At a recent leadership development event for high potential women, one of the keynote speakers was an executive recruiter who helps companies identify C-suite executives. She listed the qualities companies seek when hiring senior executives. She began by noting a C-suite leader needs to be “a rational intelligent expert.” No surprise in this. The expert role is highly prized in business. She concluded her speech with one last piece of advice, “A C-suite leader needs to be enthusiastic and memorable!” A Dilbert-like cartoon formed in my mind of an executive, stiff and unsmiling, attempting to rally his team who stared blindly at him, waiting for the moment to end. She was memorable to me.

It is incredible that this sophisticated female executive proceeded to reinforce the conflicting messages most women (and some men) hear as they evolve as leaders. At the center of the confusion is the role emotions play in the workplace. Professionals are valued for their intelligence and development as experts in their domain. Resources are made readily available to advance this development. When it comes to the emotional angle, however, there is a dearth of resources for this development track. More often than not, the advice is “don’t show your emotions.”

In 1995, emotions at work gained legitimacy when Daniel Goleman published his ground-breaking, bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence. Goleman further supported the argument that non-cognitive skills can matter as much as I.Q. for workplace success in Working with Emotional Intelligence and for leadership effectiveness in Primal Leadership. As an executive coach who has been transitioning professionals into leadership roles for the past 25 years, the biggest transition for most executives is to expand their approach to leading by being the technical expert to incorporate the core competencies of emotional intelligence (EQ): self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

If you ask most leaders what they dislike most, dealing with the politics is usually cited. Managing organization politics requires a balanced approach of analytical strategy, positive mindset, and using all of the EQ competencies. In other words, becoming organizationally savvy is one of the most challenging leadership skills to master.

My specialty and passion as a coach is helping people learn how to manage organization politics. My approach is shaped by helping executives learn about themselves and expand their EQ skills repertoire by gently and playfully exploring outside of their comfort zone.

One of my clients—let’s call him John—was a former trader on track for senior leadership roles in a large financial services organization. John was given an executive coach to help adjust to a larger role. His boss wanted him to show his softer side, i.e. start using EQ skills. This was the first time John had been told he needed to be softer and emotionally competent. He didn’t have a clue how to act on the feedback. My strategy was to help John understand his emotions and how they related to his work. I guided him to recognize what energized him and what annoyed him as a first step to learn how to channel his emotions strategically—let them serve him as a leader.

1. Informal conversations with members of his department energized John. He began scheduling at least an hour every week to drop by and chat with key stakeholders and people from all level in his department. The informality of this type of management by walking around (MBWA) allowed John to connect on a more personal level versus a formal meeting in which people tend to relate to each other according to titles and hierarchy. This practice eventually allowed his group to know him better. He became approachable and this increased the flow of vital information or organization intelligence. John learned a core leadership competency—the art of strategic informal networking.

2. Dealing with colleagues who he felt were trying to undermine or one-up him annoyed John. We engaged an improvisation teacher, Jay Rhoderick (www.bizprovgroup.com) to build John’s flexibility. I have incorporated improvisation into my coaching since the early 1990s. I believe it is one of the most effective techniques to help technically focused professionals develop their playful and creative side. With John, I remember one exercise that had greatest impact. I role-played a woman born 2,000 years ago. He had to teach me how an air conditioner works. After lots of annoyance and frustration, he drastically changed his approach from explaining and making assumptions to asking questions, summarizing, laughing when he was confused and, most importantly, staying curious. People still annoy him but much less so, as he has become more mentally and emotionally agile. He has added curiosity, patience, and active listening to balance his analytical and expert approach.

At a year-end holiday party, many people told John’s boss how much he had changed. They now enjoyed working with him. John told me that the 2,000 year old woman has changed his life by teaching him to use his emotions in a more strategic way. He enjoys the challenges even the political ones presented and is perceived as a more open, engaged leader with a sense of humor. John learned that channeling emotions effectively is an essential executive skill set that offers a key competitive advantage.

 

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