Emotional intelligence:
The not-so-secret career booster

Publication: HemispheresMagazine.com

November 2007

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

The key to career success may not lie where you think it does. Yes, hard work, well-developed skills, and dedication are important. But it is your people skills that ultimately determine your career more than any other factor.
How can that be? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs exemplify the survival of the smartest, but they are the exceptions. President George W. Bush never claimed to be the smartest president, but he is known for his likeability. Donald Trump's over-the-top self-promotion works because he's a personable guy. Julia Roberts is a talented actress but her immense popularity is in great measure due to her relatable, engaging style. Sheer brainpower is not what has propelled these folks to the top-and it's not what propels ordinary folks to the tops of their departments or organizations.
People skills are not incidental to your success; they are essential. / Many smart, talented people derail because of poor interpersonal skills, so it's important to pay attention to the impact you have on others. People skills are indispensable assets on the job and when you are looking to change jobs.
Emotional intelligence (people skills, or "EQ") will determine your career success much more than technical excellence or book smarts. In fact, EQ is more than twice as important as the combination of IQ and technical skills in predicting success. Leadership positions are almost entirely due to EQ.
The great thing about people skills is that they can be learned. Unlike the genetic lottery that determines your IQ, your EQ can be developed and increased. Just follow these tips:
It's a relationship business. No matter what direction your career takes, it is wise to remember that your work-whether you're an engineer, a clerk, or an investment banker-is a relationship business. People advance largely due to interpersonal skills, so make building relationships a priority in your work life. The person who builds relationships and networks is able to make things happen and people enjoy working with him or her.
The first rule of relationship building is reciprocity. Any good relationship is mutual. To build a strong network, first look for how you can help others and then others will be ready to offer assistance when you need it. If you can't think of a way to help, ask how you can help. Others will remember and appreciate the offer.
Build your network before you think you need it. For example, when a job-seeking colleague calls, make time to help. Think of good people for them to contact, offer introductions, and share information on alternative directions. When a search consultant or recruiter calls, take time to answer their call and think of a few good people for them to contact, even if you aren't interested. When you meet with a mentor, make it a give and take exchange, not just a focus on educating you about the company, job, or helping you with a challenge. Ask how you can be of assistance to your mentor. When you are looking for a job-or help with a work problem-having an active network of people you've helped will make it easier for you to ask for help and will make it much more likely your helpfulness to others will be reciprocated. A network is about relationships, not contacts. Cultivate generosity.
New jobs come through contacts. Seventy to 80 percent of new jobs come through your network. Your network can provide you with direct introductions, information on companies and individuals, and endorsements. There are many ways your network can and will help you land a new job.
More and more companies have employee referral programs to motivate employees to introduce their contacts to their companies, figuring that a personal endorsement from an employee is a quick way to find good people to hire. You may refuse to use your contacts, but savvy job seekers will use theirs, and they are likely to compete more effectively as a result.
In fact, you'll get further in a job search by focusing on your network rather than surfing the Internet for job postings. Focus the major part of your job search efforts on contacting and meeting or speaking with your network.
Develop and use your online network. Combine the power of your network and the Internet by making use of online professional networks. Many twentysomethings use MySpace and Facebook for socializing, but online professional networking is important for everyone's career, whatever your age or position.
An online professional network such as LinkedIn or Ryze can be a quick way to update your network and link to the networks of others. This is indispensable when you are looking for a job, business partners, information, deals, candidates, and introductions. If you limit your professional network to people you know and trust, and your network does the same, you assure the quality of the network.
And like offline networks, the same principle of reciprocity applies. You can assure this by providing a comprehensive professional profile to help other users understand how you might help them, and with your willingness to provide information and introductions to others in the network.
A job search is all about them. Interpersonal skills depend in large part on your ability to focus on others. When you are looking for a job, you might understandably think that it is all about you: your needs, your goals, and your career satisfaction. While those things are important, the crucial distinction in a successful job search is that when you are dealing with a prospective employer, it's really all about them. You want a growth opportunity and a great job, but that is irrelevant unless you can convincingly demonstrate that you are the right person for the job. And that means focusing on an employer's needs and goals.
Getting a job, much less keeping one or succeeding, is affected by emotional intelligence. What is the most powerful factor in getting a new job? It's the ability to make the strongest case for why an employer should hire you. This requires understanding an employer's needs, showcasing track record and skills to demonstrate value to a prospective employer in terms that are meaningful to them, providing relevant examples of prior success, and connecting with the interviewer. All of these things require interpersonal skills.
For example, when a prospective employer asks what you are looking for, don't say that you want a growth opportunity, with good compensation and the opportunities to use your skills (who else's would you use anyway?) and advance in a good company like theirs. Instead, emphasize something you do particularly well (stick to the facts) that they need and that you would like to help them with. That's how you make an impression.
