Seven Secrets of an Emotional Intelligence Coach

Many top leaders are asked to pay attention to their emotional intelligence these days. To do so, they need a way to find out what it is and how they can get more of it. That’s where you come in.

Ever wonder why the smartest kids in class aren’t always the most successful later on? It’s because intellect isn’t enough. Many otherwise smart people lack emotional intelligence (EQ), the skill set people need to access their own best performance and to interact successfully with others.

Leaders need others to get things done. People who are low in EQ are often their own worst enemy when it comes to getting things done through others and are usually baffled by their lack of success. They sometimes feel that there is an invisible barrier between them and their goals that they just can’t seem to understand or break through.

Many of these talented people have attained high positions due largely to their intelligence and technical business skills. But they may rub people the wrong way or bring people down with their lack of optimism. They may be impulsive or inflexible. They may not be able to express clearly what they need from people or be able to read what people need from them. People may not find them easy to interact with, avoiding them as much as possible.

Consider your own executive team. Maybe you’ll find a terrific CFO who doesn’t give his direct reports enough information to do their jobs and is too stern looking to be approachable; or a vice president of marketing who gets less than she might out of her people because she uses the same approach with everyone, whether it fits or not; or a COO who avoids conflict and thus allows bad performance to slide until he has to let someone go; or perhaps a CIO who doesn’t know how to negotiate win-win solutions when integrating IT solutions into the company infrastructure.

While these people have proven themselves winners in many ways, their current EQ deficits limit what they can contribute. At their level of achievement and potential for influence, even a small improvement in EQ skills can have a huge impact on their productivity and the productivity of their direct reports and thus the company’s bottom line. The higher up the ladder they are, the greater the potential impact.

While there is little doubt that improving the EQ of top leaders can have a huge effect on the organization, there is plenty of doubt about how to implement an EQ program that actually works. If you are a CLO who has been tasked with bringing EQ to your workplace, be afraid. Not because EQ is a bad idea or because it doesn’t work; on the contrary, an investment in EQ development for your top leaders can yield huge returns. But the devil is in the details, and it is very easy to make a mistake here. Many CLOs who have tried EQ initiatives that failed will attest to that.

Seven secrets, had they been privy to them, would have saved them and made them look like geniuses.

1. Prepare the ground.

Figure out what you want to gain; begin with the end in mind. For example, Bronson Healthcare, a Baldrige Award-winning hospital system, wanted to prepare its high-potential senior leaders to be ready to assume the roles of CEO and COO. Its goal was to ensure that seven talented people were ready to guide the organization.

Once you know what success will look like, create interest. Talk about the benefits of increased EQ skills. Make sure people know that EQ training will be a perk offered to those whom the organization has an enormous interest in developing. If EQ training is “where they send the bad kids,” no one will be receptive.

Help participants get a base line. There are excellent assessment instruments that executives can use to find out their EQ strengths and weaknesses. Do your homework to find one that is based on solid scientific research. The instrument should be standardized, normed and validated.

Several years ago, Capital One wanted its executives to learn more about their own EQ profiles. A poorly constructed EQ test was selected on a pilot basis, based largely on price because, had it been useful, it would have been given to thousands of employees. The outcome of the pilot was described as “an organ rejection.” The executives rejected their results, not because they couldn’t handle negative feedback, but because the results were just plain wrong. The EQ initiative suffered a near-fatal blow.

Consider two additional assessment elements. One is 360 EQ feedback combined with the self-assessment to give a multidimensional picture. The other is an assessment interview designed to identify the leader’s individual goals. The interview allows assessment results to be tied to participant and organizational goals, resulting in intrinsic motivation for EQ development.

2. Make it voluntary.

Compulsory EQ training can be unpleasant for the unwilling. So it’s up to learning and development professionals to make the idea of developing EQ so exciting and compelling that people will be eager to engage in it.

