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Emotional intelligence: it’s vital for growth

In Culture, Leadership, Rapidly scaling, Talent - 3 years ago - 6 min

Emotional intelligence: it’s vital for growth

Intelligence and technical skills are always in demand. But business leaders also need to be aware of the importance of softer skills if they are to be successful.

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) has been around for some years now. The concept was highly popularised by psychologists, such as Daniel Goleman, through his influential 1995 book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, and has been much considered ever since. But many business owners and managers still fail to recognise the relationship between their own leadership skills and the success of their organisation. Successful entrepreneurs need to know how to manage and inspire others, display a sense of humour, show empathy and be persuasive.

Finding the right people

Entrepreneurs need to build great teams, but finding the right people is a skill in itself. Stephen Stott is the CEO and founder of £35m recruitment business Stott & May, and previously founded the Huntress Group, which he sold for $105m in 2007. He says emotional intelligence has been key to finding the right people to work and build a company with.

“The principles behind the growth of the business have all been based on emotional intelligence,” says Stott. “I’m dyslexic and so I see things in another way. I’ve become good at using my EI, rather than my academic abilities, to take conversations and business in the directions I want to drive them.”

Stott says he asks specific questions of people to help him get past their interview front or sales pitch. When he needs to find people for planning and organising roles, he asks them to talk about a time when they have given up or failed. “It’s a difficult question and their answers will often mean they have to open up and take an emotional risk. If they can do that, they are more likely to be effective planners, and such people need to be able to think about themselves and understand where they went wrong. People who can’t do that will never open themselves up to criticism. They’ll just keep making alibis for something that hasn’t worked.”

According to Stott, great sales people actually tend to be slightly pessimistic. “Sales people often describe themselves as optimists. However, good sales people need to be able to look for reasons why someone isn’t going to buy. Being able to qualify a sale and understand where in the pipeline it can go wrong is important, rather than just believing that everything is fine.”

Stott also rewards staff with shares in his business so he wants to find people that want to commit and grow the business in the long-term. He says finding someone with passion, who enjoys their work, is key. “One of the things you can do is to gauge whether someone is passionate about their job. Usually, people who do their work well are passionate about it, ” he says.

Empathy and customer needs

Alex Wretham is the founder and owner of London-based restaurant group Charlotte’s. He says good EI is essential in the hospitality industry and that, if a candidate has it, training is far easier. “Being able to empathise with a customer and anticipate what they want before they ask is really useful,” he says. “If they’ve just been given coffee and are looking around – it’s probably sugar. If they are wandering around looking lost they probably want the bathroom,” he says. “People who understand those sorts of things straight off have empathy and can go on to be real superstars in hospitality.”

Wretham has a three stage process to try to find these potential “superstars”. The first two stages are a telephone call, followed by a face-to-face interview. But for the third stage, he organises a half day trial, where the candidate is partnered with a member of staff. He says he doesn’t get involved in this as he wants the candidate to relax. “We show more about ourselves when we are comfortable,” he says. “We also find out if they want to help and if they ask the right sort of questions. My staff want people who are committed and aren’t going to let them down on a shift.

Wretham says he believes empathy and EI can be learned, but he wants to find those for whom it comes naturally. “I want to find the sort of person who would help someone even if they weren’t being paid. Who would help the old lady struggling at the Tube station,” he says.

High growth businesses tend to be focused on innovation and results and I don't think EI is on their radar as much as it should be

Success and failure

Suzanne Ross is a lecturer at Nottingham Business School and works with many business leaders, including the CEOs of FTSE500 companies, helping them to develop their leadership skills. She says that EI is still not regarded with the respect it deserves. “High growth businesses tend to be focused on innovation and results and I don’t think EI is on their radar as much as it should be,” she says.

But Ross’s studies of business leaders have led her to conclude that the reason some succeed is, in fact, closely linked to EI. “When you look at organisations that are failing, or not achieving the growth they want, it’s rarely because leaders don’t have the product knowledge or technical skills. It’s more that they aren’t able to bring people with them as the organisation grows,” she says.

Ross says that it’s common for fast growing businesses to struggle with leadership. “A big challenge for entrepreneurs is how they bring people together in a rapidly growing organisation,” she says. “They might have started the business with just themselves and a few others, but now it is 50, 100, or even 1000 people. Managing them, building good relationships, inspiring and engaging people, these aren’t necessarily areas of expertise the founder has.”

Ross encourages entrepreneurs to undergo some self-analysis to help them gain a better understanding of themselves. “It’s really important that entrepreneurs understand their strengths – what they are good at and what they are not. An entrepreneur is the spokesperson, they manage stakeholders and lead people. If you’re not good at those things, you need to mitigate against that,” she says.

In his book, Goleman defines the key components of emotional intelligence as: self-awareness, social skills, empathy, motivation and self-regulation. How strong are you in each of these components? Improving yours could be as simple as reading a book. And if you still need a reason to focus on emotional intelligence, here are seven.