Communicate professionally. Good interpersonal relations at work depend on clear and professional communication. Your ability to establish yourself as an effective communicator is central to your success. If your boss does not give you clear instructions on how they like to work (and how they like you to work), ask. Don't waste time thinking that it's their responsibility to orient you.
Organize your thoughts into a few clear questions, such as how they like things done, how often they want you to check in, whether they prefer email or face-to-face communication, time frames, deadlines, and their preferred format of the final work product. Getting the information you need is essential to communicating and performing effectively.
Here are three general tips about the importance of good communication:
A "draft" means your best work, not your first rough thoughts that someone else (who has even less time or patience than you) will fix; ask for help but make your best effort first.
Convey a crisp and disciplined message in emails and face-to-face communication (bullet your message out before sharing it) so that others aren't irritated by rambling and over-long messages. This conveys respect for others' time and clarity of thinking and approach.
Don't present a problem without presenting solutions and a recommended alternative.
Making a habit of disciplined professional communication will also help you in the job search. You will avoid rambling, provide hard-hitting and relevant facts, and ask salient questions. Good work relationships and good performance depend on good communication. What employer wants to hire a poor communicator?
Solicit and use performance feedback. The blind spots of otherwise smart and perceptive people never fail to fascinate. I recently met with a successful executive who had been observed yelling at and publicly humiliating an employee. He dismissed the feedback by saying it was the opinion of one misguided employee. When I pointed out that the feedback had been corroborated by two other people, he dismissed it by saying the other employees had left the company, as though that invalidated the feedback.
Performance feedback can provide critically important data to our impact on others. This executive was not trying to be a jerk; he simply refused to see that he was having an unintended but harsh effect on others, thereby undermining both his performance and theirs. Left unchecked, he risks creating a work situation that could implode his career.
Hardly anyone gets enough or good enough performance feedback. To correct this, ask for feedback on your performance. Do so frequently-at the end of a project, for example. Don't just ask, "How'd I do?" Ask tough questions about what you did poorly and where and how you can improve. At first, people may be afraid to give you candid feedback, but as you continue to ask over time, they will open up and provide you with useful information that can improve your career. Early intervention to address areas of weakness can have an enormous impact on performance. If you are not born with all the necessary skills (and who is?), you can learn them.
Even on a job search, there are opportunities to ask for feedback. If you didn't get a job, express disappointment, but ask politely for information on who did and whether you could have done anything better or differently. Emphasize in a matter-of-fact way that this will be helpful to you professionally. Don't betray anger or sadness, just a professional demeanor which makes it more likely that you'll get useful feedback.
Feedback provides insights essential to identifying strengths and weaknesses; action planning and follow up can help you define, implement, and maintain the needed changes. Performance feedback has the potential to provide the crucial missing link between potential and performance.
Schedule time each week for interpersonal skill building. What do you do to build your emotional intelligence? As with learning any behavior, a key is making small measurable steps toward specific goals over time. Always have one modest goal and small steps you can take to increase your skills and experience in meeting that goal.
Schedule 10-60 minutes a week to determine another step in meeting your career goals, such as asking for feedback, scheduling a networking lunch, reviewing the career tips in this article, or doing something else to improve your interpersonal skills. The idea is to identify small, measurable, and not time-consuming steps that you can make and sustain progress. This creates a clear road map to the career you want and a way to track your progress.
For example, here are several habits to cultivate that can break a self-focus and which you can measure and track to see how you are doing:
--Think first of what you can contribute to others, not what they can do for you.
--Volunteer to help a colleague who needs help with a project, a job search, or a problem. Ask for nothing in return.
--When someone calls you for help, invest time in coming up with some help for them and don't end the conversation until you have provided concrete assistance.
--When a recruiter or a job-seeker calls, spend time helping them with information and introductions, especially if there's nothing in it for you.
--Notice others and thank them for their contributions.
--Offer time to a charity or non-profit that helps the needy. Spend time that is inconvenient to you or cuts into your "me" time.
--Practice random acts of kindness.
--Listen carefully to others in order to understand not to respond; practice active listening by letting others know what you think you heard from them.
By building skills in relationship-building, reciprocity, paying attention to your impact on others, communicating clearly, getting and using performance feedback, and taking regular and measurable small steps toward strengthening your people skills, you are strengthening your ability to have a satisfying and successful career, and making the workplace a more enjoyable and productive place for your colleagues as well.
Rachelle J. Canter is the president of RJC Associates, a consulting firm that works with organizations around the country helping people make successful career moves. Canter has more than 20 years of experience providing coaching and career transition assistance to people in every industry, function, and geography. This article is based on her career guide, Make the Right Career Move (Wiley).
This story originally appeared in HemispheresMagazine.com , the online magazine of United Airlines, November 2007.