In my 20th year of serving on corporate boards, I wrote a blog called “Emotional Intelligence in the Board Room.” Today, I am writing about the topic once again as the second blog in my “Elevating Your Board Effectiveness” series. If you haven’t yet, you can read the first blog in the series here: “Finding Your Voice in the Board Room.”
The reason that I am reintroducing the topic of emotional intelligence is that in my decades of board service, I have observed that emotional intelligence is one of the most important and least discussed boardroom skills.
What is emotional intelligence? According to Daniel Goleman, the American psychologist who popularized the concept, emotional intelligence is “the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they’re feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people.”
According to a Korn Ferry Institute study, “high emotional intelligence defines the most successful leaders and is at the heart of the best-run companies.” As Caren Merrick, CEO of Caren Merrick & Co and corporate director of four public board says, “It’s all about your relationships with the ecosystem. Boards that have a high degree of emotional intelligence are going to place a premium on how their board is providing strategic oversight to the people who are running those companies, the people who are in relationships with customers, and partners and investors.”
As you can see, emotional intelligence is something all business leaders in the boardroom should develop. If you are interested in improving your emotional intelligence in the boardroom, consider embracing these 4 Cs:
The first boardroom skill for improving your emotional intelligence is your competency. There are two types of competencies: one helps you understand what you know and the other one is where you need to rely on others.
Your technical competency is your unique board value proposition. Your board value proposition (BVP) is what you bring to the boardroom table and what your unique board offering is. You should be able to articulate your board value proposition in a 30-second-or-less elevator pitch. Your elevator pitch should include specific expertise, skillset and industry experience you bring to a board. Here is my elevator pitch that I have honed over the years:
“I have entrepreneurial, financial & governance expertise with high growth and transformational companies in technology, retail, consumer and cannabis sectors.”
Understanding your own technical competency is important for your emotional intelligence because it helps you understand what you know, and where you need to rely on others.
When it comes to social competency, it is key to understand self-awareness and self-regulation.
Being self-aware is being conscious of your thoughts, behaviours and tendencies. I often come across board members that lack self-awareness at the boardroom table, too busy talking and not doing enough listening. By putting self-awareness into action, there will be sometimes where you already know the answer to a discussion, however exercising this skill means being conscious of your biases, stepping back and considering the subject matter with neutrality none the less.
Self-regulation is concerned with how you manage yourself, your emotions, your inner resources, and your abilities. It also includes your ability to manage your impulses. Applying this facet of emotional intelligence to your boardroom behaviour means controlling your emotions and how you decide to express them.
If you find that you are overwhelmed by your emotions on a topic or matter that you are passionate about, instead of impulsively speaking out on your feelings, try remaining silent for 5 seconds.
Mel Robbins is the author of the book The 5 Second Rule, where she explains that “if you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.” While the 5-second rule is aimed at encouraging people to break away from habits that inhabit their action on a goal, it can be reversed to curb disruptive impulses. By waiting 5 seconds before speaking on high emotion, it gives you a moment to cool down and for the impulse to subside.
My best piece of advice in exercising self-regulation is that rather than acting on impulse, it’s far more effective to observe others’ behaviours and find a different time/place to have discussions that concern a difference of opinion.
Overall, understanding your social and technical competencies help you better navigate the dynamics at the boardroom table.
Once you have developed your foundation, use your social competency, self-awareness and self-regulation to demonstrate your character. For example, I often say that you should be the last to speak. In a recent article published by executive search consultants Heidrick & Struggles, authors Bonnie W. Gwin and Victoria Reese urge board members to listen first. “You should be the last to speak. . . Listen empathetically, solicit other points of view, and be the most prepared, even though you don’t talk the most.”
The added benefit of showing good character and embracing the opinions of others is that it leads to better business results. In a NASDAQ article, veteran board member, angel investor and entrepreneur Caren Merrick said, “I realize in my past leadership roles, I should have taken much better advantage of my board members’ expertise and the wisdom of their experiences. CEOs—myself included—move so fast defending so many fronts that they don’t give themselves the time to check in with directors to discuss challenges or opportunities. Sadly, they leave a lot of valuable insight on the table.”