Does that sound like a tall order? It isn’t, really. Enumerating the real benefits — creating opportunities to let executives try out EQ tools on some of the real-life leadership problems they face; linking increased EQ skills to goals they already have; making sure they know the training is geared toward the company’s most valuable players; and, not surprisingly, making it voluntary — almost always does the trick. For those who may worry that a voluntary program lets some people off the hook, make sure everyone knows that while EQ training is voluntary, performance is not. People can opt out of the help you offer as long as they deliver the new higher standard through means of their own.

3. Keep it private.

Executives who allow themselves to be assessed and developed place themselves in a vulnerable position. They need to have their assessment and development handled in a secure environment before they will fully commit.

This means that assessment results need to be strictly confidential — for the individual’s eyes only, not the manager’s. This is a hard pill for some companies to swallow. They’re paying for the assessment and feel they have a right to see the results. The problem is that if individuals know that their managers will see the results, they may not be completely candid in answering the assessment questions. The opportunity to get an accurate base line from which to work is lost.

What the company really wants and needs is higher performance, not test results. To keep the company in the loop, the development process should include discussions between manager and executive as to what the executive will work on as a result of the assessment and the rationale for doing so — how it will benefit the organization. Whether the executive got a terrible score or just an average score on an empathy test is not critical information.

For example, Waldner’s Business Environments, an office furniture dealer in New York, saw the potential for how improved EQ skills could elevate sales performance. The organization planned an assessment program, expressing the desire to view the resulting scores so it would know which employees to retain. The EQ coach advised Waldner’s that the program needed to be oriented around either learning or selection, not both. The organization went back to its original assessment goal and enjoyed enthusiastic engagement, even by some who were initially reluctant.

4. Tackle meaningful issues.

Issues must be meaningful to both the executive and the organization. For example, sometimes a boss goes to a workshop on empathy and loves it, and then everybody has to go to empathy school. That is a bad idea, for the following reasons:

  • Everybody may not need empathy training. Providing empathy training to leaders already skilled in empathy is a waste of time and money.
  • There is also an opportunity cost for those people. Maybe they are good at empathy but not so good at impulse control. They get upset and engage in relationship-damaging behaviors. They pay for those outbursts with diminished productivity from those on the receiving end. Time and money spent on empathy training can’t then be spent on what they really need, the development of impulse control skills.

Learning to change lifelong emotional habits can be done, but it is hard work. There has to be some intrinsic value and motivation for people to keep plugging away at it. Linking learning to individual goals is a great way to provide that motivation.

For example, say a given individual was already a star on the CEO track, but she sensed a problem. She got results, but burned bridges by doing so. She asked for help learning how to read others and manage her impulses as she responded to difficulties. Upping her game on these skills led to a major promotion.
Well-done EQ assessments lay the groundwork for such transformations. In addition to such assessments, each high potential should attend a planning meeting where he or she gets help matching individual goals with specific EQ skills, prioritizing which ones to work on and creating an individualized plan that accounts for all factors required for sustainable behavior change.

5. Provide the right learning tools.

Changing deeply ingrained behavior is tricky business. Just telling someone who isn’t assertive to be more assertive isn’t helpful. What you can do is give them the tools needed to make it happen.

One tool is access to expertise in behavior change, perhaps through an EQ coach. To get top results, use experienced coaches — experts in behavior change. Such expertise is useful in providing your leaders with guided practice in EQ skills in the real world and feedback and support when the going gets rough. Experienced coaches will know how to respond to setbacks and ask challenging but motivating questions — and do all of this without creating dependency or discouragement.

Other tools might include information about key EQ skills — what they mean; what impact they have on leadership abilities; and which ones, if they’re lacking, can derail a career. Intellectual knowledge alone won’t give a person EQ, but it’s a good tool in the quest.

