First class coach: Brush up your career prospects

First class coach: Brush up your career prospects - Daniel Goleman claims that, unless you cultivate emotional intelligence, your career is unlikely to take off. Is this a load of psycho-babble, or can it be of practical help?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Daniel Goleman claims that, unless you cultivate emotional intelligence, your career is unlikely to take off. Is this a load of psycho-babble, or can it be of practical help?

Have you ever been to a school reunion and discovered that the smartest kid in the class had a pretty mediocre career? Or met someone who is outstandingly successful but not very bright. Emotional intelligence could be the explanation.

Goleman describes it as 'a different way of being smart'. Some people, it seems, are good at it and some aren't - and it has nothing to do with your basic intelligence. The good news is that it encompasses a set of day-to-day skills, most of which you can learn.

Since Goleman formulated his theory in 1996, an avalanche of studies have sought to identify what these day-to-day capabilities (or 'competencies') are, what impact they have on careers and how they equate to business success. When IQ scores are compared with career achievement, intelligence counts for only a quarter of the difference between high and low achievers. The rest is all down to personal and social skills, or emotional intelligence.

Personal competencies are all about you - your self-awareness, self-regulation and motivation; your ability to understand your emotions and how they affect others; knowing your strengths and limitations but having the self-confidence to commit and achieve; your ability to take the initiative and be optimistic about the outcome; and your ability to cope with new things. Social skills determine how you relate to others - your ability to sense other people's feelings and read the mood of a group; to inspire and build relationships; to work in teams; to listen and communicate.

These skills can make the difference between success or failure in leadership and management roles. Look at Colin Marshall's first wave of activity in British Airways in the 1980s. He spent hours with groups of BA staff, taking them through the need for change within the company and their role in that change. His presence and evident passion gradually convinced staff that the company had to be different and there was no turning back. More recently, sustaining that motivation has seemed difficult.

It has now proved possible to determine whether people have these traits, and to link them with career success. Monitoring a group of 100 British managers participating in courses at Henley Management College, Vick Dulewicz and Malcolm Higgs were able to show a strong correlation between rapid career progression and a combination of high emotional intelligence and high IQ. And it applies across the board - not just to high-profile MDs or sales people. An American study at Bell Labs, Princeton, looked at the difference between its scientific stars (those outstanding in research) and its other workers. It lay in the ability of the stars to motivate themselves and to create informal networks.

Companies are recognising that there are key competencies for business success. They often ask us to help them find ways of assessing and developing emotional intelligence among staff. Significantly, we find the competencies needed may differ from job to job. For example, retail managers require an emphasis on conscientiousness, empathy and service orientation. Most skills can be learned, although energy and achievement orientation are exceptions - often linked to personality and early life experiences.

The rest - both personal and social skills - can be learned through a mixture of self awareness, coaching, training and experience. You can tell whether you have these abilities in a variety of ways. Seeking direct feedback from people you work with is one way. Many firms now implement full-circle feedback, with characteristics such as initiative and self awareness included in these assessments, along with communication and team working skills. Of course, any evaluation reflects as much on the evaluator as on the person being evaluated, so it is important to get evaluations from multiple sources to correct distortions and override office politics that might obscure results.

You might consider a number of routes for developing these capabilities. Good training in social skills is available, and personal coaching on communication, listening and understanding in group contexts can work well. Identify someone to monitor your progress as you apply this learning and practise your new skills - which seem to get better with age. Some people reach these levels of maturity young, and these are the ones with the best chance of extraordinary career success. I wish you luck in your own exploration of this interesting and important set of capabilities.

Margaret Exley leads Towers Perrin's European practice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is a non-executive director of the Treasury's management board.

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