I personally have had to demonstrate my character many times in my board journey. For example, I was being interviewed for a board opportunity in 2015 when the CEO opened with the statement that he “was not interviewing me because I was a woman.” I paused and thought this was not how one starts a board interview. I realized I had two choices: to be offended by this comment and leave the meeting or I could lean in. In that moment, I chose to lean in and say, “I am not here because I am a woman, I am here because I can add value to your board.” We had a two-hour strategy discussion on the company/industry. I chose not to proceed with the opportunity because it was not the right culture for me, but I am proud of how I demonstrated my character in the moment.
There are two important parts of courage to become more emotionally intelligent: motivation and empathy.
Self-motivation encompasses our personal drive to grow and achieve. It concerns our commitment to our goals, our initiative, our readiness to act on opportunities, our optimism, and our resilience. Motivation in the boardroom can be described as your commitment to lean in, which you can learn more about by reading my first Elevating Board Effectiveness blog called “Finding Your Voice in the Board Room.”
In an article on emotional intelligence authored by Korn Ferry, empathy was described as “the ability to sense others’ feelings and how they see things. You take an active interest in their concerns. You pick up cues to what’s being felt and thought. With empathy, you sense unspoken emotions. You listen attentively to understand the other person’s point of view, the terms in which they think about what’s going on.” It takes true bravery to be willing to put yourself into someone else’s shoes.
Practicing your empathy is important because of how infrequently boards come together, as Work Psychologist and Executive Coach Dr. Ali Budjanovcanin pointed out in this article called “Emotional Intelligence in the Board Room”. She said, “Boards usually come together infrequently. Because of this, you may not have opportunity to get to know and understand your fellow board members quickly enough, potentially leading to a lack of empathy about their position.” When you practice your empathy, you increase your emotional intelligence and avoid this pitfall.
Finally, embracing empathy is key because we are all inherently biased. This Savvy Director article shows how biases, including social biases, shape our perception and lead to poor decision making. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by using empathy can help override your brain’s natural bias.
In my personal experience, people are often hesitant to exercise their courage. For example, I was appointed Chair of a Not-for-Profit. It was clear that the founder/CEO needed to be replaced, but no one had been willing to bring the issue to the table. As the new Chair I had to step up with the courage to make the change. It was a difficult decision, and I had to get the board on side before we could act, but it was the right decision in the best interests of the organization. This is an example of the power of courage in the boardroom.
The final piece of improving your emotional intelligence at the boardroom table is using your social skill to improve your board chemistry.
Social skill is the ability to manage and influence others’ emotions effectively. It brings together all my advice from this blog. It is a composite of competence, character, and courage. It brings together communication, persuasion, building rapport, conflict management, change management, teamwork, and leadership. At the boardroom table, this means being able to establish positive relationships with other board members, gaining their trust, and knowing how to balance when to be assertive with when to be a team player.
Social skill also enables you to have a deepened sense of emotional agility. According this CEO World article, a deepened sense of emotional agility enables us to “better able to curb our defensive tendencies, therefore avoiding disruptive finger pointing and blame. This level of mindful presence helps us to generate the productive interaction dynamics that are the hallmark of great leadership and that form the framework for successful business outcomes.”
In my experience, board meetings typically have three phases: before the meeting, during the meeting and after the meeting. At all three phases, you have the opportunity to practice your social skills for board chemistry. I always use these opportunities to develop my social skill and help influence decisions with my board colleagues. It is important to develop your chemistry and to get alignment on board matters. Now that we are working in a virtual environment, try reaching out to your board colleagues to schedule meetings in advance and also after a board meeting.
Building and developing your emotional intelligence is one of the most important and challenging tasks that you will undertake in your board career. By embracing the 4 Cs of boardroom emotional intelligence skills: competency, character, courage, and chemistry, you will be able to advance your board journey and elevate your board effectiveness.