Why CEOs in their #First100Days, and Mrs May, should heed Whitbread CEO Alison Brittain’s advice on #emotionalintelligence…


…because, according to the Financial Times this week, she “recommends developing your ability to empathise. A high IQ is pretty much a given for any CEO…but combining it with EQ – emotional intelligence – is much rarer”. She’s worth listening to because “recent research from Mercer Kepler puts her among the top five “best value for money” chief executives in the FTSE 100.”

Time will tell if Mrs May becomes amongst the top five value for money Prime Ministers. But if her speech at the Conservative Party conference is a guide to her future leadership behaviour she appears to be a bit light on empathy and when the bad days come, as surely they will, she may regret not taking a more “arm around” approach.

I focus on just three aspects of emotional intelligence in my leadership programmes. First, I focus on the use of empathy as recommended by Ms Brittain. Second, on developing self-awareness and third, and most importantly, negotiating needs productively.

Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Of course, this demands that you are connected to your feelings first. It’s impossible to be empathetic without that component. An extreme example is a torturer. It’s impossible for them to torture someone without first disconnecting from their feelings. If they remained connected, they would empathise, and it’s tricky to water board someone if you feel sorry for them.

The priority of any leader is to create an environment in which people thrive to achieve objectives. Empathy is essential to this task. We all know CEOs and other senior leaders who lack empathy. They cause a great deal of unnecessary suffering. But, you may argue, they often get the job done through sheer force of personality. Indeed they do, for a time. But it’s not sustainable and in 21st. Century society, it’s untenable.

Those who lack empathy usually lack self-awareness. Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection. It’s the ability to say to oneself – “there I go again doing x, y or z.” One client was acutely aware of their instinctive impulse to solve every problem and so rarely delegated entirely to anyone; another of their occasional bullying and a third an inability to put others fully at ease. Their strength was in this awareness.

Experts tell us that our ability to negotiate our needs productively is rooted in our childhood experiences. If, as children, we were able to express our feelings and our needs and have these met, at least the reasonable ones, then we are more likely in adulthood to do the same and, as leaders, to model this behaviour.

Many leaders whose needs were unmet in childhood tend to bulldoze their way to positions of leadership by force of personality because that’s the only way they believe they can get what they want. They arrive at the top only to find that this approach doesn’t work with the people they lead. They wonder why people are not doing what they want them to do when they want them to do it. It can be a very painful process to watch and horrible to be on the receiving end.

The good news is that anyone can develop, on their own or with the help of others, empathy and self-awareness and the ability to negotiate needs productively. I recommend three steps: first, don’t do or say anything without asking three questions of yourself: what do I feel? What do I need? What should I do to meet my needs?

Then ask the same three questions of the people you are leading on the same issue: what do you feel? What do you need? What do you want to do to meet your need? Then agree a plan to meet all requirements as closely as possible, provided it’s in the service of a shared purpose. And that’s often the problem: a lack of shared purpose. If you can sort that, everything else tends to fall into place.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

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