Finally, there are structured ways to create EQ-smart strategies for tasks such as leading a high-stakes meeting to get needed results. Goals, logs and timelines are helpful for charting developmental progress and keeping it on track. There are practical exercises that can be designed for developing specific EQ skills in the workplace.

Meaningful change is hard. Two things can make it easier. One is strong organizational support. If most peers are participating, they tend to support each other. The other is recognizing that while everyone has developmental opportunities when it comes to EQ, everybody also has strengths. These strengths can be used to help build needed skills. A good coach, in concert with a good assessment instrument, can help participants discover and leverage theirs.

For example, say a given individual was a talented CEO, especially skilled in the art of relationships. But he couldn’t get his executive team to do what he needed them to do. Assessment showed that his key EQ weakness was assertiveness. His team didn’t know what he wanted them to do because he wasn’t sufficiently clear. His coaching utilized exercises, insights, feedback and support, all focused on building assertiveness in his real world. The fact that people liked him helped them respond positively to his initially clumsy efforts. Over time, he became quite skilled and got the responses from his team that he wanted.

6. Change thoughts and feelings, not just behavior.

Ironically, behavior change programs that focus only on behavior usually fail. Change efforts must include attention to the building blocks of behavior — the way we think about a situation and our emotional response to it. Emotions, thoughts and behaviors are interdependent. To get a change in one, you have to change the others.

Leaders who believe that people are fundamentally lazy are likely to feel annoyed with them, which will come out in their behavior — the way they look, speak and respond to them. Alternatively, leaders who believe that people are fundamentally motivated to perform will probably feel positively toward them. That positive feeling will come out in their behavior through encouragement, recognition and respect. Helping the first group of leaders to change their beliefs about people may lead to a change in behavior, which in turn may elicit different results from followers. Other times, starting by tapping into a different emotion is what is needed. Programs that provide access to all three possibilities triple their effectiveness.

For example, some years ago, a Kroger grocery store had long-standing poor customer service. Behavior change programs failed to achieve sustainable results. What did work was creating a new emotional atmosphere, accomplished in part by resolving long-standing conflicts among key individuals. Other chronic complaints among employees were addressed, creating a new belief that management cared about employee welfare. That new belief translated into sustainable employee behavior geared toward caring about customers, resulting in a highly significant benefit to the store’s bottom line.

7. Give it time.

The behavior of the leaders of your organization evolved in the same way that yours has. You have been learning how to relate to the world since the day you were born. You asked for things before you even had the words to do so, and you sensed how people responded to you. That became your truth and shaped your subsequent behavior accordingly. Every time you interacted with people, your belief in this truth intensified. Your behaviors and responses became more and more automatic for you, based on beliefs that, over time, became assumptions.

Assumptions inhabit the nonverbal part of the brain, making access difficult. But now that you have grown up, your world has changed. Those assumptions might not be working as well as they once did. But they still guide your behavior. They are the “invisible barrier” that can limit effectiveness and achievement.
To gain self-mastery, people have to unmask these hidden barriers and replace them with a different source of control — new guidelines and beliefs that better fit the world they now inhabit.

Leaders must uncover these hidden assumptions, envision the way they want to be and exercise the new thoughts and behaviors over and over until they’ve actually rewired the synapses in the brain. Then those new behaviors become default responses — based on new and better assumptions that guide behavior and create higher achievement.

For example, say a given individual was the CIO of a company and the smartest person in the room, no matter what room he walked into. He was fired for the way he treated people. He wisely used it as a wake-up call. He and his coach identified the hidden assumptions that allowed him to behave badly toward people. Once he understood them, they lost much of their power. They lost the rest of their power when he practiced — over and over — the behaviors that he admired in others.

EQ development can pay big dividends. But like anything with a potential major payoff, the right kind of investment is required. Your systematic approach to EQ development, using these seven secrets, will make the difference in whether your investment will bloom or fade.

Dana C. Ackley is CEO of EQ Leader Inc., a leader development and executive coaching firm. He can be reached at