I am proud to have served on corporate boards for over two decades and have learned that it is not what you know but how you say it. I have had to train my sense of emotional intelligence (EI) at the boardroom table—including paying attention to everything from verbal communication to body language, tone of voice and social graces.
I have been around some of the best and brightest board members who have inspired me to reach higher levels in the boardroom. I have also been around other board members who lacked EI, with their social graces absent and boardroom presence very uninspiring.
I am reintroducing the topic of emotional intelligence from my original blog because, in my decades of board experience, I have observed that emotional intelligence is one of the most critical 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 boards, says, “It’s all about your relationships with the ecosystem. Boards with a high degree of emotional intelligence will place a premium on how their board provides strategic oversight to the people running those companies, those 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 elevating your emotional intelligence in the boardroom, consider embracing these four C’s:
The first boardroom skill for improving your emotional intelligence is your competency. There are two types of competencies: your technical and social competencies.
i. Technical Competency
Your technical competency is your unique board value proposition. Your board value proposition (BVP) is what you bring to the boardroom table and your distinctive board offering. You should be able to articulate your board value proposition in a 30-second-or-less elevator pitch that includes your specific expertise, skillset and the industry experience you bring to a board. Here is my elevator pitch that I have honed over the years:
“I have entrepreneurial, financial and governance expertise with high growth and transformational companies in technology, retail, consumer and cannabis sectors.”
Understanding your technical competency is essential for your emotional intelligence because it helps you understand what you know and where you need to rely on others.
ii. Social Competency
It is vital to understand self-awareness and self-regulation regarding social competency. 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. They are too busy talking and not doing enough listening. Sometimes, you already know the answer to a discussion by putting self-awareness into action. However, exercising this skill means being conscious of your biases, stepping back and considering the subject matter with neutrality.
In the Savvy Director blog “When to Stop Talking,” the authors interviewed one of their Savvy Director readers and asked, “What boardroom skills do you want to learn?’
“Knowing when there is no added value to the ongoing discussion” was the reader’s answer.
In the same blog, there is a reference to knowing what adding value to a boardroom discussion means, such as offering a “different perspective…deeper knowledge, a unique experience, or a new insight.” And another way to add value is with “emotional intelligence…perhaps you have the gift of saying the right thing to ease the tension when the discussion gets contentious.”
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. For example, if you are overwhelmed by your emotions on a topic or matter you are passionate about, try remaining silent for five seconds instead of impulsively speaking out on your feelings.
In Mel Robbins’ book The 5 Second Rule, she explains that “If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds or your brain will kill it.” While the 5 Second Rule encourages people to break away from habits that inhabit their actions on a goal, it can be reversed to curb disruptive impulses. For example, waiting five seconds before speaking on high emotion gives you a moment to cool down and for the urge to subside.
My best advice for exercising self-regulation? 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 will help you better navigate the dynamics at the boardroom table.
Once you have developed your technical competency, 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, 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 I should have taken much better advantage of my board members’ expertise and the wisdom of their experiences in my past leadership roles. 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 much valuable insight on the table.”
I 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 that this was not how one starts a board interview. I realized I had two choices: to be offended by the comment and leave the meeting or to lean in.
At 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.”
Then, we went on to engage in a two-hour strategy discussion on the company and 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 at the moment.
Motivation and empathy are two essential attributes for developing the courage to become more emotionally intelligent in the boardroom.
Self-motivation encompasses our drive to grow and achieve. It concerns our commitment to our goals, initiative, readiness to act on opportunities, optimism and resilience. Motivation in the boardroom can be described as your commitment to lean in, which you can learn more about in my recent blog, Elevating your Voice in the Boardroom.
In an article on emotional intelligence by Korn Ferry, the authors described empathy 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 empathy is essential because of how infrequently boards come together, as Work Psychologist and Executive Coach Dr. Ali Budjanovcanin points out in her article Emotional Intelligence in the Board Room. She said, “Boards usually come together infrequently. Because of this, you may not have the 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 being empathetic, you increase your emotional intelligence and avoid this pitfall.
Finally, in the article,- Jermaine Haughton explains that “empathy allows great managers to deliver more dynamic decision-making and connect with employees.” Haughton outlines why:
- Empathic managers build strong long-term relationships
- Emotionally available leaders manage stress better
- Emotional intelligence boosts performance
- Considerate managers have healthier staff
- Strong communication skills are crucial to conflict resolution
Embracing empathy is critical because we are all inherently biased. This Savvy Director article shows how biases, including social preferences, shape our perception and lead to poor decision-making. Using empathy can help override your brain’s natural tendency by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
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 organization’s best interests. This is an example of the power of courage in the boardroom.
The final piece for elevating your emotional intelligence in the boardroom is using your social skill to improve your board chemistry.
Social skill is the ability to manage and influence others’ emotions effectively. This concept brings together all my advice on emotional intelligence. It is a composite of competence, character, and courage—combining communication, persuasion, building rapport, conflict management, change management, teamwork and leadership. At the boardroom table, social skill means establishing positive relationships with other board members, gaining their trust and knowing how to balance when to be assertive and when to be a team player.
Your social skill also enables you to develop a sense of emotional agility. According to this CEO World article, a deepened understanding of emotional agility makes us “better able to curb our defensive tendencies, therefore avoiding disruptive finger-pointing and blame. This conscious presence level helps us generate the productive interaction dynamics that are the hallmark of great leadership and 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 stages, 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 essential to build your chemistry and achieve alignment on board matters. Now that we have been working in a virtual environment and will go to more of a hybrid model of board meetings (some in person and some virtual), try reaching out to your board colleagues to schedule meetings in advance and sometimes after a board meeting.
My final word is that emotional intelligence in the boardroom is all about minding your P’s and Q’s. However, while easily overlooked, it carries the payoff of a more cohesive and aligned board that effectively makes better business decisions.