect to mission, but we also look for patterns and track records that substantiate those statements. In what meaningful ways did they engage with their constituencies in their work at past agencies? If they’re coming from the corporate world, have they been involved in similar organizations on a board level? Have they significantly volunteered in a hands-on way?
Another telling moment may come later in the interview process. It’s often said that you learn a person’s true character by seeing how they treat the wait staff at restaurants. The same test can be applied when evaluating finalists. If you introduce candidates to board members and various levels of staff, note whether their demeanor and level of interest varies. Does it shift appropriately, in order to put others at ease? Does the candidate spend only the bare minimum of time chatting with lower-tier staff members? Does he or she ask questions and listen to the answers or simply shake hands and move on? Keep your eyes open. You can learn as much or more about a person in these seemingly transitional moments as in the interview itself.
At the end of the day, an agency is not just a business—it’s an ecosystem, a community and a lifeline for people in need. By identifying a leader with emotional and interpersonal skills, you’ll be taking a huge step toward making that ecosystem a happy and healthy one.
Contact David Hinsley Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org.